Monday, 24 October 2011

Notes to: "I only ever loved Babu"

Background notes to “Princes by night"
("I only loved Babu" was working title)

Every summer I spend time reliving half-forgotten anecdotes, spend the long evenings pouring over faded images from 1920s family albums, as well as agonizing over ancient uttered grievances that are lodged in my brain somewhere from over half a century ago, from when my family was still living in Holland. It’s been like this ever we migrated to Australia.

My parents’ Dutch post-colonial stance was, in many ways, not unlike the attitudes of many Australians who attended primary schools in between the wars and in the first decades after WW2. History was idealized, the gradual Dutch settlement of “The Indies” an unalterable fact, where the history of violence committed during colonization was transformed into a sequence of events which were considered reasonable if you understood something about the histories and/or cultures of the peoples involved.  In any case, the present could be redeemed by optimistic, futuristic imaginings.

As my parents had only spent their childhood years in Indonesia, and were educated as teenagers in The Netherlands, subsequent knowledge and experiences were embroidered on the conventional idyllic and protective childhood myth where everybody had been kind, their mothers with enough time to display affection and develop interesting identities away from the kitchen sink, while all chores were done, invisibly, by the helping hands of the Indonesian Indigenous population as if by magic. In particular, the “Baboe” (Indonesian women hired to look after the colonists’ children) starred as the  angelic archetype, whose devotion was never doubted or questioned, and whose life had been an essentialist reality which remained unmodified by economic or colonial social circumstance.

However, the fact remained that Indonesia had gained her independence from The Netherlands in 1949. Also, the horrific memories of my father’s parents’ Japanese internment  during WW2, as well as my father’s own emotional turmoil during the 1947 Dutch military invasion of the former "Indies" colonies, bore testimony to far more complex colonial realities which were to come to the surface, when arriving in Australia, in outpourings of lingering, anxious disappointments. Cut off from the remedial cultural events organized during the seventies and eighties in Holland (in response to the anguish of displacement felt by returning Dutch-Indonesian citizens after Indonesian Independence) my parents were inclined to blame themselves and their own children, for that matter, for any confusion or misadventure encountered in their new place of settlement.

My parents had been living in what had remained of the “Dutch Indies”, when the Indonesian Independence insurgents were being rounded up by the invading Dutch military in 1947.  My father had served in the Pacific as a Dutch Naval Officer during WW2 and, as my parents were still stationed in Jakarta, he was commanded to join in the struggle. What ensued is rather vague in our family’s memory. Because my father was plagued by grotesque hallucinations a few weeks after my eldest sister was born, he was diagnosed by a Dutch Naval medical officer as requiring Electric Shock Treatment. My father then requested to be retired on medical grounds. He later once told me in a particularly lucid moment, that “those primitive shock treatments” would have surely “killed” him, if my parents had attempted to stay. My father seemed to have suffered from intermittent Amnesia ever since.

In a way I’ve been researching “I only ever loved my Baboe” since my family migrated to Australia in the early sixties. As an adolescent I was entranced by Albert Camus’ existentialist short novel L’Etranger of which I learned passages off by heart in the original French. This was not really for French language learning purposes, but more to soothe some very frazzled nerves in my faraway and, cut-off from all previous lives, Australian suburban existence at that time. Then, as a undergraduate student of French the end of the sixties, I spent a confusing few weeks on a working holiday in New Caledonia, where I was horrified to find an almost exact replica of the destructive, existentialist-informed existences portrayed in Camus’ L’Etranger, including the seemingly segregated positioning of the Indigenous population. Back in Australia, I met over the years many people who were as interested in post-colonial realities as much as I was, but It would be a matter of a more than a decade before I actually encountered members of my own Aboriginal generation.

In writing down a personalized account of my own family’s Dutch colonial past, I’ve become aware that it is an attempt to express some very complex post-colonial realities. Looking back, my father once remarked that he had attended a Chinese-Malay-Dutch primary school when the family had been stationed in a remote (as in: quite a distance away from most Dutch rudimentary colonial infrastructure) region of Indonesia. This, he thought in retrospect, might have had a major influence on his life. While, in my mother, there was a nostalgia for pre-colonial realities which took the form of a sort of pan-European Medievalism. As my mother was a Dutch national, but of Friesian and Danish descent, these  longings were occasionally acknowledged when they could be expressed within the perimeters of what had been acceptable, as well as comprehensible, to the Dutch Humanist thought surrounding her as an secondary school student in Amsterdam.

To their own children my parents could, at times, present quite contradictory personalities. Attempts on our part to live up to their hopes and dreams were dismissed, more often than not, as temporary aberrant behaviour that would be met with anxious disapproval and rigid self-denial. As a result, a kind of inertia started to set in every summer during the relatively peaceful and largely family-orientated holiday period, unless I busied myself with retrieving something comprehensible from my family’s long buried Dutch colonial past.

jeltje, May, 2012