On August 17, 1945, Indonesia proclaimed its independence from Dutch colonial rule. Five years later, the Republic of Indonesia was recognized as a unified, sovereign state. The period in between was a time of aspiration, mobilization, and violence, in which nationalists fought to expel the Dutch while also trying to come to grips with the meaning of “independence.” Rifle Reports is an ethnographic history of this extraordinary time as it was experienced on the outskirts of the nation among Karo Batak villagers in the rural highlands of North Sumatra. Based on extensive interviews and conversations with Karo veterans, Rifle Reports interweaves personal and family memories, songs and stories, memoirs and local histories, photographs and monuments, to trace the variously tangled and perhaps incompletely understood ways that Karo women and men contributed to the founding of the Indonesian nation. The routes they followed are divergent, difficult, sometimes wavering, and rarely obvious, but they are clearly marked with the signs of gender. This innovative historical study of nationalism and decolonization is an anthropological exploration of the gendering of wartime experience, as well as an inquiry into the work of storytelling as memory practice and ethnographic genre.
Rifle Reports A Story of Indonesian Independence
The Golden Bridge
Independence - politieke onafhankelijkheid, political independence - is no more and no less than a golden bridge, and after we have crossed that bridge we will perfect our society.
The image of independence as a golden bridge to the future can be found several times in Sukarno's political writings. It first appeared in his 1933 speech "Mentjapai Indonesia Merdeka" (Achieving an Independent Indonesia), quoted in the epigraph above, but nowhere was it more significant than in his famous "Birth of the Pancasila" speech, of June 1, 1945. Speaking to a committee of Japanese officials, Javanese aristocrats, and elite nationalist politicians who had been convened to explore the possibility of Indonesian national independence, he argued that political independence must precede rather than follow from the resolution of such "petty issues" as the nature and organization of state authority, the intellectual and physical readiness of the population for self-rule, and the general level of social welfare throughout the archipelago. These were matters that could be properly dealt with only after political independence had been achieved. "If every one of the seventy million Indonesian people [orang Indonesia] has to be independent in their hearts before we can achieve political independence [English in original], I say again, we will not get an independent Indonesia before the Day of Judgment! ... It doesn't matter if the people [rakyat] can read or not, it doesn't matter if the economy is strong or not, it doesn't matter if the people are ignorant or clever, as long as the requirements for an independent state [negara] according to international law are in place, that is, there is a people [rakyat], there is a land [bumi], and there is a government [pemerintahan]-they are already independent." What was crucial, he insisted, was that the Indonesian people cross that golden bridge together, not divided by class, religious, ethnic, regional, or ideological differences, and without expectations for what would be on its other side. Instead, he called for passion. "Whenever a nation [bangsa] is able to defend its country [negeri] with its own blood, with its own flesh, at that moment that nation is ready for independence. If all we Indonesians [bangsa Indonesia kita] are ready and willing to die, to defend our Indonesian homeland [tanah air Indonesia kita] even if with sharpened bamboo spears, at that moment the Indonesian nation [bangsa Indonesia] is ready and willing, ripe for independence." This immediately begs the question: If "the people" were not yet "independent in their hearts," then what would impel them to defend the nation with their lives?
That Indonesia was an already-existing nation, a spiritual entity, was for Sukarno self-evident. He based this claim on its "God-given" territorial integrity (which "even a child can see" on the map) and on the historical precedent of the precolonial kingdoms of Srivijaya and Majapahit, whose reach exceeded the insular limits of Sumatra and Java, respectively. Perhaps more important for him was the common "weltanschauung" of the archipelagic population. In his June 1 speech he sketched what he saw as the fundamental concepts that made up this worldview: nationalism, humanitarianism, consensus-based democracy, social welfare, and religious faith, a set of five principles (Panca Sila) that he ultimately boiled down to one "purely Indonesian" idea: gotong royong, mutual assistance. Yet this vision of a territorially, historically, and culturally united Indonesia, so apparent to a political leader in the nation's Javanese center, might have been less clear on its outskirts, among those whose place in the national community was neither so obvious nor so privileged: peasants and rural villagers, ethnic outsiders, Christians, outer islanders, urban laborers, women, tribal minorities, native aristocrats, and European-educated and -oriented elites.
In June 1945, as the Pacific War was winding down, it seemed that Japanese occupying forces might honor the promise to grant independence to Indonesia, and Sukarno's speech needs to be read in the context of that hope. The Japanese surrender, when it came, was surprising in its suddenness. Indonesian nationalist leaders were left uncertain and unprepared as to how to proceed. In the end, they were forced to act. On August 17, under pressure from armed youth impatient with their elders' caution, Sukarno read the brief text of the independence proclamation to a small gathering at his home in Jakarta. As word of the proclamation trickled out of Jakarta, nationalists began to mobilize support, form militia units, and raise funds to oppose Dutch efforts to retake their former colony.
"With us," explained Eben Hezer Sinuraya, a former company commander in the Napindo Thunderbolt (Halilintar) Regiment, the largest of the Karo popular militias,
as soon as the gong of independence sounded, it was "forward march" right away! We didn't know what had to be done, but we stepped right up.... We stepped forward, even if we didn't know anything, we stepped forward. Later, from the inside, then we could fill it in. Otherwise, what is "Independence"? What is independence? At the time probably 80 percent of the Indonesian people didn't understand what independence meant, in political terms, they didn't understand. How could they understand independence? They didn't even know how to write! ... But as soon as there was the proclamation, they joined right in. Whether it was because they were afraid or whatever, well, that's possible too, but it wasn't 100 percent because they were afraid. They really wanted to take part.
Despite its resonances with Sukarno's "golden bridge" speech, this is not the confident assertion of a self-evident national spirit. A thoughtful man, Eben Hezer seemed perplexed by the response he described. Karo highlanders, who were touched lightly by the Dutch presence, would appear to have had little reason to oppose the reinstatement of colonial rule and little material with which to imagine the grand sweep of an archipelagic national community. It may well be that Karo villagers "really wanted to take part," as Eben Hezer said-but what did they think they were taking part in?
Anthony Reid has recently characterized Indonesian nationalism as "anti-imperial" and argued that it was through the "alchemy of revolution" that an ascribed colonial identity (I., inlander, "native") was transformed into a "passionately felt new community." The anti-imperial struggles of Southeast Asian decolonization-in the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, Indonesia-"sacralized the new identities which had been charted on the map by the old empires." Especially among the "state-averse" societies of the Southeast Asian uplands and elsewhere on the outskirts of state power, the colonial government was seen as an "essentially alien but necessary construct, which opened doors to a broader modernity than would otherwise be possible" (Reid 2009:26). The Indonesian state took up the mantles of modernity and necessity and attached them to a collective sense of national belonging.
Reid's assessment is a good descriptive summary of events and outcomes during the Indonesian independence struggle, but it is less satisfying as an explanation of anti-imperial nationalisms in places like Karoland. Nationalist commitment was, for one thing, not evenly spread across the archipelago or even across the many ethnolinguistic communities of northern Sumatra. Why then did Karo respond with such enthusiasm to the call for national independence, when other groups, most notably the Javanese plantation laborers, who were unquestionably the most exploited population in the region, did not? How did they come to align themselves with the political movements of an urban intelligentsia almost entirely drawn from other ethnic communities? What significance could colonial borders have had for people who had never traveled beyond the limits of their own district and whose relations with neighboring groups had as often been characterized by enmity as by cooperation? What kind of passionately felt community could they have imagined? What could independence have meant to them? What, in other words, was this strange alchemy of revolution?
This is what political scientists refer to as a "puzzle": a seemingly paradoxical situation or event that may serve to illuminate aspects of more general phenomena-in this case, the nature of decolonization, peasant political consciousness, mass violence, and the nationalisms of post-World War II Asia. There is no shortage of possible answers to this puzzle. Resistance "from below" is a well-worn topic in a range of disciplines and places, both historical and contemporary. Slave revolts and peasant uprisings, riots and crowds, millenarian and cargo cults, religious movements, royalist pretenders, supernatural signs and rumors, and prophecies of the "world turned upside down" have all been widely examined, generating an equally wide range of explanations: psychological, political-economic, cultural, sociological. In some cases, they are said to be the outcome of external pressures-global economic forces, national or international politics, the intensification of state power-in the absence of intermediary mechanisms capable of alleviating such damages. Others find the explanation in the psychic disruptions of colonialism, the anxieties of modernity, the collapse of state authority, the contradictions of capitalist exploitation, or any of a range of other forces.
In his classic essay on anticolonial violence, Frantz Fanon celebrated spontaneous popular violence as a "cleansing force" in the struggle against colonial oppression (1963:94), arguing that although the "rank and file of a nationalist party is urban," only the colonized peasantry constitutes a revolutionary force, "for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain" (1963:60-61). Violence "frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction" and enables the "liquidation of regionalism and of tribalism" that prevent the colonized from entering the modern world (1963:94). Fanon regarded local values and customs as an atavistic burden, but for other analysts these are precisely the moving force of rebellion, whether in the form of the "moral economy" of subsistence agriculture (Scott 1976); the figure of the "social bandit," a Robin Hood-like folk hero who serves as a spokesman and template for demands of economic and social justice (Hobsbawm 1959); or the fundamentally religious worldview that underlies the "rebel consciousness" of subaltern actors (Guha 1983).
In Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, Eric Wolf emphasized the role of "tactically mobile" middling peasantries as vanguard agents of popular revolt. Paradoxically, he noted, it is "this culturally conservative stratum which is the most instrumental in dynamiting the peasant social order," because they are also "the most vulnerable to economic changes wrought by commercialism, while [their] social relations remain encased within the traditional design." This is the group most exposed to ideas emergent in the cities, primarily through the experiences of their children who are sent away to school, join the urban workforce, or extend their commercial activities into urban markets. "The middle peasant," Wolf concludes, "is caught in a situation in which one part of the family retains a footing in agriculture, while the other undergoes 'the training of the cities'" (Wolf 1969:291-92).
Issues of mediation and mediating groups are also central to Miroslav Hroch's (1985) analysis of the "social preconditions of national revival" in nineteenth-century Europe. For Hroch, it was the small-town intelligentsia of teachers, journalists, civil servants, students, and clerics, readers of newspapers, and members of political clubs who served as the primary disseminators of nationalist ideas from the city to the countryside. Moving beyond the assumptions of ethnic primordialism, he hypothesized that nationalist mobilization was most likely in regions characterized by dense networks of communication and mobility and by moderate levels of social change. The presence of schools and the development or intensification of commercial agriculture and petty commodity production all supported the kind of discursive context that contributed to the spread of nationalist ideas.
More recently, insurgency studies have turned from the liberatory to the brutal aspects of irregular warfare. Some have focused on the traumatic experience of victims, whether to assess the extent of violence, to advocate for reparations or repair, or at the least to recognize their suffering (Daniel 1996; Das 1990, 2007; Fassin and Rechtman 2009). Others look for an inner logic of mass pathology or cultural affinity (Hinton 2005), regard ethnic conflict as one of the "darker sides" of territorial nationalism in a globalizing world (Appadurai 2006), or focus on the manipulations of elite or state actors who directly provoke violent outbreaks (Aditjondro 2001; Aretxaga 2003; Taussig 1989, 2005). A common conclusion is that violence comes to be regarded as a legitimate response through the demonization or "dehumanization" of outsiders, as typified by the notion of ethnic "cleansing." As Appadurai (2006:6) puts it, when social uncertainty intersects with such Manichaean notions of "us" and "them," violence itself can "create a macabre form of certainty."
One might argue that there are too many explanations here rather than too few, so that it is possible to select from the menu of options and find an explanatory fit in virtually any given case. Yet all are partial. Each can tell us something about Karo participation in the nationalist struggle for independence, but none precisely fits the situation-or, alternatively, fits equally well in cases where participation was not so widespread and enthusiastic. Neither the Fanonian "wretched of the earth" nor a "tactically mobile" middle peasantry, inspired neither by religious beliefs nor by notions of social banditry, Karo were close enough to the lowland urban centers to feel their influence but sufficiently disadvantaged by mission paternalism and colonial neglect to remain minor actors in a political field dominated by other players.
Where a political scientist might aim to solve the puzzle of popular nationalism in Karoland, I want to retain a sense of puzzlement, to use it as a guide in tracking both the unaccounted-for events of the independence struggle and the memories and stories that have been produced around them. This means regarding stories as more than just sites for information retrieval or strategic positioning. It means attending to their form as well as content, to the shape that memory takes in narrative, the layers of interpretation through which it is pressed, the way it circles and circulates, how it escapes, is recaptured, and escapes again-or doesn't.
