Excerpt: 'Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of a Dutch Trading Company' by Multatuli


Ploughing with Water Buffalo in Bali, Rudolf Bonnet

From Chapter 29:

Saïdjah’s father had a water buffalo, which he used to cultivate his field. When this water buffalo had been taken away by the district chief of Parang-Koedjang, he was very sad and he did not speak a word for many days. For the time of ploughing was near, and it could be feared, if the sawah was not cultivated on time, the time of sowing would pass too. Eventually there would be no padie to cut and to store in the house’s lombong.

For the readers who know Java, but not Bantam, I must say that in this residency the ground can be personal property. It is different elsewhere.

Saïdjah’s father was very troubled. He feared that his wife would need rice, and Saïdjah too, who was still a child, and Saïdjah’s brothers and sisters.

And the district chief would accuse him at the Assistant-Resident’s, if he was slow in paying the land rent. For this is punishable by law.

And Saïdjah’s father took a kris which was poesaka from his father. The kris was not very beautiful, but it had silver belts around the sheath, and there was a silver plate on the tip of the sheath. He sold it to a Chinese who lived in the capital and came home with 24 guilders. For that money he bought a new water buffalo.

Saïdjah was approximately seven years old and soon made friends with the new water buffalo. I do say friends for it is great to see how a Javanese kerbo can be attached to the little boy who guards him and cares for him. The strong animal bows his heavy head right or left or down when the child pushes, for he knows the child, he understands him, they grew up together.

Such friendship soon existed between little Saïdjah and the new guest and Saïdjah’s encouraging child’s voice gave even more power to the powerful shoulders of the strong animal, who tore the heavy clay open and drew a road of deep, sharp furrows. The water buffalo willingly turned around when he had reached the end of the field, and did not loose an inch when he walked back for a new furrow, which always was in the same line as the previous one, as if the sawah was a garden, raked by a giant.

Beside were the sawahs of Adinda’s father, the father of the child that was betrothed to Saïdjah. And when Adinda’s brothers reached the boundary, just at the moment when Saïdjah was there with his plough, they happily shouted to one another and boasted the power and obeisance of their water buffaloes. But I belief that Saïdjah’s was best, perhaps because he knew how to speak to him, better than the others. Water buffaloes are very sensitive for a good voice.

Saïdjah was nine years old and Adinda six, when this water buffalo was taken from Saïdjah’s father by the district chief of Parang-Koedjang.

Saïdjah’s father, who was very poor, sold a Chinese two silver klamboe-hooks, poesaka from his wife’s parents, for eighteen guilders. For that money he bought a new water buffalo.

But Saïdjah was sad. He knew from Adinda’s brothers, that the previous water buffalo had been driven to the capital, and he had asked his father whether he had seen the animal when he was there to sell the klamboe-hooks. Saïdjah’s father did not want to answer that question. Therefore he feared that his water buffalo had been butchered, just like the other water buffaloes which the district chief took from the people.

And Saïdjah wept much if he thought of his poor water buffalo, who had been his best friend for two years. And he could not eat, a long time, for his throat was narrow when he swallowed.

The reader remember that Saïdjah was a child.

The new water buffalo knew Saïdjah, and very soon his love replaced his predecessor. Too soon, actually. For alas, the wax prints in the heart are so easily smoothed to make place for a later inscription. However it be, the new water buffalo was not as strong as the previous one, the old yoke was too large for his shoulders, but the poor animal was willing like his predecessor who had been butchered, and although Saïdjah could no more boast the power of his water buffalo when he met Adinda’s brothers on the boundary, he still said that no other one was as willing as his one. And when a furrow was not as straight as it used to be, when lumps of clay had given way in stead of being cut, he gladly corrected that with his patjol, as much as he could. Furthermore, no water buffalo had an oeser-oeseran like his one. The penghoeloe himself had said that there was ontong in that pattern of hair on the shoulders.

One day, in the field, Saïdjah called in vain to his water buffalo to hurry. The animal stood still. Saïdjah, angry about this unusual disobeisance, could not help saying something offensive. He said “a.s.“. Everyone who has been to the Indies will understand this, and whoso does not understand had better be glad that I spare him the explanation of an offensive word.

However, Saïdjah meant no evil. He only said it because he had heard it so often, by people who ware angry with their water buffaloes. But there was no need to say it, for it made no difference. his water buffalo would not move. He shook his head as if he wanted to shed the yoke, one saw the breath from his nostrils, he blew, shivered, there was fear in his blue eye, his upper lip was pulled up so that the gum was visible.

“Flee, flee!” shouted suddenly Adinda’s brothers. “Saïdjah, flee! There is a tiger!”

And all removed the plough yokes from their water buffaloes, jumped on the wide backs and ran away through sawahs, via galangans, through mud, through bushes and allang-allang, along fields and roads. And when they arrived in the village Badoer, panting and sweating, Saïdjah was not among them.

