Diary note 7: Toeti Heraty

Friday 25 May, 2017

Last week I went to visit Toeti. Toeti is an old friend. She was a young Indonesian poet when I invited her to Rotterdam early in the 70’s and since then our friendship has grown into something like a bond.

She is not an easy person. Self-centred, head-strung, a feminist with a critical mind. Yet someone who not only got rich by both luck and ability, but also had the talent to enrich the world. It is fun to write a few words about this visit, though the occasion was not funny.

Two weeks ago I was alerted that she was in hospital in the Netherlands. The message came from Indonesia. It took awhile before I figured out where she was hospitalized but, when I finally found the address of the West Fries Gasthuis, I was refused contact as I was not family. So back to Jakarta. Through the family I finally reached her by phone when she was already revalidating, no longer in Hoorn, but in Baarn.

She told me that after a short stay in Greece (she usually stays not much longer than a few days anywhere) she went to open an exhibition in Groningen and when all was done, collapsed. Her blood pressure dropped to 10 and 8 litres of fluid was pumped into her and she survived. The doctor had told her that she was a hard nut to crack. I promised to visit her at her home in Amsterdam.

When arriving in Amsterdam, I decided to walk to her address at the Prinsengracht, near the Uitkijk of yore. I hate being jammed in crowds and the main arteries were clogged with tourists, in a kind of geographical thrombosis. So it took me a while before I arrived at her well known front-door and rang. No answer. No sound from the inside. No bell. I started to thump the door and after a while there were voices inside calling each other and I could enter the world of Toeti again.

After the tussle with death I had expected her to be in bed, but her indomitable spirit had taken hold again. She was receiving me sitting on a couch in full regalia, that is in her black cloak bought in Jordan, with enormous scarlet embroideries from the shoulder to the hem. Only the black shadows around her eyes and a somewhat staring look betrayed her narrow escape.

I am not one for small talk. So I asked her about something that had been on my mind since I last saw her in Jakarta a year or so ago. My fear then had been that Indonesia was sliding into Wahabi Islamism. Was Indonesia scuttling the humanist heritage of Soekarno?

I think she was relieved not to have to talk about her illness. She is a philosopher. She said that the newspaper reports written in America and Europe were superficial. In the background political fights were going on dating from the time before democracy had been restored, after the military dictatorship of Suharto. The present democratically elected President was prudent, one could even call him slow. But he was, like the governor of Jakarta, under attack by the Islamists, yet still quite popular, and his enemies were using Islam as a means to regain power.

Now practical things intervened. She was happy that I had arrived half an hour late, as the food from Jakarta had just come in by plane. So I could savour home cooked rendang and savouries. I remembered the last time I had eaten food brought in from the home country by plane was at the residency of the Japanese ambassador in Singapore.

During our luncheon family members and aides were also partaking and indeed a constant flow of more or less well known faces were appearing and disappearing in the different rooms. I realized I had visited Indonesia always briefly and never truly lived there. But the extended family of Toeti had become familiar and I knew perhaps more secrets by way of the matriarch than a number of true members. So I asked about their well being. Also about the adopted son Donar (because adopted on a Thursday). He had changed schools in Australia from a school used by members of the British Royal family to a school created, if I remember well, by the Turkish modernizer Gülen, in Australia and all over the world.

I felt somewhat withdrawn by the thought this might well be the last time we met. Soon she would fly back accompanied by a private and an official doctor. But she was adamant about her return in four months time as she trusted the medication prescribed in Hoorn and there moreover would have the chance to see the museum dedicated to J. P. Coen, the colonizer. When I mentioned our age, she said that she would overtake me or at least get equal, as she is always running behind my age by some ten months, but would also become 84 in November.

We nevertheless went through the many names we had lost. Like Sitor Situmorang, and Pramudya and Omar Khayyam and many others. Only Gunawan Mohamed and Sardono seemed to be alive and kicking. We promised to be careful not to neglect our old acquaintances. With her embolism on my mind I realized that if she disappeared, the aorta of my contacts with Indonesia would disappear too.

In the background a recording was running of classical European music. When Beethoven’s Ode an die Freude came by, I told her this was the official anthem of the European Union and that the new president of France had played it after winning the elections. She did not know that, but began to sing the three couplets of the Hymn in flawless German. Education in colonial times had some advantages. She told me that she had accepted an invitation to read Indonesian poetry in Germany on the condition that she could sing the whole Lorelei of Schubert to the audience to prove that Indonesians were not primitive.

The afternoon was running to its end. Luggage was spread along the wall, waiting to be taken to the airport. A young man was introduced to me as her eldest grandson. When shaking hands he said: Adriaan. I asked him if we had met before as he knew my name. He told me his name was Adriaan too. Yes, Toeti said, I have named my first grandson after you. She had not told me that for 29 years.

Outside, I looked back at Prinsengracht 731 A and the upstairs window. A small hand was waving between the curtains.