This chapter sets the stage for that exploration by introducing Karoland and its people, sketching their historical engagement with the colonial state of the Netherlands East Indies, and acknowledging a few of the key sources that drew me to this project. I then describe the methodological issues and concerns of my research project and discuss problems regarding memory and narrative, as they affect the exposition and presentation of materials here. But first, I want to consider some of the social and performative aspects of this fieldwork in memory's war zone, focusing on what I have called the "audiencing practice" of the ethnographer (Steedly 1993).
Audiencing Practice and Ethnographic Seduction
Much has been written in recent years about both the doing and the writing of ethnography-its reenactment of colonial power relations, its duplicities, its fictive nature, and so forth-and not enough about its audiencing practices-its ways of listening and reading. A useful step in the latter direction is Antonius Robben's (1996) essay on the risk of "ethnographic seduction, transference, and resistance" in interviews with the victims as well as the perpetrators of violence. The ethnographic interview, Robben argues, is constructed in a "dialogical alliance" between interrogator and respondent, and he carefully examines the affective flows and blockages that constitute that vexed but necessary alliance. In his view, the ethnographic sensibility predisposes the interviewer to buy into the narrative produced by her interlocutors, to soft-pedal or avoid issues of culpability or of suffering, to shrink from confronting distortions, dissimulation, or duplicity on the part of informants. Out of a notion of good manners or bad faith or a sincere desire not to cause pain, the ethnographer may accept, tolerate, or fail to recognize the strategies of concealment and disguise through which interviewees evade uncomfortable or embarrassing revelations. Informants, for their part, attempt to "captivate" the ethnographer through displays of courtesy, generosity, openness, humor, pathos, and rhetorical flair in order to draw the ethnographer into their particular version of past events. They may resist sharing certain kinds of experience, out of a sense of public shame or a concern not to show themselves in a bad light or because of the personal value that these heavily affect-laden accounts may have for them.
Robben's conclusion is that we need to recognize the seductive forms of transference and countertransference in ethnographic interviews in order to overcome them and so to penetrate the "manifest discourse" of the interview to discover "deeper truths." Mine is different. While I recognize the ethical importance that endeavoring to uncover the facts about acts of violence can have in certain circumstances, my purpose here is not to eliminate or even to "cope with" the biases of seduction or countertransference. Rather, I use them to examine the broader field of operations in which the narrative experience of (any) storyteller and (any) audience is shaped. After all, ethnographic sympathy is not the only thing standing in the way of truth. The ethnographic encounter is not the starting point of narrative seduction, just another step along the way.
Because of my long and affectionate association with Karoland and its people, I was peculiarly prone to such seductions. The nostalgic double time of the interview, in which youth was recalled from the perspective of age, further softened the tenor of our interactions. I was, I'll admit, seduced by narrative. I was enchanted by the enthusiasm, wit, and dramatic flair of my informants' stories, no less than by the shared intimacies and pleasures of local knowledge: of language and its nuances, of familiar place-names recalling earlier visits, of the workings of kinship and the shape of sociality, of the savor of shared meals. I was grateful that my informants were willing to take the time to meet with me and charmed by the cordiality of their welcome.
From my first extended period of fieldwork in North Sumatra a decade earlier, I had some facility (now rusty) in the Karo language. This was crucial for establishing credibility and making contacts with older Karo informants. Most Karo today speak Indonesian, and some long-time urban dwellers are fully fluent in both languages, but older people are as a rule more comfortable speaking Karo, and they took it as a sign of respect if our conversations at least began in that language. During my earlier fieldwork I had lived for nearly three years in a predominantly Karo neighborhood in the city of Medan and had traveled extensively through the highlands. I had also been formally adopted by a Karo family of the Sitepu subclan. This gave me a set of ready-made kinship relations and a structure of clan and village connections on which new relationships, transient or more long-lasting, could be pinned.
What may have been more important was that I was a familiar figure (at least by reputation or by well-worn, often embarrassing, anecdote) in the north Karo villages where my adopted family hailed from and where I had visited regularly. In the villages of my matrilateral kin, Kuta Mbaru and Mardinding, I was introduced as "Petrus's older sister" or "the girl Rasimah [my Karo mother] adopted"; in my father's village, Berastepu, I was "one of the Sitepus from the Rumah Mbelin side," referring to the village ward identified with his lineage. Traders at the Berastagi market remembered me as "Nalem's friend," because I had often visited her parents' fruit stand there; elsewhere I was known as "the keeper's companion," after my former research assistant Juara Ginting, whose skills as a soccer goalkeeper had made him something of a local celebrity. These old friends were no longer around-Nalem was now married and living in Jakarta, and Juara was studying anthropology in the Netherlands-but their fellowship of a decade before continued to define my identity in Karo communities. Before, I passed myself off with the familiar status of college student, which many of my informants' children or grandchildren shared, but now I came with the title of "professor" and a position at an American university with a name familiar even in highland Sumatra. Fortunately, Karo are not much impressed by such things. I was granted a few more amenities while traveling because of them, however, and had fewer opportunities for unorthodox encounters. Karo seldom use unadorned personal names except for children, relying instead on teknonyms (terms of address derived from the name of one's eldest child or grandchild, such as Nandé Batin, Jabatin's mother), generic clan nicknames (e.g., Iting for an elderly woman of the Ginting clan, Tigan for a Tarigan grandmother), or kin terms (anakku, "my child"; bibi, "auntie," father's sister), but our informants frequently addressed me simply as "Meri," an approach that both situated me as child to their elder and shocked by its simultaneous expression of affection and foreignness.
Although I occasionally conducted interviews alone, more often I was joined by one or two research assistants. They were all students or recent graduates of the University of North Sumatra, in their twenties, and single, now resident in Medan but with roots in rural Karoland. One was an anthropologist; the others were all in the Department of Ethnomusicology. Jabatin Bangun, from the north Karo village of Batu Karang, accompanied me on most of the interviews, until the demands of finishing his thesis got to be too much. His classmate Fariana beru Bangun was also a frequent companion. Her parents, both from south Karo and veterans of the struggle, were among those we interviewed, and they provided several photos from their family album. In the last few months of research Julianus Limbeng, Satria Sembiring Pandia, and Sri Alem beru Sembiring joined us. The other regular member of our crew was the youngest of my adopted sisters, Linzi Magdalena beru Sitepu, better known as Ninin, who drove us all around the highlands, including places that I would never have imagined a car could reach. In Karo villages it is rare to see a woman driving a car, and so I was (to my relief) regularly upstaged as a curiosity by Ninin, who got used to the chorus of kids shouting, "Mami maba motor!" (which can be roughly translated as "lady driver"), whenever we arrived in a new village. Sometimes Karo friends and relations came along with us, and frequently we had an audience of curious neighborhood children or family members of our informants.
My Karo companions and assistants met our informants on the grounds of everyday kinship and common acquaintance. This guaranteed that our conversations were guided by the conventions and restrictions of Karo social etiquette, somewhat mitigated by the tolerance that Karo elders show for the cultural missteps of urban youth. Interview settings ranged from late-night gatherings in the bare front rooms of village houses, with kids peering in the windows, to elegant city living rooms over cups of sweet tea. There was one beautiful afternoon in a gazebo overlooking a highland lake, with a group of village women enthusiastically singing Japanese songs they remembered from their school days. Occasionally the conversation got edgy, as silences and stone-walling marked certain topics off-limits. Some meetings were as informal as dropping in on an auntie or chatting with family members while watching TV. We placed no pressure on informants to participate, although in a few cases sons did push their reticent mothers to take part. On two occasions overzealous village officials called together all the local veterans for awkward formal gatherings in which little more than bland commonplaces could be exchanged.
Most people were eager to tell their stories. The interviews were relatively open-ended, although they were, to be sure, influenced by the concerns that we as interviewers brought to the conversation. I was interested in women's experiences and in local understandings of nationhood and modernity, two topics that had impressed me in earlier conversations about the independence struggle in Karoland. My ethnomusicologist assistants wanted to know about songs and musical performances. We began, as Karo conversations must, by working out proper terms of address, provisionally calibrating personal relationships to the specific demands of kinship. We also asked for such personal data as education, marital status (then and now), and village of origin; other than that, we tried to allow informants to shape the narratives themselves. Not infrequently, they told us what to ask. In one of our first interviews, two of my Karo aunts explained how we should be questioning them:
NANDÉ MADASA: How you ask the questions, that's what's most important, so we'll understand. Say: "At that time back then, how was it?" so we'll understand.
NANDÉ RIKSON: "What about this time? This time, what happened to you?" Say it that way, please, so it's clear.
ND. M.: Right, otherwise we won't remember.
ND. R.: "Tell us what happened to you in the war, what happened in the evacuation," that's how you should say it, like that, please. So we'll know what to say. For example: "At the beginning of independence, what happened to you?" You already asked us that. So now, "How was it during the war? When the enemy came, what happened then?" Like that.
Rather than following this advice, we simply asked people what happened to them during the struggle, including what they thought was important or interesting, starting from the beginning and going on until the end. We tried not to interrupt with questions and, unless they asked for guidance, we allowed them to determine for themselves the appropriate points of beginning and ending. These were usually, but not always, the 1945 Proclamation of Independence and either the evacuees' return to their homes (mostly in 1948 or '49) or the mass demonstrations of 1950 that brought the province into the newly recognized Republic of Indonesia. They frequently added as a prologue an account of the Japanese occupation of 1942-45.
"Oral sources," Alessandro Portelli (1991:46) says, "are oral sources." This is worth noting for two reasons. First, the transcribed interview is not the same thing as the conversation it claims to reproduce. A radically thinned record, it loses the sensuous immediacy of sight and smell as well as sound-the background noise and interruptions, the nuances of intonation, tempo, vocal inflection, rhythm, volume, and gesture. For me, these conversations are intimately connected with the smell of a smoky wood fire, the earthy taste of a sardine stew or fragrant rose tea, or the indescribable, spicy-sour flavor of Karo seasonings. More than that, they echo with the sound of everyday speech, its jumble and humor, so hard to convey in written form-all the more so as the texts here are second-order transcriptions, reworked from Karo or Indonesian, or more often a mix of the two, into English. For this reason, it is important to engage with them ethnographically-to dwell on context as well as text, to circle around the written, translated words of the transcript, and to fill in the gaps of implicit social meaning, local knowledge, and cultural poiesis-or, at the very least, to recognize the absence of these.
Second, "oral historical sources are narrative sources" (Portelli 1991:48). As such, they require some attention to formal characteristics, literary genre, and storytelling technique. As Portelli notes, conversational narratives seem less fixed by genre than written ones. In the former, "historical, poetical, and legendary narratives often become inextricably mixed up. The result is narratives in which the boundary between what takes place outside the narrator and what happens inside, between what concerns the individual and what concerns the group, may become more elusive than in established written genres, so that personal 'truth' may coincide with shared 'imagination'" (Portelli 1991:49). This is not to suggest that oral sources are any more, or less, truthful than written ones but, rather, that they must be approached with an agile attention to style, genre, and performativity, all of which are both more pressing and more difficult when one is working in a relatively unfamiliar linguistic terrain.
In times of war, as Kalyvas (2006) points out, reliable information from the countryside is "costly" and hard to come by. This was true throughout Indonesia during the independence struggle, but nowhere more so than in Sumatra. Communication lines between the republican center in Java and the outer islands of the archipelago had been largely disrupted or destroyed during the Japanese occupation. The nationalist blockade and embargo on travel in the province meant that little traffic (or news) from the hinterlands reached the urban centers of the lowlands prior to the first Dutch military campaign of 1947. In Karoland, rumor flourished at every level. Disinformation campaigns and "psywar" tactics spread false reports; cultural misunderstandings and prejudice on all sides led to expectations of violence as well as to actual violent acts.
Primary and secondary sources, both oral and written, continue to bear the "stamp of rumor" (Pandey 2002:188). Few individuals on either side have been eager to admit that war crimes or atrocities were committed. Few victims of violent acts remained to tell of them; nor, I imagine, would survivors have been willing to do so. Personal heroics and sacrifices become the foci of both memory and narrative; other, less dramatic occurrences fade from retrospective view. Stories are borrowed, reworked, embroidered, retrofitted to the measure of a celebratory nationalism. Eyewitness accounts have over time become formulaic, and it is never clear when these retellings are based on personal experience or imagination. Recollections of violence may have been exaggerated by the climate of rumors, disinformation, fears, and fantasies that Karo attributed to Dutch psywar tactics, or they may have been overlaid with powerful, and literally unspeakable, memories of more recent terrible events, most notably the massacres of alleged communists and fellow travelers that took place in Karoland in 1965-66. In the aftermath of these and the rise to power of General Suharto's authoritarian, military-dominated New Order regime, certain radical or leftist individuals and organizations have been almost entirely erased from both written and oral accounts of the struggle. However much the enthusiasm of the masses, the travails of evacuees, and the antics of volunteer youth militias may capture popular imagination and ethnographic interest, the accepted point of view of the independence struggle remains that of the Indonesian National Army.