When he had mounted his water buffalo, after removing the yoke, so he could flee like the others, an unexpected jump of the animal had made him lose balance and threw him on the ground. The tiger was very near.

Saïdjah’s water buffalo, driven by his own momentum, went past the place where his little master waited for his death. But it was only by momentum, not by his own will, that the animal had run further. Immediately when he had overcome the inertia that governs all material, he turned back, positioned his heavy body on his heavy legs as a roof over the child, and turned his horned head towards the tiger. The tiger jumped – for the last time. The water buffalo caught him on his horns and only lost a bit of flesh that the tiger hit from his neck. There was the attacker – its belly torn open – and Saïdjah was saved. For sure there had been ontong in the oeser-oeseran of this water buffalo!

When this water buffalo had been taken from Saïdjah’s father, to be butchered…

I told you, reader, that my story is monotonous.

When this water buffalo had been butchered, Saïdjah was twelve years old and Adinda weaved sarongs, which she batiked with a pointed kapala. She had thoughts which she expressed in the movement of her painting can, and she drew sadness on the tissue, for she had seen that Saïdjah was very sad.

And Saïdjah’s father was sad too, and his mother even more. She was the one who had healed the wound on the neck of the faithful animal that had taken her child home, unharmed, while she thought (as Adinda’s brothers had said) that he had been carried away by the tiger. She had often seen that wound, thinking how deep the claw had penetrated the rough flesh of the water buffalo, and how it would have hurt the weak body of her child, and every time she put fresh spices on the wound, she caressed the water buffalo and spoke kind words, so that the good, faithful animal knew how thankful a mother can be! She really hoped that the water buffalo had understood her, fort hen he had also understood her weeping when he was taken away to be butchered, and he had known that it wasn’t Saïdjah’s mother, who wanted him to be slain.

Some time afterwards Saïdjah’s father fled from the country. He was very afraid for punishment if he did not pay his land rent, and he had no poesaka to buy a new water buffalo. His parents had always lived in Parang-Koedjang, so he inherited little. His wife’s parents also were from the same district. After losing the last water buffalo he worked a few years by working with hired animals. But this is a very unthankful labour, and it is sad for a man who always possessed his own water buffalo. Saïdjah’s mother died of sorrow, and his father left Lebak and Bantam in a moment when he lacked courage, hoping to find work in the area of Buitenzorg. He was caned for leaving Lebak without a permit and the police took him back to Badoer. He was incarcerated because he was assumed to be insane, which was quite explainable, and because it was feared that he would make amokh in a moment of matah-glap. But he was not long in prison, because he died soon afterwards.

What happened to Saïdjah’s brothers and sisters, I cannot tell. The house in Badoer, where they lived, was empty for some time, and soon it decayed, since it had been made of bamboe and thatched with atap. A bit of dust and dirt covered the place where there had been much suffering. There are many such places in Lebak.

Saïdjah was already fifteen years old when his father left for Buitenzorg. He had not accompanied him because he had greater plans in his mind. He had been told that there were many lords in Batavia who rode in bendies and that he might be of help as a bendie-boy. This is usually done by someone who is young and immature, so that the two-wheeled vehicle does not fall out of balance because of the weight in the back. One assured him that he could earn a lot if he behaved well in such a service. Perhaps he could save enough money in three years to buy two water buffaloes. This prospect smiled on him. With proud paces, like someone who has intentions for big business, he entered Adinda’s house after his father’s departure, to tell her what he was going to do.

“Think of it,” he said, “when I am back we will be old enough to marry, and we can have two water buffaloes!”

“Very good, Saïdjah! I want to marry you when you are back. I shall spin, I shall weave sarongs and slendangs, I shall batik, I shall be very industrious in that time.”

“Oh, I believe you, Adinda! But what if I find you married?”

“Saïdjah, you know that I will marry no-one else. My father promised me to your father.”

“And you?”

“I’ll marry you, be sure of that!”

“When I come back, I’ll call you from afar.”

“Who will hear that, when we are thrashing rice in the village?”

“That’s true. But Adinda… oh, this is better, wait for me at the djati bush, under the ketapan where you gave me the melatti.”

“But, Saïdjah, how am I to know when I must go to wait for you near the ketapan?”

Saïdjah thought a moment and said:

“Count the moons. I shall be away for three times twelve moons – not counting this moon. Behold, Adinda, carve a line in your rice block at every new moon. When you carved thrice twelve stripes, the next day, I will return under the ketapan. Do you promise to be there?”

“Yes, Saïdjah! I’ll be under the ketapan near the djati bush when you come back.”

Saïdjah tore a strip from his blue scarf, which was very worn, and he gave that piece of cloth to Adinda, to keep it as a pledge. And he left Adinda and Badoer.

