Life

Sitor Situmorang remembers
his Batak childhood

Sitor Situmorang is shown around the Quai Branly Museum by Constance de Monibrison. (JP/Kunang Helmi)

Wind and Water of Lake Toba

Wind and Water of this lake
remembering I still hear
their tales in silence
tales over thousands of years
about the past and
the future
wishing to understand
what childhood meant
whispers of conscience
of endless time
in the sinking seconds
drowning
spell-bound melting away
Water-weeds sway
At the very bottom

The latest poem written
on April 1 by Sitor Situmorang
Temporary translation
by Kunang Helmi

Sitor Situmorang who was born on Oct. 24, 1924, in Harianboho, Samosir, North Sumatra, is a poet, writer and journalist.

Sitor said last week that he had left the shores of his home on the northwest shores of Lake Toba as a young boy by boat to continue his education.

His parents had to come to the dock to hear the latest news of their son from the captain of the boat that plied across the waters from the school and their family house.

One of Sitor's close friends in Paris is the almost 100-year-old painter from Medan, Salim, who has lived in Europe, based mainly in Paris, since around 1918.

Here talking to Salim in Neuilly, Sitor could hardly get a word in. But Salim still can recite one of Sitor's poems by heart. A poem that Sitor admitted to having almost forgotten.

However, what Sitor has not forgotten is his attachment to the Batak country, and his childhood, steeped in Batak myths and way of life, starting in the third decade of last century:

"What I long for is an even more comprehensive exhibition of all things Batak! This here in Paris -- and I mean only the special show, 'North of Sumatra, the Batak', may be the essence of Batak culture, but to me, it represents only fragments of my memory," Sitor said.

"I can reconstruct so many things in my remembrance, but what can bring back the essence of my life spent there and childhood? The smells, the conversations, the laughter and the sorrows -- perhaps that is why I began to write poetry.

"Photos and artifacts are but the beautiful, tangible, material proof of something which has fast disappeared; in fact into many museums, collections and memories.

"How can people hope to re-construct the past glory and chagrins of the Batak people? And I am not criticizing this show at all, but it is a question of different perspectives!

Sitor said that in the past 40 years it had been the official policy of the Indonesian government to preserve cultural artifacts, yet so many material artifacts had disappeared from around Lake Toba.

These artifacts are not to be found in Indonesia, not even in private collections.

-- Kunang Helmi

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