Under these circumstances, it is tempting to want to fill in or correct the historical record-to recover suppressed voices, unearth the credible testimony of eyewitnesses, measure the truth or falsehood of each statement, offer the dead at least the minimal respect of a numerical count, however speculative it may be. This effort seems particularly urgent in the case of nationalist and protonationalist movements, in which elite and urban biases may be intensified by state efforts to celebrate or sanitize the conflict in the form of its own "national primeval myth" (Abdullah 2009:2). To attempt such things, one would have to approach these stories forensically, as if they were crime scenes to be sifted for evidence, or-at the very least-to figure out what crimes might have been committed, who the perpetrators were, and who the victims. I don't mean to dismiss this desire or the aspirations for social justice and historical accuracy that motivate it. I have, where possible, cross-checked events, dates, and places with written sources as well as with other interviews. I have noted where stories agree or conflict, where they intersect, overlap, or diverge. I have tried to recognize where the constraints of genre shape the content of stories and where my own imagination has rewritten a scenario in dramatic form. I have also left some mysteries unresolved. Throughout, the presence of the not-entirely-reliable ethnographic author-narrator in the text should serve to remind readers (including the ethnographer herself) that these are stories, not "voices" speaking "truth to power."
One of ethnography's greatest seductions is its "granularity," its tendency to exceed the demands of theory by reveling in the plenitude of surface detail. This descriptive excess generates a range of pleasures. For the ethnographer in the field, it suggests her initiation into a body of arcane knowledge and a particular (different) way of being in the world; it evokes sensuous memories of taste, smell, sound, sight, touch. For the knowledgeable specialist or native reader, there is the pleasure of finding familiar names and terms inscribed in an academic text, where they sit, unassimilable but delicious, like raisins in dough. For the reader unfamiliar with the locale or period, it conjures a terrain that is concretely different; it gestures toward an unknown, but plausible, world and hints how much more of that world there is, beyond the limits of the text.
Over time, as we became more proficient in the period's history, we were seduced by its special terms (kyoring for military drills, béréng for anti-aircraft guns), key figures (Selamat Ginting, Djamin Ginting, Rakutta Berahmana, Payung Bangun), standard acronyms (Pesindo, Napindo, TKR, TRI, BHL), and recurrent images. We learned that the eating of béwan, a coarse hedgerow weed, shorthanded an entire catalogue of privations during the evacuation of the highlands, that class positions could be charted in cloth, that "ignorance" could signify either heroism or vulnerability, that a "double twist" was a hairdo as well as a British-made machine gun. We learned the dates that encode famous battles, such as May 7 (the battle of Berteh, in 1949), and visited places unrecorded on maps, such as Batu Roring, a wooded hilltop near the village of Mardinding, where village girls brought food and supplies to a guerrilla camp during the second military campaign, and Tiga Cinder, a contraband "standing market" at the river ford that marked passage between Dutch-occupied Karoland and territory claimed by the Republic of Indonesia-"standing" (rather than seated) so that buyers and sellers could make a quick getaway if police, on either side of the river, Dutch or republican, showed up. We realized the importance of bridges and rivers in the topographic imaginary of the struggle, because so many stories were built around them: the Bengali Bridge, which marked the forward watch post for the Karo troops at the Medan front; the "bamboo bridge" over the Dog River (K., Lau Biang), where a squad of Indonesian soldiers were ambushed by the Dutch; the Snake River (M., Sei Ular) ford, where fleeing refugees were fired upon by Dutch fighter planes; the bridge near Kandibata, which was blown up by nationalist troops after the refugees from Kabanjahé crossed over, fleeing the Dutch advance; the bridges at Tiga Pancur and Lau Lateng, which were destroyed "in one night" by the inhabitants of the village of Gamber; Tepas, where one woman arrived too late, after the bridge had been destroyed, and so spent an entire night carrying her two children, her injured husband, and their rice supply, across the ravine; the rambingen bridge, a terrifying single rattan cable stretched across the deep Lau Renun gorge, where one man fell to his death and many evacuees refused to cross out of fear; the rivers that held the bodies of suspected "collaborators," "spies," and other victims of internecine violence.
The accumulation of details contributes to the plausibility of ethnographic accounts and personal testimonies. Details like these ground memory and its stories in a concrete structure of feeling, an intimate cultural discourse of struggle and violence, danger and anticipation, patriotism and fear-the interwoven strands that made up Karoland's golden bridge to the future. This is not a matter of evidence that adds up forensically, that explains or concludes; rather, it is about the pleasure evoked by recollection of a particular place and time. That pleasure, fraught as it is with complicities and complications, duplicities and perhaps a certain disingenuousness, is a thread that runs through this book, weaving together the traces, textures, and tones of a moment when the Indonesian nation might have been imagined "together," for the first time.
Kabupaten Karo, an administrative district of the province of North Sumatra, is located in the interior highlands at the upper end of the Bukit Barisan mountain range, which runs like a spine down the length of the island of Sumatra. It lies between the sprawling metropolitan area of the provincial capital, Medan, to the east and Lake Toba, the world's largest volcanic lake, to the south; its northwestern edge borders the province of Aceh. The district roughly coincides with the wide plateau from which its name derives, stretching southward from the two active volcanoes, Mounts Sibayak and Sinabun, that anchor its skyline as well as its imagination. Volcanic soil and high-altitude climate suit the district for agriculture, its proximity to the urban centers of the lowlands fit it for commerce, and so Karoland (Taneh Karo) has become one of Indonesia's prime areas for growing vegetables, fruits, and flowers for urban markets both national and international.
[Map 2 here]
Wide as the vast, lonely sea. That is how songs and narratives have conventionally described the cool, open spaces and broad vistas of the Karo plateau, in implicit contrast to the crowded, sweltering lowlands. Between these extremities lie the forested hills of the dusun (piedmont zone; lit., "hamlet" or "orchard," indicating an outlying settlement area), which makes the rise to the plateau in short, steep stair-steps: in less than seventy kilometers you reach an elevation of thirteen hundred meters as you pass onto the plateau at Mount Sibayak's lower slope. A series of deep-cut river courses slash the smooth planes of the plateau, shaping patterns of settlement, travel, and alliance across the highlands, as well as between upland and lowland communities (Bronson 1977). At its encircling edges, the plateau crumples into the stony ridges and folds of the mountain's steep, rugged base.
Even before the introduction of commercial agriculture in the early twentieth century, the plateau's rich soil and relatively abundant water enabled the construction of large settlements, some with as many as several thousand inhabitants divided into a number of semiautonomous kesain (K., village wards or neighborhoods). The villages of the Karo highlands were composed of massive log dwellings, each housing eight or more related families. You can still see a few of these old houses today, preserved for tourists or falling into ruins; in colonial-era photographs, their steep gabled roofs, covered in black thatch and topped with protective images of bénténg, "wild oxen," seem to replicate the jagged mountain skyline. These multifamily dwellings constituted minimal social units. Each was headed by a member of the founding lineage of the village or kesain and contained his household and those of representatives of his key kin groups: senina, clanmates; kalimbubu, maternal or wife's kin; and anakberu, affines via sisters' marriages.
I have written in some detail elsewhere about how mission language programs, in conjunction with European notions of primordial identity, colonial realpolitik, nativist movements in other parts of the archipelago, and the practical constraints of print-capitalism, combined to generate a sense of what we would now describe as an ethnic identity in early twentieth-century Karoland (Steedly 1996; cf. W. Keane 1997). Suffice it to say here that such a standardized, territorially delimited notion of abstract cultural belonging does not appear to have predated European involvement in the affairs of Sumatra's east coast. Early accounts may have followed local terminology when they divided the population into Muslim "Malays" of the coast and pagan "Battas" (or Bataks, as became the common usage) in the interior, but it is not clear that these terms indicated much more than the mutable categories of religious or political affiliation.
The ethnolinguistic subdivision of the category "Batak" was initiated by the work of H.N. van der Tuuk, a linguist employed by the Dutch Bible Society. He recommended that the generic term batak, which had become a pejorative equivalent of "heathen" and "pork eater," be replaced by specific toponyms such as Toba and Pakpak (of which he considered Karo a dialect subcategory). Subsequent cultural elaboration produced ethnic typifications based usually on the territorial extent of particular mission "fields" and their spheres of social influence (Joustra 1901; Beekman 1988:130-62; van der Tuuk 1971; Voorhoeve 1955; Steedly 1996).
Karo society as a whole was composed of five megaclans, or merga. Little more than patrilineally transmitted proper names, these were unranked, dispersed, noncorporate groups that stretched across the Karo plateau and through the dusun regions of upper Deli, Serdang, and Langkat in East Sumatra and into the adjoining Tapanuli Residency to the southwest, where they overlapped or coincided with the clan designations of other highland groups. Clan names mainly served to mark the extent of recognized siblingship and thus to negatively define the bounds of marital exogamy.
Merga were made up of formally associated aggregates of named subclans, also called merga. There were no commonly known accounts, either historical or mythical, of merga origins and no assumption that all clan or even subclan members were descended from a common apical ancestor (Singarimbun1975:70-71). Lineages, which were usually assumed to share descent from a common, though frequently unknown, ancestor, might be considered quasi-corporate entities. The founding lineage of a village, or kesain, was collectively regarded as the ultimate owner of the land (K., bangsa taneh, "people of the land," or si mada taneh, "founders" or "those who made the land"). The village or kesain head, as lineage representative, was responsible for the distribution of agricultural land in the form of heritable use-rights. Lineages were frequently designated by place-name, as, for instance, Sitepu Rumah Mbelin, which designates a man of the Sitepu subclan of merga Karo-Karo, from the founding lineage of kesain Rumah Mbelin in the village of Berastepu.
These patrilineal descent groups-clans, subclans, and lineages-were woven into a multilayered and frequently contradictory network by marital connections among families. Marriages revised or remade hierarchically complementary relations between ritually superior kalimbubu (wife givers) and their subordinate anakberu (wife receivers); these spun out both generationally and laterally to encompass the in-laws of in-laws in hypothetically infinite extension. Marriage between cross-cousins (K., impal, MBD-FZS), which enabled the continuation of maternal as well as paternal descent lines in the following generation, served as a conventional ideal, though not a prescribed practice. With a few formalized exceptions, the principle of clan exogamy was strictly adhered to, but unconventional alliances were sufficiently commonplace that status hierarchies among individuals and groups were situationally adjustable, even reversible, rather than fixed.
Forms of address placed every individual in a particular asymmetrical relationship with his or her interlocutor. Notions of the "sameness," or interchangeability, of all clan members meant that, at least in terms of social etiquette, relatedness was not measured in degrees. Strangers could become kin through marriage, adoption, or fictive equivalence-as when one subclan was designated to be the "same as" another for reasons of calculating kinship. These strategies of incorporation permitted the extension of kinship to newcomers, acquaintances from other Batak groups, or even to distant foreigners.
This emphasis on fluid, expansive relations of asymmetrical affinity complemented a descent-based political system that was acephalous and relatively egalitarian. Highland communities were fissiparous, characterized by internal rivalries among lineage mates and feuds with neighboring communities and hedged with a multitude of built-in checks and balances that made any consolidation of power difficult, "proof," as Assistant Resident Van Rhijn remarked acidly in his 1936 memorandum of transfer, "of the aversion to authority which the Karo possess in such high degree" (1936:37). Beyond the level of the village or even the kesain, there were little more than occasional, transient political linkages, governance being largely embedded in individual kin relations and the juridical regulation of these rather than in formal institutional structures.
European settlement in East Sumatra began in 1863, when a Dutch consortium established the first tobacco plantation on "empty" land leased from the Malay sultan of Deli. By 1890, the East Sumatran cultuurgebied (D., plantation zone) had become one of the most important revenue sources in the Netherlands East Indies, with about 150 agricultural enterprises producing tobacco, rubber, palm oil, and other valuable commercial crops. The spread of plantation agriculture engendered numerous conflicts in the region. In 1870, Karo lowland chiefs and their allies responded to what they saw as the planters' unauthorized appropriation of village land by attacking and burning the offending enterprises. This "Batak War" was quickly put down by the Dutch, and an "autonomous" native government (D., inlandsche zelfbestuur) was established for the residency, headed by the Malay sultans of Deli, Serdang, Langkat, and Asahan. Although Karo grievances were acknowledged and compensated by the Dutch, sporadic attacks on European plantations continued. Fearing that these could form the basis for an alliance with the Muslim Acehnese, with whom the Dutch colonizers engaged in an intense struggle for dominance in the region, colonial officials and planters came up with a plan to "make the Bataks our friends" by converting them to Christianity. Sponsored by the Deli Planters' Association, in 1890 the Nederlandsch Zendelinggenootschap (NZG, the Dutch Missionary Society) established the first mission post in the small Karo village of Bulu Hawar, in the dusun region of upper Deli, about halfway between the lowland city of Medan and the highland plateau.