He walked many days. He passed Rangkas-Betoeng, which was not yet Lebak’s capital, and Waroeng-Goenoeng where the Assistant-Resident lived, and the next day he saw Pandeglang, which is there, as in a garden. Another day later he was in Serang, and he was amazed about the beauty of that city with many houses, made of bricks and covered with red tiles. Saïdjah had never seen such a thing. He remained there a day because he was tired, but in the night he continued, and he reached Tangerang the next day, before the shadow had reached his lips, although he wore the big toedoeng which his father had left to him.

In Tangerang he bathed in the river near the ferry, and he rested in the house of a friend of his father’s, who showed him how to weave straw hats, like those from Manilla. He remained a day to learn this, just in case he would not be successful in Batavia. The next day at night, when it was cool, he thanked his host and continued. As soon as it was dark, so no-one would see, he produced the leaf which contained the melatti which Adinda had given to him under the ketapan tree. He was sad because he would not see her during along time. The first day, and the second day too, he had not yet felt how lonely he was, because his soul was full of the idea to make money to buy two water buffaloes. His father never possessed more than one. And his thoughts always longed for the moment he would see Adinda again, so there was no place to be sad about the departure. Eventually he had said good bye, hopefully, and he thought only of seeing Adinda again under the ketapan. This thought filled his heart so much, that he felt some joy on the moment he left Badoer and passed that tree, as if they were already past, those 36 moons which separated him from that moment. It appeared to him that he only had to turn back as if it was already the return journey, to see Adinda, waiting under the tree.

But the further he was away from Badoer, and the more he saw how long a day lasted, the more he found that those 36 moons, which lay ahead, were a very long time. There was something in his soul which made him slow down. He felt sadness in his knees, but it was not discouragement, it was merely melancholy which is not far from discouragement. He longed to go back, but what would Adinda say of so little heart?

So he walked further, although not as swift as the first day. He had the melatti in his hand and often pushed it to his breast. He had grown much older in those three days, and understood not how he could have lived to quietly, when Adinda was always near and he could see her as often as he wanted. For now he would not be calm if he could expect that she could be in front of him in a few moments. And he understood not that he had not returned, after saying good bye, to see her one more time. His spirit reminded him that he had been quarrelling with her about a string which she had spun for the lalayang of her brothers and which was broken. He had thought that there had been a weak spot in her spinning and it made them lose a wager with the children from Tjipoeroet. How was it possible, he thought, to be angry about this with Adinda? Even if she had made a weak spot, and it was her fault that the wager between Badoer and Tjipoeroet was lost and not through the piece of glass which had naughtily and skilfully been thrown by little Djamien, hidden behind the pagger – even then it was wrong to be harsh with her and I should not have called her names? What will it be like if I die in Batavia without asking her apology for this rudeness? Won’t it appear that I am a bad man who scolds a little girl? And when one hears that I died in a strange country, everyone in Badoer will say: “It is good that Saïdjah died, who talked back at Adinda.”

Thus his thoughts went, they differed from the previous thoughts, and soon they changed, first into half words within his mouth, than in a monologue, and eventually a melancholic song, of which I show the translation. At first I intended to preserve metre and rhyme in the translation, but just like Havelaar I find it better to leave that away.

I know not where I will die.
I saw the great sea on the South shore, where I was with my father to make salt.
If I die at sea, my body will be thrown in the deep water, and there will be sharks.
They shall swim around my body and ask: who will devour the body that sinks there in the water?

I shall not hear it.
I know not where I will die.
I saw the burning house of Pa-ansoe, which he had set ablaze himself, because he was mata-glap.
If I die in a burning house, glowing pieces of wood will fall on my body.
And outside people will shout and throw water to kill the fire.

I shall not hear it.
I know not where I will die.
I saw little Si-oenah who fell from a klappa tree, when he picked a klappa for his mother.
If I fall from a klappa tree, I will be dead on the ground, in the bushes, like Si-oenah.
My mother shall not weep, for she is dead. But others will shout with loud voices: Behold there is Saïdjah!

I shall not hear it.
I know not where I will die.
I saw the body of Pa-lisoe, who died of age, for his hair was white.
If I die of age, with white hair, wailing women will stand around my body.
And they shall weep, just like the wailing women at Pa-lisoe’s body.
And the little children will weep, very loud.

I shall not hear it.
I know not where I will die.
I saw many in Badoer, who had died. They were clothed in a white shroud and buried in the ground.
If I die in Badoer, I shall be buried out of the dessah, on the East hill, where the grass is high,
Adinda will pass there, and the edge of her sarongwill softly brush the grass.

I shall hear it.

About the Author:

Eduard Douwes Dekker (2 March 1820 – 19 February 1887), whose pen name was Multatuli, was a Dutch writer.