Both the colonial government and the NZG missionaries had a stake in establishing a zone of shared interests with the independent people of the highlands, who, they felt, might form a "bulwark" against the spread of Islam. In 1901, the NZG accepted the invitation of two headmen in the village of Kabanjahé to open a mission post there. Construction of the missionary's house had not yet begun when the village was attacked by an alliance of Karo leaders hostile to both the European presence and to the ambitions of the Kabanjahé headmen. Colonial troops were predictably called in to protect the mission and to pacify the unruly chiefs. Following a short and effective Dutch military campaign, Karoland was incorporated in 1904 as a district of the Residency of Sumatra's East Coast. A centralized governmental structure, ostensibly based on local custom, or adat, was established and a hereditary bureaucratic elite invented to run it. Turning to an obscure tale of honorific titles bestowed by the sultan of Aceh, the Dutch resuscitated the nearly forgotten institution of the Raja Berempat (Four Kings) of Karoland-and added a fifth for good measure to cover an outlying stretch of territory on the edge of the plateau. Accorded the title of sibayak (the Karo equivalent of the Malay honorific orang kaya, "rich man"), these rulers served under the supervision of the Dutch district controleur. Below them was arrayed an equally artificial hierarchy of hereditary officeholders: raja urung (the chief of a cluster of genealogically related villages), pengulu kuta (village headman), and pengulu kesain (village ward chief).
At the time the treaty of annexation was signed, Assistant Resident Westenberg (1904) verbally pledged the signatory chiefs that village lands would never be alienated to foreigners. The promise was kept, though perhaps only because of a lack of investment opportunities there. With little incentive for exploitation, Dutch administrators adopted a laissez faire attitude. They built a road linking the Karo plateau to the markets and military garrisons of the lowland population centers, but otherwise left matters of social welfare to the underfinanced and overextended NZG mission and economic development to the highlanders themselves.
Improved transportation, new markets, and the introduction of new crops enabled a dramatic shift from subsistence dry-rice farming to the small-scale production of fruits and vegetables for lowland and overseas export in the course of a few decades. By the 1920s, a state-funded school system had been set up at the primary and intermediate levels, and several private middle schools had been established by progressive local rulers. Karo highlanders entered the colonial era competitively handicapped by a relative lack of educational and economic opportunities, but by 1940 they had developed and exploited a profitable niche in the East Coast Residency's sociopolitical ecology and were on their way to catching up with the modernizing ventures of the other groups in the region.
However minor Dutch interventions may have been in the Karo area, their effects were not trivial. Colonial conquest and administrative reorganization had forced some headmen from office, extended the authority of others, created territorial boundaries and formal courts of law, and established a hierarchy of governance where none had existed. All-weather roads linking Karoland to the urban centers of the lowlands made travel easier and created new occupations-truck driver, mechanic, broker, café owner, clerk, shopkeeper-and new routes to wealth and influence. Literacy and a concomitant "progressive" (i.e., Westernized) outlook marked a generational as well as an incipient class divide. Land values soared as a result of the rapid expansion of commercial agriculture, especially in regions near the main roads and markets and in villages where government-subsidized irrigation projects had been put in place or where highly profitable tree crops had been introduced. Even locally these economic benefits were not evenly distributed. In some villages a few families came to hold most of the irrigated land while others lost control of their fields permanently. In other places anxieties about the sudden disparities of wealth found intertwined expression in fears of crop theft and accusations of sorcery. These new points of conflict and resentment settled into the already existing fault lines of Karo society, generating unlikely alliances with urban political activists and sporadic outbreaks of mob violence during the late colonial period and the Japanese occupation. They continued to shape political allegiances and antipathies through the independence struggle and to trouble social relations for decades afterward.
Dutch colonial rule in East Sumatra came to an abrupt end in March 1942, when, after putting up only a token defense, the overmatched Dutch military forces surrendered to invading Japanese troops. Villagers in Karoland recalled the unexpected appearance of Japanese soldiers on red bicycles, the sudden arrest of European missionaries and administrators, and the crisp discipline and casual brutality of the new occupying force. The Japanese were at first welcomed as liberators, but attitudes soon changed to resentment and fear. "That was when we learned how it felt to be colonized," said Nandé Tobat beru Sembiring, a former army nurse we interviewed at her modest home in Jakarta:
NANDÉ TOBAT:From the behavior of the Japanese. That was the worst, the Japanese time. It was really hard. Just imagine, there was no cloth! Say we had harvested ten cans of grain from our fields, they'd only let you keep three of them. Bring us seven cans, they'd say. So we didn't eat rice anymore, we'd have to beg them for it. They'd give us whatever they felt like, and then only the old broken grains. And this was our rice, mind you! Well then, don't you start to feel the pain of colonization? There wasn't even any cloth, or even any more salt. When the Dutch were here you didn't really feel it, you just didn't have anything. You couldn't get ahead. Everything just stayed the same. When we really felt it was in the Japanese time.
Karo men recalled the humiliation of having to bow to Japanese soldiers on the street and the humiliation of being publicly slapped for failing to do so. They spoke of hiding from press gangs seeking laborers for road-building projects or the notorious Tanjung Tiram saltworks. Even more disturbing was the Japanese treatment of Karo women. During the first months of the occupation, Japanese soldiers would turn up unexpectedly looking for food or girls, both of which they would simply appropriate as they liked.
MADASA BR. BERAHMANA: After Japan came, the market closed because everyone was afraid of the Japanese. They controlled the entire city of Kabanjahé. Everyone was afraid. We'd also heard that they were really-they were hunting for women. So at that time we were still girls, I was seventeen or eighteen at the time, so we all migrated out of Kabanjahé. I went to Perbesi-Tiga Binanga, where I had relatives, to avoid being approached by Japanese soldiers. They would ride out on horseback in the evenings looking in the houses for where there were young girls. So because of that we girls went to the villages, to avoid that.
Karo described the three years of Japanese occupation as worse than nearly four decades under the Dutch. "They took the good food, we got the yams," the schoolteacher Kumpul beru Muham complained. "The pigs-they cooked rice for the pigs, but what we got was mixed with [feed] corn. You had to cook it all day, and it was still too hard to chew," said Nandé Timur beru Ginting. There was no cloth in the markets, so villagers were reduced to wearing gunny sacks, barkcloth, or even thatch. Bapa Mul Sembiring, of Gurukinayan, recalled wearing pants made out of locally processed rubber, which melted in the lowland heat. "We had nothing because of Japan, nothing."
During the first year of the occupation, local resources such as rubber and rice were shipped to Japan to support the war effort, but the breakdown in Japanese commercial shipping in mid-1943 meant that raw materials could no longer be exported from Sumatra and manufactured imports such as cloth became scarce in local markets. A new policy of provincial self-sufficiency reduced the already limited supply of essential goods. Rice and cloth were stockpiled for distribution to government employees, Japanese civil and military personnel, and city dwellers who would otherwise face extreme hardship.
Japanese military policy also changed in 1943, as preparations stepped up for an anticipated Allied invasion of northern Sumatra. A coast watch was instituted, and demand for corvée labor to build roads, fortifications, and airfields intensified. Indonesians were given a role, albeit limited, in the defensive preparations. In May, a recruitment drive was begun for Heiho "auxiliary" soldiers, intended mainly to serve as manual laborers alongside Japanese troops in Malaya, Burma, Vietnam, and India. The program had no educational requirements, the pay was low, and the training was rudimentary, but it offered the first real military instruction for Sumatran youths. In November, a second program was instituted, which offered military training for the "volunteer" officer corps (Gyugun) of a planned defensive home guard. The Gyugun program was more ambitious and selective than the Heiho; cadets underwent a rigorous six-month program to teach them leadership skills, riflery, drill training, and military theory, as well as Japanese values and discipline. "I was still a young kid at the time, you understand," recalled Mena Pinem, "and yeah, I saw all my friends too in Gyugun uniforms, all dressed up, [I thought] why them and not me? Something like that. I wanted to wear one of those long Japanese swords."
Responsibility for local recruitment for these programs was given to BOMPA, the newly created Agency to Assist in the Defense of Asia (I., Badan Oentoek Membantu Pertahanan Asia). Led by local political figures, BOMPA was a propaganda organ intended to build support for the war effort. Some considered its participants to be "sellers of young men's heads" (Surbakti 1978:94), collaborators and pawns of the Japanese. Others took a different view. "Look here," Mbeligai Bangun, of Batu Karang, said, "if it weren't for Japanese training, not one of our soldiers would be soldiers. That was how Japan helped us, they were really cruel but they were the ones who trained the soldiers." The BOMPA recruitment drives provided one of the few venues in which nationalist sentiments, in however guarded a form, could be publicly articulated. "We put on plays for [the Heiho recruits]-stories in the Karo language once a month," said Nandé Santosa beru Sebayang, a schoolteacher in Kabanjahé who was an active participant in the BOMPA rallies. "The Japanese watched, but they didn't understand.... Suppose we did a story, 'The Sun Also Rises.' Because the Japanese love the rising sun. So by this so-called rising sun, we'd mean the light of independence. You had to be clever."
In September 1944 the Japanese government, having experienced a series of drastic military setbacks, offered a vague promise of political independence for Indonesia at some time in the future. Propaganda and recruitment efforts were stepped up. Nationalist themes could be expressed more openly than Nandé Santosa's veiled references to the rising sun of independence. The Indonesian red-and-white flag and the national anthem, "Indonesia Raya," banned in the early days of the occupation, were now publicly permitted.
On August 17, 1945, two days after the Japanese surrender to Allied forces, Sukarno proclaimed the independence of the Republic of Indonesia. As British troops from Lord Mountbatten's South-East Asia Command arrived to oversee the Japanese surrender and the release of prisoners of war, Indonesians began to mobilize in support of the nationalist cause. Continuing the efforts of the BOMPA propaganda campaign, rallies were held in villages and towns throughout the province to raise money and recruit volunteers to defend the republic. In the euphoric atmosphere of independence, a range of military and paramilitary organizations formed, some affiliated with political parties and others little more than street gangs. Many were only weakly subject to centralized command structures; some were little more than the private armies of aspiring political leaders. As a result, ideological conflicts, interethnic animosities, personal grudges, family feuds, and resource competition quickly escalated into clashes between rival units.
Beginning in 1946, fighting between nationalist militia groups and British occupying forces broke out around the provincial capital of Medan, intensifying as British peacekeeping forces were replaced by returning Dutch troops. In July 1947 the Dutch launched the first "police action" (D., politionele actie) in the form of an all-out assault on nationalist encampments around the city. Fleeing the fighting, lowland refugees flooded into the highlands. In the months that followed, Karo highlanders themselves became refugees. Virtually the entire noncombatant population left their homes at the urging of nationalist leaders committed to a scorched-earth policy, as Dutch troops moved across the Karo district. Villages were burned and crops destroyed. Thousands of people-mostly women, children, and older men-were forced to seek refuge in the republic's shrinking territory. Several hundred thousand people lived for as much as a year in desperate conditions in forest huts and jerry-built camps. In 1948 a treaty was signed, and the refugees were sent home to rebuild their villages and to provide a base of support for guerrilla units, which continued the conflict through a second military campaign. In December 1949 Indonesian national sovereignty was internationally recognized.
The independence struggle was a time of social instability, fear, and unpredictable violence. It was also a defining moment of social transition, marking, as Karo see it today, a self-willed and decisive collective break into modernity. Many of the people set in motion by the forces of independence-refugees and guerrillas, students, workers, soldiers, villagers who had lost their goods, their homes, and sometimes their families in the struggle-stayed on the move after the war's end. Farmers migrated downstream to the coastal lowlands, establishing squatters' claims to the fallow fields of the former tobacco plantations on the outskirts of Medan. Soldiers were sent to distant parts of the archipelago to put down local rebellions, in the process developing a sense of entitled national belonging. Even people who stayed behind were in motion. Bus lines crisscrossed the highlands, linking lowland migrants to their homes in Taneh Karo, connecting traders to local and international markets, or bringing highland travelers to Padang Bulan, Medan's outpost of Karo settlement. Today direct bus routes take passengers from the corners of the Karo district on a "straight shot" to Jakarta. However insignificant the villages and farms of Taneh Karo may appear when viewed from the metropole, this is not one of Indonesia's "out-of-the-way places" (Tsing 1993).
Sources and Absences
My first stay in Karoland was for a period of almost three years, 1983 through 1985. I was conducting dissertation research on Karo spirit mediumship, but it sometimes seemed that my informants were more interested in telling stories about the independence struggle than in answering my questions about mediumistic initiations and spirit encounters. Stories about spirits relayed their sense of marginality or "stuckness," of being out of place in the modern world, a condition they described in a poetic metaphor as "hanging without a rope," unable to move either forward or backward. Talking about the independence struggle, in contrast, was a way not only of placing themselves firmly within the nation but also of mapping the modern. Like Sukarno's golden bridge to the future, their stories of the struggle had an anticipatory quality, of looking forward to a brighter coming day, even when that once-future prospect was now long past.
Three sources I encountered in the 1980s encouraged me to think more about Karo accounts of the independence struggle. Their sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant resonances led me to consider stories of the struggle from the intersecting perspectives of gender and class, nationhood and modernity. The first of these sources was the man I called "Pak Tua" in my previous book (Steedly 1993). An itinerant gambler, raconteur, and sometime healer, he told amazing stories of his own escapades and exploits, some of which appear in that book. Pak Tua had been a company commander in the radical Wild Tiger Brigade (I., Barisan Harimau Liar, commonly abbreviated as BHL), the peasant militia group that has been blamed for the most unrestrained violence of the wartime period in northern Sumatra. Pak Tua's stories were neither nationalistic nor even, in any obvious sense, patriotic, but instead bespoke a grassroots, class-based solidarity. He offered a sympathetic, often funny account of the young volunteers, who more or less fumbled their way toward independence without much idea of where they were headed. In his stories of the struggle, Pak Tua portrayed himself as a trickster who became an officer without anyone realizing that he couldn't read or write. When the fighting was over, though, he found himself increasingly at odds with the modern world and out of step with the disciplinary agendas of the state. "Nowadays it's difficult," he said. "You can't go on any longer in the proper way, but you have to go on anyway. That's the situation now." Unlike many of the other untrained and unskilled Wild Tiger volunteers, Pak Tua exploited his position of marginality with a great deal of gusto, and some profit. The last I heard, he was involved in the prostitution business, making beauty charms for the girls and invulnerability spells for their protectors, and had become a ubiquitous informant for thesis-writing anthropology students at the local universities.
A very different but equally compelling source was the recording of a song by a Karo woman named Sinek beru Karo, made in the late 1950s and still available in bootleg cassette form in the '80s. Sinek's performance gave an autobiographical twist to the traditional improvised genre of blessing song known as katoneng-katoneng, which she used to recount her experiences during the 1947 evacuation. Tracing the trajectory of personal experience in simple and striking images, her performance directed attention to the gendered poetics of remembrance and at the same time raised the possibility of localizing the nation in narration.
What made Sinek's song seem so unusual to me was not the sentimental patriotism it displayed but the way it transported the ordinary routines and extraordinary experiences of women into the space of public discourse. Karo women have generally been granted little voice in social deliberations or in the collective self-representations of oratory and storytelling. Neither did they have much to say that could be fitted into the conventional frames of formal public speech, except in formulaic lamentations for the dead and the displaced discourse of spirit mediumship. Evacuation stories were different: women (but rarely men) told them repeatedly and enthusiastically. In these accounts, narrative set-pieces of flat pathos and bare-bones intensity were strung along recited lists of place-names, mnemonic chains by which women's experiences could be held as well as shared. The subject matter of women's stories was endurance, not heroics; they depicted ordinary, daily acts transformed by the startling circumstances of warfare. Sinek turned the everyday objects and events of women's lives into the stuff of art, in a nationalist vein.
There in the thick forest, where the ravines were deep
that's where we stayed
until it was dark, brother
and it began to rain, too
we needed a shelter
there wasn't even a field-hut
we needed to cook our rice
we didn't dare to light a fire
not to mention we hadn't brought a cooking pot
we hadn't even brought rice for cooking
and to add to that, brother
the planes kept shelling from above
we didn't dare to light a fire.
My third source was the excellent two-volume history Perang Kemerdekaan di Karo Area (The War for Independence in the Karo Area) and Perang Kemerdekaan di Tanah Karo, Karo Jahe dan Dairi Area (The War for Independence in Karoland, Lower Karo and the Dairi Area), written by retired army lieutenant colonel and amateur historian A.R. Surbakti (1978, 1979). Like most Indonesian accounts of the independence struggle, Surbakti's history was written in good nationalist style and went to considerable lengths to avoid controversy. Most national histories view the struggle from the perspective of its leaders in Java and assess the value of local action by how closely it conformed to the standards and commands of the center. For Surbakti, who was an officer in the Karo Halilintar (Thunderbolt) militia, the center is northern Sumatra, and the perspective is Karo. His local partisanship exceeds the limits of patriotism; it generates a text that, by "provincializing" Java, both hews to and undermines the official national line. The peasant rebels of Pak Tua's comic stories found themselves out of place in the modern nation for which they had fought; Sinek's song situated independence in the spaces of women's domestic routines and wartime wanderings; Surbakti depicted the war as the last of a long line of Karo struggles against Dutch colonialism, as if "Indonesia" had been the objective of local history all along.
It is hard to imagine war stories in which the enemy plays so small a part. Aside from the missionaries, who were recollected sympathetically by a few people, the only Dutch person recalled by name was a notoriously brutal officer by the name of Van der Plank, who was said to have summarily executed Karo men in several highland villages in the last days before the 1949 cease-fire (Surbakti 1979:303-5). Stories of the Japanese occupation are filled with individual soldiers, occasionally friendly, other times cruel, some of them identified by name. But the Dutch rarely rise above the shadowy generic category of "the enemy." Dutch convoys are the target of nationalist militia attacks, and Dutch planes drop bombs from above, but only rarely are there any visible-much less named-Dutch characters in Karo stories.
The reason for this is partly demographic: there were not that many Dutch soldiers involved in the fighting in Karoland. The Royal Dutch Legion of the Indies, the KNIL, was largely composed of native recruits, mostly from Ambon in eastern Indonesia but including some Sumatrans as well. They seem to have carried the main burden of fighting in Karoland. After the first two weeks of the 1947 "police action," Dutch troops ventured out of the occupied towns of the highlands mostly for "mopping up" operations or to escort supply convoys. During the second military campaign of 1948-49, much of the fighting was handled by the "Blauwpijpers," the military guard of the Negara Sumatera Timur (NST, the State of East Sumatra), the Dutch-backed "puppet" government of the province set up in 1948. Villagers told me how surprised they were to meet what they took for "black," Malay-speaking Dutchmen and how intriguing they found the notion that there were others, more or less like themselves, at the other end of the archipelago. They occasionally also admitted that some local boys had gotten themselves on the wrong side of the struggle and turned up in the Blauwpijpers. They told poignant and sympathetic stories of the turncoat NST supporter Nerus Ginting Suka, who had veered from anticolonial agitator to royalist collaborator over the course of his long political career. They obsessively recalled the rumors of mysterious kaki tangan musuh (collaborators, lit. "feet and hands of the enemy"). They remembered fights between politically or personally antagonistic militia units, confrontations between militia leaders, and the interminable efforts of the army to "rationalize" (i.e., incorporate) the semiautonomous volunteer militias. It was the un-otherness of these indigenous opponents and ambivalent supporters of the republic that made them both interesting and comprehensible. The Dutch may have provided the occasion for the independence struggle, but it was in these ambiguously Indonesian figures that the identity of the national community-in-the-making was working itself out.
Gender in a Time of Struggle
"I can save you some trouble," said one young village headman when I explained that I wanted to talk to women about their part in the war. "Before the war, women cooked. During the war, they cooked. Now-they're still cooking. What kind of struggle is that?" He might have added that Karo women carried the main burden of family leadership while young men were away at the front, that they suffered the most from the material privation imposed by the war, or that they were responsible for the economic support and material sustenance of nationalist forces. Women grew the crops that not only fed the soldiers but also financed a part of the struggle. They spied on the enemy; carried messages, food, and weapons to the troops; tended the sick and wounded; buried the dead; entertained the soldiers; hid the guerrillas; worked in government offices, field hospitals, and jungle camps; gave speeches; and, yes, cooked the food. But fighting was for men, and the rest was just business as usual.
Noting the general lack of critical recognition for women's contemporary writings about World War I, Margaret Higonnet (1994:160) suggests that this may be because "many of these forgotten texts are about women"-and thus not recognizably war stories at all. The identification of warfare as appropriately male action and the battlefield as a properly masculine domain has made possible the exclusion of women from the field of war literature. Women writers have responded to their literary "exile" (as Higonnet terms it) by creating stories that "fold war back inside a domestic frame." Such stories invite a rethinking of wartime's gendered fronts: surveying the dimensions of wartime domesticity as well as exploring the shape that war takes within domestic space; examining the effects of the conceptual separation between home front and front lines, and of the ways in which that separation is maintained, in women's as well as men's stories of wartime experience.
In Karoland this spatial separation is reflected in a proliferation of love songs. One of these is "Erkata Bedil," a popular Karo song that, translated as "Rifle Reports," provides the title of this book. The song was brought to my attention by Bapa Ruth Ginting, one of my Karo grandfathers, who sometimes accompanied us on interviews. In its first verse, participation in the struggle is figured in gendered terms:
Erkata bedil i kota Médan, ari o turang
Ngataken kami maju ngelawan ari o turang
Tading i jenda si turang besan ari o turang
Rajin ku juma si muat nakan ari o turang.
Rifle reports in Medan city, O sister dear,
Telling us to report for battle, O sister dear.
You'll stay behind, sweetheart, O sister dear,
Tending the fields, cooking our rice, O sister dear.
I liked the punning assonance of the song's first lines, in which sound (erkata) is echoed by saying (ngataken), a figure I have mimicked in translation with the duplicative use of report to signify both the sound of gunfire and the commanded presence of volunteers at the battlefront. I liked how this blurred the distinction between cause and effect, event and narration, and how it unsettled agency by dwelling on the power of words, sounds, and inanimate objects to make things happen. Bapa Ruth was not interested in such poetic nuances. He wanted me to appreciate the song's straightforward limning of the division of nationalist labor-men fight, women do the cooking. His was not the dismissive attitude that inspired the headman's question, "What kind of struggle is that?" On the contrary, Bapa Ruth thought that too much attention had been paid to the front-line martial engagements represented in the song's first couplet and not enough to the support activities delineated in the second. Staying at home and cooking the rice was an act of social preservation, moral consequence, and patriotic valor of greater importance than the destructive changes wrought by masculine violence. Attention to what he called the "suffering and sacrifices" (penderitaan dan pengorbanan) of Karo women-his version of what I more neutrally described as peranan dan pengalaman wanita, "women's roles and experiences"-could, he thought, restore the equilibrium of value or even produce a counterhistory that shifts the moral balance toward a sacrificial model of citizenship and sociality grounded in maternal, domestic values.
What Bapa Ruth did not say was that the song's sharp separation of gendered space and action covers only one phase of the independence struggle and only a portion of the population. In mid-May 1946, Karo militia volunteers were first sent to the front lines encircling the city of Medan. At the same time, the moderate nationalists who had recently gained control of the Karo district government began a massive indoctrination campaign to enlist grassroots support for the cause of independence. "Erkata Bedil" was this campaign's informal theme song. Its implicit point of view may have been that of the departing soldiers, but the song's primary audience was the young unmarried village women whose labor could be mobilized at home, "tending the fields, cooking our rice." By fostering a kind of libidinal investment in the work of war, it produced the kind of experience that it appears in retrospect to have been a reflection of. The home-front mobilization of female labor that the song describes ended in July 1947, when the fighting shifted into the highlands. After that, home front and front lines were hopelessly entangled, and the clear patterns of gendered activity the song details caved in.
"Erkata Bedil" joins the theme of male leave-taking that is a staple of Karo poetry to the sweet sentimentality of Malay and Indonesian popular music. O gentle sweetheart, the duet refrain goes, how shall we bind our promise? Our vow, our vow, together forever, O sweetheart. In the second verse, the girl addresses her departing lover, asking him to remain faithful while he is away.
Adina lawes kéna ku médan perang ari o turang
petetap ukur ola melantar ari o turang
adi ué nina pagi pengindo ari o turang
sampang nge pagi si malem ukur ari o turang
If you go off to the field of battle, O brother dear,
Fix your resolve, don't you waver, O brother dear.
If fate permits, O brother dear,
there'll be a time of heart's ease coming, O brother dear.
This fusion of romantic desire and national service haunts the memory of the generation of '45, especially its artists. Bapa Ruth, like some other male veterans with a literary bent, wrote serialized love stories in his spare time. These nostalgically filtered the independence struggle through a young man's (mostly unhappy) experiences of romantic attachment. His tribute to the "suffering and sacrifices" of women takes a similar emotional tack. Intended to place women in the spotlight as nationalist subjects, it does so from the mythologizing viewpoint of masculine imagination: women's primary significance lies in their unreflective, dutiful support for men of action.
One of the most striking features of many of the interviews we conducted, especially with women who actively participated in nationalist organizations, was their insistence that, despite the extreme hardships they experienced, the years of the independence struggle were the best of their lives. This had nothing to do with the poignant love songs that defined the spirit of the times for men like Bapa Ruth. It had to do instead with an enlarged sense of personal self-worth and a potential that was not limited to childbearing and -rearing. Women's memories of the social equality of the struggle, as romanticized in their own way as the memory of love during wartime, cast a special glamour over this period in their lives.
Like many visionary nationalists, Sukarno spoke of women, especially peasant women, as equal members of the nation. "Without women our revolution cannot possibly succeed," he wrote, quoting Lenin approvingly (Sukarno  1984:241). The independence struggle was a time of dramatic new opportunities for Karo women. New possibilities were opened up by the egalitarian rhetoric of nationalism and by the practical demands of military mobilization. Women's right to basic education was recognized. They were encouraged to attend public rallies and to speak in them. They were given the same basic military training as men, though not the opportunity to use it. They took on new responsibilities and imagined a future of extraordinary promise. Some women were able to create new and egalitarian sorts of domestic arrangements, outside the control and surveillance of parents and kin. They were allowed to interact freely with men in ways that would previously have been unacceptable. They saw themselves as equal actors in the struggle for national independence. They took on social roles that, however restricted they might appear by contemporary standards, were far broader than the limited possibilities traditionally accorded to them.
Just before the opening of the 1947 military campaign, Sukarno published an extended essay titled Sarinah, which was, he explained, the name of his childhood nurse. (Indonesia's first department store is also named after her.) The book, a "token of gratitude" to her for teaching him to "love the little people" like herself, is subtitled kewajiban wanita dalam Perjuangan Republic Indonesia (The Responsibility of Women in the Struggle of the Republic of Indonesia). It was intended for use as a course of study for women to promote their consciousness of equality with men. But for all its sentimental invocations of the simple peasant woman Sarinah, the book was directed at a different audience: the educated urban elite. Studded with Dutch, French, and English phrases, with discussions of primitive matriarchy, modes of production, and the role of women in the French revolution, with quotes from Bachofen, Rosa Luxemburg, Gandhi, Marx, Lenin, and the Bhagavad Ghita, Sarinah tracedthe evolution of women in society "from the cave to the city." The unspoken implications of class difference lying beneath the homogeneous narrative of gender here cast a troubling shadow over promises that, once the independence of the nation was fully achieved, the state's guarantees of social justice and social welfare would ensure the full independence of women. Predictably, these guarantees-such as they are, today-are most effectively invoked by those who come to them from positions of relative privilege.
Conventional histories of Indonesia's independence struggle are almost entirely silent on the subject of women. This is due in part to their continuing emphasis on top-down institutional arrangements, party politics, statecraft, and military strategies. It is also partly an effect of idealized notions of brotherhood and male bonding that, as Christine Dobbin (1980) has pointed out, underpin the historical imagination of Indonesia's war for national independence. Personal accounts of battlefield heroics, elegiac depictions of soldiers as the nation's "fallen flowers," and a stream of patriotic films, plays, and songs in which female characters serve as surrogate mothers, devoted wives, or love interests for male protagonists have fostered a view of the independence struggle as an arena for displays of masculine prowess. Identifications of women with domesticity and, more broadly, with the people as a whole, create a two-sided image of woman in war, in which she may figure as the maternal ideal of nationhood or as the suffering victim of wartime aggression but only rarely as an active participant in the struggle for independence.
Incorporating women's experiences in an analysis of social processes does not simply reverse the discriminations of male-dominated historiography and nationalist hagiography while reproducing their basic assumptions; it radically expands and transforms the analytic field. By placing women's wartime experience at the heart of my story, I intend to decenter the military strategizing and sporadic moments of combat that have dominated Indonesian histories of the independence struggle and to highlight instead the daily activities, the routine as well as the extraordinary, of an entire population, male and female, in a period of intense political mobilization, random violence, and extreme social dislocation.
Gender is woven into wartime remembrance in love songs and in patriotic speeches, in the constructed separations of social space and the commonplace tropes of nationalist rhetoric. It is inscribed in family memories, local legends, and authorized biographies; in origin myths, folktales, textbooks, Bible stories, and proverbs; in the etiquette of kinship, the orderings of traditional authority, and the enacting of conventional roles. It exists in the socially inflected desires and hopes that were spun into forms fresh or banal in newspapers and dime novels; in the platitudes of coffee-shop chat and the affecting commonplaces of lovers' discourse. Following the storylines of gender in a time of war leads not to truth unhegemonized but only further into the thickets of social memory, power, and aspiration in which we all live.
"Now I'm going to tell you something I'll bet you've never heard before," said Bapa Ruth Ginting, our sometime travel guide. "The rice they gave us at the front, it was red! It was wrapped in teak leaves, you see, each portion, and the leaves stained the rice. They turned it red. That's what I remember about the food at the front." Bapa Ruth's claim to originality notwithstanding, just about every Karo man who served in the popular militias mentioned the red rice of the Medan front to us. It was a sensuous hook that seemed to capture the essence of life at the front: a mix of violence and anticipation that could cast a defamiliarizing glare on something as ordinary as a packaged meal of rice. No doubt their rice wasn't always red, though the former soldiers, in a rush of nostalgic remembrance, recalled it that way.
Medan's streetside vendors and food shops commonly served (and still do) individual meals wrapped in banana leaves, but because of the number of servings that had to be prepared every day for the soldiers at the front, alternative wrappers had to be found. When the teak trees that lined the Medan-Berastagi highway were cut down to blockade the road, their large leaves were put to use in the dapur umum (public kitchen; the open-air cooking stations where the soldiers' meals were prepared). The kitchens were overseen by staff officers or, more often, by their wives. Karo girls from nearby villages sometimes helped out, but most of the work was done by Javanese estate laborers. They cooked the rice, topped it with boiled cassava leaves or stews made with vegetables trucked down from the highlands, and folded each individual portion in a leaf wrapper. Militia leaders notified the kitchen staff of their unit's position and current strength (which varied considerably from day to day), and the correct number of ready-made meals would be delivered to them.
The unexpected redness of the soldiers' rice contains, but does not draw attention to, this entire backstage apparatus of food collection, preparation, and distribution, which linked uplands and lowlands, home front and front lines, the labor of women and the battles of men. It also hints at, but does not display, other less attractive aspects of military mobilization, such as the exploitation of plantation laborers, crop levies on farmers, appropriations and downright theft of property from civilians, political infighting, and competition-sometimes violent-between armed units over strategic resources (van Langenburg 1976; Stoler 1988). These are subsumed by the nostalgic pleasures of sensuous recollection, the minor strangenesses of wartime experience.
Despite the passage of nearly half a century, Karo stories of life during the independence struggle seemed remarkably precise and vivid. By invoking concrete details and named places, they located memories in a familiar space. Seemingly trivial matters provided a material ground for narration. Not surprisingly, food was a common theme. "No salt," they said. "We had to eat béwan," people told me over and over. "You know what béwan is, don't you?" Then they would describe this hardy weed-how it looks, how it has to be cooked, what it tastes like. However concrete or compelling these memorable images may be, they are always the outcome of selective narration and partial recall.
Aside from the obvious concerns raised by a historical study's dependence on the memories of events nearly fifty years past and by the special difficulties of working with sometimes elderly informants, we faced three specific problems in conducting interviews. The first of these, which has been particularly significant in those rural areas with histories of political violence, is fear. Having seen during the war and afterward the potentially fatal effect of a casual remark or an unreflective commitment, some villagers were unwilling to risk making a recorded statement on any topic, however innocuous it seemed. In some cases my government clearance and the approval of the village headman were sufficient guarantee of informants' safety; in other cases, these were precisely what informants were afraid of.
A second, more common problem was the tendency of others (mostly, but not always, the male relatives of female informants) present during interview sessions either to monopolize the conversation or to channel the narration into what they deemed an appropriate or interesting form. This included appropriative commentary and explanation from the sidelines; downright interruptions when informants ventured into areas the sideline observers thought were uninteresting or inappropriate; lectures (to me) on the proper way to conduct interviews ("she doesn't really understand this, so you have to ask lots of specific questions"); lectures (to informants) on how to tell a story properly; and unsolicited expositions on the aims and methods of social science-which, in New Order Indonesia, seemed to be oriented toward the collection of material details that could be strapped onto a set of prefabricated conclusions. Remarkably, informants were rarely deterred by these interventions. Nor, once they had begun, did they seem particularly distracted by our occasional interruptions.
The third problem, and perhaps the most pervasive, was the impact of government screening on both the shape of historical memory and informants' interpretation of our aims. In the mid-1980s, new applications for veteran status (and thus military pensions) began to be reviewed, under revised and broadened eligibility guidelines that for the first time recognized women veterans. At the same time the status of all veterans was reevaluated for pension approval. Applicants underwent a complex review process (referred to in Indonesian as skrining) during which they were required to fill out complicated forms, interrogated about forty-year-old details of their military record, and asked for corroboration of their claimed (and in some cases already acknowledged) service. Substantial bribes were often necessary to ensure the processing of applications. Some well-connected individuals with only tenuous claims to veteran status were approved; others with what seemed more legitimate claims were rejected. An applicant's memory lapse could have serious repercussions, and it is thus not surprising that many informants-despite our insistence that these interviews were unrelated to skrining-worried about making mistakes, particularly regarding dates. Others thought we might be able to help them apply for pensions. While many informants were concerned about the adequacy or authority of their own narratives, we were also frequently warned about the veteran palsu, "fake veterans" who appropriated others' stories or who in one way or another didn't measure up to the standard of a "real" veteran. In these circumstances, experiential authenticity became a valuable commodity; memory, as a result, was highly contested ground.
"I was from the Japanese army," Nasip Perangin-angin began his account of military service. "All of us former Japanese soldiers here, and I in particular, went into the TKR. Tentara Keamanan Rakyat [People's Security Army] it was called at that time. Then the TKR changed to TRI, Tentara Republic Indonesia [Army of the Republic of Indonesia]. Then from TRI to TNI [Tentara Nasional Indonesia, Indonesian National Army]. TNI Company 2, Battalion 3, Regiment I, that's under the leadership of Djamin Ginting. The battalion commandant was Nelang Sembiring." A somewhat more elaborate account of military service, in the classic Karo form of a traveler's tale in which temporal sequence is plotted by movement from place to place, came from Bapa Tabonal Ginting. Like Nasip Perangin-angin, he too began his well-rehearsed narrative with a record of institutional reorganizations and affiliations.
BAPA TABONAL GINTING: At the beginning, you see, first there was the proclamation of August 17, 1945. That was the beginning of our independence. So because of that, there was the BPI here, the Barisan Pemuda Indonesia[Indonesian Youth Brigade], then there was Pesindo [Pemuda Sosialis Indonesia, Socialist Youth of Indonesia]. After that the Allies came to Berastagi, so all the young men in the village of Pernantin, eighty-nine in all, went there. When we arrived [the Allied troops] had already gone back [to Medan], so we went home again. After we got back here, instructions came again: "All of you go to Bandar Baru," so we all went there. When we got there, the head of our group wouldn't let us go straight to the front, so we all went home again. After that we went to Pancur Batu, that was during the First Aggression [first Dutch military campaign], that's when our friend Marulla was killed, and Gading Ginting was crippled. From there we retreated to Sibolangit and from there on to Kabanjahé. It was in '47, the Dutch came in from Siantar and then to Saribu Dolok. So from there we retreated to Lau Simomo. We defended Lau Simomo. Captain Pala Bangun's battalion defended it. After that, we went to Kuta Bangun....
This is a good, if elliptical, illustration of what I call the "pension testimonial." With its circuits of abrupt arrival and sudden departure, extreme narrative compression, and insistent repetitive beat of facticity, it is a story whose main virtue is its verifiability. Bapa Tabonal provides relevant details of his military career, names commanding officers, offers selected sites for further interrogation-and eliminates whatever might cloud or complicate the simple signs of military service. The names of places can be synchronized with well-documented incidents: the battle of Berastagi (November 25, 1945); the creation of a defensive post at Bandar Baru (late April 1946); the move to the Pancur Batu front (the end of May 1946); the Sibolangit-Kabanjahé retreat following the collapse of the Medan front (late July 1947); and the shifting Lau Simomo-Kuta Bangun front during the defense of the highlands (August-December 1947), which identifies his militia affiliation as the Napindo Halilintar Regiment. The names of comrades dead or injured in battle add to its proofs.
Any conversation is marked by evasions and constraints. In Indonesia, these are often warnings of an approach to dangerous political terrain. After General Suharto came to power in 1966, following what was officially described as a communist-backed coup attempt, all forms of antigovernment activity or sentiment were rigorously and sometimes violently suppressed. Harmony and acquiescence were glorified and enforced as key social values. Ethnographic research on topics bearing on religious, ethnic, race, or class differences or on political dissent was unlikely to receive government approval. For this reason, I usually described my project, in official as well as informal contexts, as a study of Karo women's "roles and experiences" during the independence struggle. Focusing on women defined my research as suitably nonpolitical in Indonesian terms, since the political arena was considered a fundamentally masculine space (though, ironically, it had the opposite effect on grant applications in the United States, where, in the 1990s, "gender" could be regarded as a political rather than an academic area of interest). In addition to facilitating government clearance, this provided a certain protection for informants by designating a "safe" realm of discourse, but it also set limits on what we would be told.
What we tried to create in our interviews was an informal conversational setting comfortably open to view. This was in part to avoid any association with the private interrogations of the skrining interview and also to avoid arousing local suspicion about what might have been said in private conversations. In the context of public discourse, secrets could remain appropriately unspoken, suspicions unvoiced, and events that might embarrass or endanger informants undisclosed. Certain things I don't understand and could not ask; others I learned but cannot repeat. I do not know what people did not choose to tell me in front of their neighbors or family. Party politics, which played a significant role in youth mobilization and indoctrination, was mostly forgotten or omitted. No doubt certain other aspects of the struggle-acts of violence or collaboration or cowardice, as well as more benign social improprieties-were downplayed, given a positive spin, or left out altogether. Individual heroics were occasionally played up or in some cases may have been invented outright. I have no access to the truth of narrated events and no wish to break the implicit trust of what was willingly shared with us.
Except in a few cases, I have used my informants' real names. I do so despite the ethnographic convention of using pseudonyms to protect the confidentiality of sources and the privacy of confidants. But if this book is to have any value for the families of the women and men who shared their stories with us, it is as a record of their personal contributions to the cause of national independence, of which they spoke with considerable pride, and as a record of their visions of the stakes in that struggle. The reader should recognize, however, that the use of real names required all parties, ourselves included, to exercise a necessary discretion (or even dissimulation) in our interviews and that it is my responsibility to continue this discretion in the act of writing.
As important as what could and could not be said in our conversations is the issue of whom we did and did not speak to. Obviously, these are survivors' tales: survivors not just of the war itself but of the intervening decades and in particular of the political violence that brought General Suharto to power in 1965. Karo politics until that time had been left-oriented, and the massacres there, though undocumented, were devastating. Many who were associated with left-wing political organizations either during or after the independence struggle were killed or imprisoned; those who were "implicated" (the Indonesian term, terlibat, needs no explanatory predication) and lived to tell were not much inclined to talk about the past.
Most of our informants were identified through personal contacts in veterans' circles. The northern plateau, which is the part of the Karo district I know best and where my adoptive Karo family hails from, is where the greatest number of interviews were conducted. The north Karo population was strongly divided between supporters of two popular militia organizations, the Halilintar Regiment and the Barisan Harimau Liar. A third armed force, the Indonesian National Army (TNI), drew its Karo recruits largely from the eastern side of the plateau. I know this area less well and so conducted fewer interviews with veterans and affiliates of the army than with those of the militia units. The majority of our informants were associated with the Halilintar Regiment. This was in part because of that organization's numerical and political predominance in the Karo district but also because my initial contacts were with former Halilintar leaders, who then introduced me to others, and so on. The BHL was smaller and more radical, both in its politics and its actions; correctly or not, it has been blamed for much of the internecine violence of the period. Like the Halilintar Regiment, the BHL was affiliated with the Indonesian Nationalist Party, but since 1965 it came to be associated by many with the Communist Party-mainly, I believe, because of its reputation for ferocity rather than any ideological affinity. Not surprisingly, many (though by no means all) of the ex-BHL members I met were reluctant to speak of their experiences and actions.
Talking about Revolution
Certain words we learned not to use. Foremost among these was repolusi-or, sometimes, polusi (K./E., revolution). Following the standard usage of Sukarno and other "Old Order" intellectuals, English-language accounts routinely describe what most Indonesians now call the War for Independence (Perang Kemerdekaan) or, more commonly, the independence struggle (perjuangan kemerdekaan) as the "Indonesian revolution." At first we did the same. We soon realized that the word repolusi meant something different to our informants. In the village of Payung, my assistant Jabatin Bangun opened an interview with a group of women veterans by asking them to tell us "what happened here during the time of the revolution." Their replies puzzled us at the time.
NANDÉ SENANTIASA: Here in this village?
ND. S.: What do you think? Whoever we hated, just drag them off.
J.B.: I mean, what did you do?
ND. S.: We didn't get mixed up in the revolution. Not us.
J.B.: Yeah, but didn't you do anything like gather up food, and stuff like that at the time?
ND. S.: Not during the revolution. The revolution, you know, that was all about people hating each other. We didn't know anything about that, we were just girls. We didn't have any business with that. We didn't know about this incident or that one. We heard, well, that one, he's gone. That one disappeared. Well, we heard. We heard, but we didn't get mixed up in it.
J.B.: That's not what I meant. I meant, what were you doing while that was going on, if you were in, say, the public kitchen, or training ... ?
ND. S.: Oh, we were in the public kitchen.
NANDÉ USMAN: Right, when it was a little safe here.
Repolusi was not another word for perjuangan, the armed struggle against the Dutch enemy. In a literal sense it referenced the violent events of the so-called Social Revolution of 1946, a period of roughly three weeks when political power was forcibly transferred from the traditional rulers who had governed under the Dutch and Japanese to the new Republican National Committees, a transition that had been effected with considerable brutality in East Sumatra. But in Karoland it signaled something broader and more terrifying: the outbreaks of popular violence that occurred sporadically across the highlands between 1945 and 1949. If struggle referenced the organized armed resistance to a foreign enemy in defense of sovereign national territory, then revolution referred to a broad range of uncoordinated actions at the same time as, but only loosely connected to, that struggle, much of it targeting fellow Indonesians. Popular violence was, at one time or another, directed against local officials who had cooperated with the Japanese or the Dutch; village moneylenders, entrepreneurs, and wealthy landowners; lowland refugees and political prisoners, including those who were ethnically Karo; supporters of left- or right-wing political organizations or members of rival fighting units; and those who signaled, intentionally or not, some perceived affinity with the Dutch. But in a broader sense, repolusi stood not for a specific moment or event but for a condition of pervasive fear and indiscriminate violence, in which anyone could become a victim.
Stories of repolusi emerged hesitantly in our interviews, almost as an afterthought. This was surely due to the awkwardness of their fit within the conventional storyline of national success and, more important, due to their relentless reconfiguration, especially during the New Order period, as part of a long series of left-wing betrayals of the nation. Had we not misused the term revolution, we might never have heard about incidents like these. Once we learned to distinguish between perjuangan and polusi, we were mostly able to avoid such awkward moments as the Payung interview quoted at the beginning of this section ("We didn't do anything in the revolution, we were just girls"). In following their usage in this book, my intention is not to take a stand on whether the struggle was or was not sufficiently "revolutionary"; nor is it to accept either the New Order regime's depoliticized view of the War for Independence or the army's self-glorifying representation of itself as the sole guardian and protector of national sovereignty. Rather, I do so in order to highlight the thread of internal violence that ran through the euphoria and commitment of independence.
Out of tact and political caution, we did not often bring up the events of repolusi ourselves; however, we were attentive to moments when our informants introduced the subject and would encourage them to tell us more. For this reason and because of the vivid, indeterminate nature of these memories of violence, it is difficult to assess the significance and extent of popular violence in Karoland. In the chapters that follow, I regard repolusi as a constant possibility, one that could "step forward" at any time. This book is not a history of violence, but it is one that anticipates the aftermath of violence at every moment.
Personal acts of remembrance and forgetting are inevitably shaped by the claims and insistences of official history. They are marked by the constraining demands of the present, the mediations of interlocution, and the occasions and conditions that came between the story's then and the telling's now. Memories are framed by habits of mind and lineaments of genre-the form of a song, a story, a poem, a book, a phrase, an anecdote. They are inflected by the rhythms of poetry and music and everyday speech, hitched to the potency of a vivid image. They are also shaped by the storyteller's wit and skill, which can sometimes spin a story on a telling detail.
NANDÉ MENDA BERU TARIGAN: One day something happened that was amazing. Or, maybe somebody else wouldn't think it was amazing, but I did. The Dutch attacked [the village of] Suka. We women ran away across the rice fields. I was carrying my clothes in my arms and my blanket like this [folded on her head], because I couldn't stand the cold. I only had this one red blanket. So this red blanket really annoyed my companions. Anyway, I didn't want to let go of this blanket. So because the one behind me was scared to see my blanket, we were walking on the dike, you know, so she came up, she shoved me. She said, "You're the one these Dutch are looking for! We're in danger on account of you, not to mention that blanket of yours!" she said.
Nandé Menda was the wife of Lt. Col. Djamin Ginting, the highest ranking Karo army officer during the struggle. He died in 1974 while serving as Indonesia's ambassador to Canada-having been, as Indonesians say of out-of-favor army generals, di-duta-besar-kan, "ambassadorized," following Suharto's rise to power. In 1994, when we met, Nandé Menda was living in an impressive house in downtown Jakarta, within walking distance of the upscale Plaza Indonesia shopping center. We spoke in her living room, where we were joined by her friend Roncah beru Barus. Both women were prominent members of Jakarta's Karo Christian community. They had known one another for more than fifty years. Roncah lived all the way across town and didn't have a car or a phone, but the two of them met or talked every day. Nandé Menda's memories were as well-polished as the room; each story was a little comic gem. Roncah, who must have heard them many times before, was still an appreciative audience.
Nandé Menda came from the piedmont market town of Sibolangit, near the first Dutch mission post in East Sumatra. Her marriage was a love match; no one had approved except for Roncah, who like Nandé Menda was a schoolteacher in Kabanjahé at the time. "She was the only one who would go with me when I went to tell my parents about the marriage, just her," Nandé Menda said. "My husband, until the day he died, remembered that one good deed." Her other fellow teachers had objected to the groom, a former trainee in the Gyugun officer corps, because of his association with the much-resented Japanese. His family objected to the bride because they considered her an overeducated lowlander.
The couple was living in Kabanjahé in 1947 at the time of the Dutch invasion. Nandé Menda was sent to the relative safety of her in-laws' home in the village of Suka, on the eastern side of the Karo plateau. To a young schoolteacher used to the plantation zone's cosmopolitan lifestyle and tropical climate, Suka must have seemed dirty, backward, cold, and unwelcoming. When she first arrived there, she made the mistake of airing her sheets in the sun. The villagers thought they were a signal to Dutch bombers and made her take them in. Later, during the evacuation of the village, they figured the Dutch planes flying surveillance must be looking for her because she was the commander's wife. That red blanket folded and carried on her head, vivid as a bull's-eye from the air, was the last straw.
She shook my arm and my blanket fell ... into the water! Wah! What could I do, I couldn't stand to be parted from my blanket, I had to go in after my blanket. So I followed after them from behind, they got across the fields, and the Dutch [soldiers] and I were still down in the fields. I was walking, I was holding on to my blanket, but fortunately they didn't pay any attention to me because I was just following behind on my own. Because they thought, oh, it's just another woman evacuee, whatever.
Wrapped up in Nandé Menda's warm blanket and white sheets are ideas of comfort, home, modernity, cleanliness, and propriety-all the hallmarks of the bourgeois, Dutch-inflected domesticity that was a main objective of elite women's education at the time. The garish manufactured blanket carried on her head might have been a parodic stand-in for the earthy red-brown handwoven cloths known as uis gara (lit., "red cloth") that Karo women wore wrapped into flat, pillowlike turbans (tudung). It is this implicit contrast between red blanket and uis gara-tokens of modernity and tradition, of urban and rural lifestyles-that her story plays upon.
But there is more than this to be unfolded from Nandé Menda's red blanket. Karo tend publicly to downplay disparities of wealth, but they also measure the minutest calibrations of prestige in the quality and cut of clothing. One of the things they seem to have resented most about the Japanese occupation was the lack of available cloth, all of which had been stockpiled for the war effort. Only those with the proper connections could get any cloth at all. Riano Perangin-angin, for instance, explained his decision to join the Heiho military auxiliary corps in textile terms. "It wasn't because we wanted to go," he said. "We didn't have any clothes, you see, during the Japanese time there weren't any clothes. All our clothes were patched, we even used bark to make clothing. They took all the cotton out of mattresses, pillows." Two years after Japan's surrender, sheets and blankets were still more than an extravagance and a conspicuous display of social superiority: they could be seen as the perquisites of a collaborator.
While I may be able to lay out for the reader some of the resonances of the content of Nandé Menda's story, more difficult to convey is its droll style. This being one of my first entries into the domestic world of Jakarta's rich and famous, what I remember best about the occasion was the contrast between the grand formality of the setting and the apparent ingenuousness of her account. This skill at moving between down-home and cosmopolitan styles was something I later learned to expect from the most successful members of Karoland's generation of '45, but at the time it came as a surprise to me. There was an unexpected note of light self-mockery in her storytelling: without looking quite foolish, Nandé Menda managed to tweak her own rather imperious manner and to tell a story that was genuinely entertaining. In it, motives and action are simple and straightforward, and the only violence committed is against a beloved blanket. Read it again: this is a story for children.
Signs of Violence
About four months after Nandé Menda's flight across the rice paddies there was another encounter between Dutch troops and Karo women. This one was disturbing enough to be mentioned in a report of the North Sumatran governing commission (Recomba) dated November 26, 1947, which cites an earlier report by Kabanjahé's civilian administrator, A.J. Ph. Gonggrijp-"the contents of which, incontrovertibly true, give in a few words a quite thoroughly shocking picture of the tragic results of the campaign of lies of which this population is the victim." Gonggrijp's appended report repeats a story he had heard from the battalion commander stationed in the south Karo village of Mérék, not far from Suka:
On foot patrol through the territory our soldiers suddenly encountered a dozen Karo-Batak women, who the moment they were seen, flung themselves without thought into a deep ravine located nearby. Considerable time spent searching for any movement on the edge of the ravine yielded no single result, so that it may well be assumed that these women indeed smashed themselves to bits in the deep and silent abyss. (Indonesia Rapportage 1945-50)
This unfortunate incident, said Gonggrijp, demonstrated the local population's "fear and loathing" of the Dutch, a situation he attributed to "atrocity propaganda." This is a fairly standard blame-the-victim military stance, in which responsibility for violence is denied both in a general sense (accusations of violence against the Dutch are a "campaign of lies") and in the case at hand (false propaganda, not the presence of the patrol, is the cause of the women's apparent deaths). To me, what is more interesting is the report's placement of violence within a field of narration. It says that stories, in the form of "lies" and "propaganda" about violence, are what makes violence happen. Event and representation here reverse their usual order. The propaganda campaign, of which these Karo women were already "tragic victims" before they became actual victims of their accidental run-in with Dutch soldiers, functions in the report to contain a moment of horror and to clarify a seemingly incomprehensible situation.
As Gyanendra Pandey (1992:27) notes, histories of violence tend to dwell on context. In such accounts, context-in this instance the narrative background of "atrocity propaganda"-appears to make sense of violence by circling it, filling in the space around it, considering what preceded, instigated, or precipitated it, exposing the state of mind or cultural values that contributed to it. Contextualizing violence is a way of neutralizing it, making it seem like a familiar, knowable, and thus manageable condition. "Its contours and character are simply assumed," Pandey writes, "its forms need no investigation."
Rather than explaining the occurrence of violence, Karo stories trace its signs and effects. They dwell upon its aftermath rather than its causes and observe it indirectly through the reactions of others. Here is another story of Nandé Menda's, this one recounting the 1948 Dutch bombing of the town of Kota Cane in republican territory:
NANDÉ MENDA BR. TARIGAN: It was early in the morning, I was still asleep. Suddenly there were shots in Kota Cane-dor rar rar rar rar-my husband and the officers who were with him all ran out of the house. At that time I didn't know I had any strength at all, I was sick at the time. But apparently the strength came. I ran, under-the house was high, I went underneath. The house had a ladder down to the river, behind the ladder is where I sat with my baby-fifty-two times I counted the shots from the airplanes, two of them in turns.... It seems my servant didn't leave me, she was holding on to one of the house columns, crying there. Her brother-there was one other there-ran from one post to the other, ran nonstop for about an hour. Even so, there was something amusing, I looked at the river-apparently there was someone in the river. If the plane fired, he dived, he thought he'd be protected by the water-if the plane stopped firing, he came out. That was what I watched in my fright.
Less detached but equally observant is the following account of the same event, which was told to me by Nandé Petrus, my adoptive Karo mother. She was about nine years old at the time of the bombing:
NANDÉ PETRUS BR. GINTING: About nine o'clock in the morning, we were still in the house, the planes came. I don't know how many there were, people said there were five. I don't know because we immediately-as soon as we heard the sound of the plane, there was a deep ditch near the house we were staying in. As soon as we heard the plane we ran to the ditch, that's where we took shelter. For a long time we heard the sound of bombs. We thought the bombs were nearby. We heard the sound of bombs. Nonstop. So my friend's mother, she was crying. My baby, my baby, one of her children was left behind in the house. A little boy. We weren't big yet and he was younger than us. We were staying in the same house. My baby, my baby, she said.... So, to make it short, now it was safe again. Safe. We hadn't eaten yet, breakfast wasn't even cooked yet. Safe again. So then, there wasn't any sound of airplanes. So, it's safe now, we said. Let's go out. We came out, we went straight to the house. There was this sawmill, right there by the sawmill was where we bathed, that's where we saw this water buffalo, meat scattered all around, dead. There was a person there too. There we couldn't tell which was human flesh and which was water buffalo flesh. Because there was this-I still remember the one who took care of the water buffalo, his name was Parli. I still remember. There was just the one water buffalo left, and he was the herder. He wasn't senile, just sort of slow. So when the airplanes came, he apparently kept on herding the water buffalo. Along the road. So when the plane dropped a bomb the water buffalo was hit, and he was hit too. So it was-that's why the flesh was all together, like I said. It was horrible, you know. "Look at that, Mother," I said to your granny Karo. "Eyah! don't look at it," she said, she was scared too. "Don't look," she said. So when we got to our house-it was nothing but ashes. Word was that our house was the first one that was hit. It was good luck that none of us stayed in the house. Good luck. So the house was turned to ashes, then we saw that our friend's baby was dead. Hit by the bomb.... He wasn't in the house, but nearby. He'd gone out of the house, but nearby, he didn't hide, just a kid, you know. He was running around. He was dead, hit by the bomb.
Nandé Petrus told the story of the water buffalo over and over, in increasingly gruesome detail: meat draped on trees, human and buffalo all mixed together, you couldn't tell which was which, some people wanted to cook it, it shouldn't go to waste, they said, but she wouldn't eat any. "Eeuw!" her kids shrieked, running from the room or turning up the TV whenever she started in.
Rifle Reports is a story of Indonesian independence as it appeared from the outskirts of the nation. Neither a record of victimization nor a celebration of resistance, it is not a history of violence, but it is one in which violence can emerge at any moment. To speak of it as a story is not to pass judgment on the truth or falsity of the various accounts of which it is composed but rather to emphasize its constructedness, the fashioning of narrative connectivity, or what Clifford Geertz (1973d) has referred to as the fictional-"made"-nature of ethnographic writing. To speak of it as a story is not to assert its unity or to deny the multitude of sometimes discordant elements, contesting versions, and disparate visions of which it is composed, nor is it to claim some imaginary fullness or repletion, as if it were possible to "fill in" the story of independence in some thorough way. Surely other stories can be told of these events; I hope they will.
In telling this story I have tried to attend deeply to the words and the experiences of my Karo informants, but, except in the Bakhtinian sense that any text is a patchwork of other people's words and ideas, some of them referenced or quoted and others so thoroughly absorbed that they may not even be recognized by their appropriator, this is not the kind of collaborative, multiply authored project that James Clifford (1988:51) has recommended as an "alternate textual strategy." Nor is it intended to produce a more complete account of Indonesia's independence struggle by including the voices of those hitherto left out of official or academic consideration, for narrative proliferation does not lead toward, but rather away from, fullness. My aim is to clear a space for broader and more complex visions of agency, citizenship, and social violence, of subjectivity and state formation.
From the transcribed texts of recorded interviews I have selected, brought together, juggled, and recombined stories, phrases, commentaries, bits of conversation, jokes, scenes, and songs. Sometimes these narrative fragments enhance and build on one another; other times they are contradictory, rattling. Some of these bits and pieces I chose to make a point, but more often it was the other way around: the point emerged from puzzling over a story or remark I found compelling, typical, moving, odd, surprising, or just plain baffling. Around them I have arrayed a range of other fragments: my own comments and reflections, pieces of published histories, newspaper accounts, fiction and poetry, items fished from colonial archives, literary criticism, anthropological commonplaces, the theoretical touchstones of academic legitimacy.
Mostly absent from my account is the everyday noise that accompanied all our conversations: traffic on the street, voices from the kitchen, pans clanging, children crying or laughing, sideline commentaries, hawkers' calls and neighbors' greetings, the television in the background, the hiss of the tape recorder. Rudolf Mrázek has recently written movingly about the tension between voice and noise in his own interviews with elderly Indonesians. "Most of the memories and (I guess) dreaming that I have recorded in Indonesia ... happened in places where the noise of traffic deafened much of what was said, remembered, or dreamed. I have witnessed and was part of it as the voices struggled to be heard in that modern space" (2010:73). Sometimes, on the other hand, noises evoked a space that was less than modern, as was the case with some old recordings of songperformances that I found in a radio shop. In these, the barking of dogs and the crowing of roosters were captured along with the murmur of audiences' voices and the crackle, pop, and hiss of old tape and antiquated recording equipment. In either case, the residue of "outside" sound is a reminder of the complicated multiple temporalities in which these preserved voices were situated.
In putting this material together I have been faced with certain problems of exposition-among them how to convey to a nonspecialist audience a dense and highly localized account of events that, even in the generalized form of a national history, are largely unfamiliar to most Western readers; how to suggest, in English translation, the nuances of both Karo and Indonesian language and discursive styles while acknowledging the impossibility of such translation; how to lay out an unfamiliar social framework so that personal narratives are not reduced to an illustrative function but become themselves the point of explication; how to impede the too-rapid leap to understanding or easy identification on the part of the reader (or, indeed, the author); how to balance the comprehensible and the mysterious in my account; and most important, how to respect my Karo narrators' own purposes and understandings without privileging their accounts as truths neither subject to ideology nor inflected by interests. I have opted for a narrative style built upon apparent digressions, an accumulation of discursive layers, careful attention to detail and texture, shifting temporalities, and self-conscious interventions. My intention is to produce an account that moves toward difficulty rather than simplification, one that compels as well as enacts the strategies of patient and engaged reading, aiming not to get to the bottom of things but rather to sink experience ever deeper into the dense narrativity of everyday life.
I want to avoid two traps of ethnographic writing, the generic and the (auto-)biographical: to resist, in other words, the urge to "redeem the fragments" of local pasts by locating them in a "world of meaningful interconnections" (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992:16-17) that exists largely on the printed page. As Lila Abu-Lughod (1993:7-13) has argued, ethnographic generalization can make the described community appear more coherent, unified, and undifferentiated-in a word, more "other"-than might actually be the case. One way to disengage this exoticizing tendency is to focus closely, as Abu-Lughod has done, on the lives of a few individuals, entering into the general frameworks of sociality and ethnographic representation through their particular experiences and viewpoints. By putting the individual at the center of the ethnographic narrative, however, this approach risks replacing otherness with identification, substituting the hypothetical unity of the speaking subject, history's eyewitness, for the imposed coherence of meaningful context, and so taking the "voice" (the informant's, the ethnographer's) as the site of both truth and authenticity. So it is with stories rather than their tellers that my text mostly engages: stories that multiply and echo and differ; stories that won't stay put, that change from one telling to the next, or that are oddly frozen, caught on a memorable image or a polished phrase; stories that force their audiences, and even their readers, to engage in practices of creation, skepticism, enjoyment, recognition, masquerade, mystification. This is a narrative space of multiple beginnings and misleading middles, thick with encounters and calamities, trials and errors, secret risks and bad-faith pledges, with no end in sight: moments caught up on the run and passed along-in family memories, mythic reconfigurations, social frameworks, poetic inventions, genealogical inscriptions, durable jokes, memorable commonplaces, and snatches of song.
What accumulates in all these tellings and retellings is incompleteness: a sense of multiplying absences, gaps, inconsistencies. The details do not add up. Consider, for example, the narratives of violence I have presented above. They do not complement or contradict one another, do not add anything to one another, in an informational sense. They are not counterposed to bring out the uniqueness of the individual voice, to present the eyewitness as a privileged source of truth. They do not make suffering comprehensible, explicable, or even bearable. Quite the contrary, their affective resonances reduce the comprehensibility of violence, render it inexplicable both in motivation and outcomes, reveal the unbearability of its effects, blur the clarity of its details, and refuse the easy explanations of context. Like the noncanonical fragmentary sources-poems, songs, myths, workers' diaries, local traditions, family genealogies-that Gyandendra Pandey (1992:50) suggests are of "central importance in challenging the state's construction of history," these stories, taken together, can demonstrate that "what the official sources give us is also but a fragment of history.