Mon, 31 Mar 2003

Sitor: A politician inside a poet

Tantri Yuliandini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

There are many facets to Sitor Situmorang's character. Sitor the poet, known for his musings of home in the landscape of faraway France. Sitor the journalist, cultural observer and politician, whose views would cause him to spend time in jail. And Sitor the man, whose mystical upbringing in the traditional Batak culture would haunt his adult life.

Without writing a book, it would be impossible to tell the full tale of Sitor's remarkable life. Indeed, Sitor is very like an animated history book himself -- full of memories of times gone past, but with none of the tedium. On reading such a book one would have no choice but to be swept away by the passion of its narrative.

Sitor's own life has been so closely intermingled with the building of this nation that it would be impossible to relate one without mentioning the other.

Sitor was born to a long line of Batak leaders, well-known for their resistance to Dutch invaders. In fact, national hero Sisingamangaraja XII was Sitor's own uncle. He was born on Oct. 2, 1924, in Harianboho, a small village in a valley west of Danau Toba, North Sumatra.

Sisingamangaraja and Sitor's father, Ompu Babiat of the Situmorang clan, claimed to have been directly descended from Sumba and Lontung, the ancestors of all Batak people.

"So I was descended from the Adam and Eve of the Batak people, and besides that, I was also born in the valley of Mount Pusuk Buhit, which, according to Batak mythology, is the center of the universe," the father of seven children and eight grandchildren said in an interview recently.

Little Sitor was in awe of his father, the authority figure of Harianboho as well as a cultural leader, but Sitor claimed never to have never been afraid of him.

"I wasn't close (to my father). It wasn't possible in his position. A cultural leader is expected to be the 'father' to everybody, not only his immediate family," he said, adding that Ompu Babiat had always been shrouded in a veil of mystery and mystique, particularly because of the rituals of his ancient beliefs.

But no matter how traditional he was, Ompu Babiat never forced his family to be the same. Instead, his nine children -- particularly his six boys -- received the best education the Dutch had to offer at the time.

"We were privileged, the family of a ruler. We always had enough; good nutrition and every kind of education available at the time was open to us. We didn't need to fight to get in; our status ensured that we would," Sitor said.

Sitor left home for his education from the time he was seven years old. First to Balige, south of Danau Toba, to attend a Dutch elementary school, then to Sibolga in 1936 to finish two years of elementary school and attend the colonial junior high school, Mulo. Japanese occupation in 1942 forced him to drop out of the Dutch AMS senior high school in Batavia (Jakarta), and return to Sibolga.

Sitor admitted always to have had a penchant for politics, saying that his family may have had something to do with this interest: "After all, eight generations of my family have always been active leaders in society. So I grew up hearing every story, tales of good and bad, linked with what they now call politics".

Living in Sibolga, a busy port town, also helped cultivate this interest -- his Malayan language improving through contacts with the multicultural society -- Sitor wolfed down every nationalist newspaper available, including the Dutch-language magazine Nationale Commentaren.

"My interest in politics was high. I thought that the closest to being a politician was to be a journalist," Sitor said. In 1945, just after the proclamation of independence, Sitor became editor for Suara Nasional, a small newspaper in Sibolga.

But Sibolga could not contain Sitor's craving for being in the middle of the nationalist movement. In 1947 he moved to a larger publication, Waspada, in Medan, with the simmering desire to go where it all happened, Batavia. He would later work for Berita Nasional and Warta Dunia dailies in Jakarta.

Upon reflection, Sitor said that his news writing had already been infused with the "breath" of literature.

"People now say that my articles were like literary stories, when I had no intention of writing literature," he said, laughing heartily.

As for poetry, Sitor could not explain why he chose that particular form of expression: "It's a gift!" he simply said. Sitor's first try at literature was his private translation into Batak of the love story between Saijah and Adinda in Multatuli's novel Max Havelaar in 1943.

Being a journalist at the time of the nationalist movement, one could not but help become deeply involved in the movement itself, and that was what Sitor did. He found his voice for the political passion that ran in his blood in the articles, essays, and editorials he wrote.

"Every word or sentence felt as though it had a direct link to the struggle in society, the passion and exhilaration of creation, fulfilling one's basic need, satisfying the people's thirst for news, conceptions leading to aspirations of independence, as a mental weapon directed towards the enemy, the Dutch invaders," Sitor wrote in his autobiography Sitor Situmorang seorang sastrawan 45 penyair Danau Toba (Sitor Situmorang a (Generation of 19)45 literary poet from Danau Toba) published in 1981 by Penerbit Sinar Harapan.

As part of his work, Sitor got to cover important events of the time -- such as the 1947 Federale Conferentie in Bandung -- where he exposed himself to the idealistic ideas of prominent figures of the time, and befriended intellectuals and artists.

In the words of Henk M.J. Maier, in his introduction to Sitor's collection of poetry,To Love, To Wander, translated and published by The Lontar Foundation, Jakarta: "Feeling close to those vociferous intellectuals and artists who had stormed the stage, he managed to become acquainted with some of them -- and before long was accepted into their circle".

Sitor also had very definite views about his political leaning, and with absolute confidence he defined himself as a nationalist.

"Of course there are many kind of nationalist: What kind of a nationalist am I? Well I can make my own definition. My nationalism doesn't depend on whether or not PNI exists," said Sitor, a prominent member of the Sukarnoist Indonesian Nationalist Party in the 1960s.

His perspective on Indonesia's national culture was in agreement with the views of Taman Siswa and its founder Ki Hajar Dewantara.

"Sometimes people are confused with what is Indonesian culture: They think (the various cultures that exist) have to be drained together, molded into one. That's all nonsense. Just because you're a nationalist you shouldn't be forced to leave all your Javanese traditions behind," he said.

Sitor's answer to globalization was to strengthen understanding of one's own culture and address the new "globalized" culture through the sieve of one's own existing culture.

"That's how you can be creative. We cannot build a nation's culture simply by being a copycat of whatever influence comes along," he said.

Sitor was fiercely Sukarnoist, and for this he believed he was jailed for nine years of his life, between 1966 and 1975 in Salemba, after which he was placed under house arrest between 1975 and 1976, and under city arrest until 1977.

"They never served my detention papers on me; I never knew why I was jailed. And they only interrogated me once."

The only clue about his sentence was the questions asked during interrogation, which had been about his Sukarnoist views.

After completing his sentence, Sitor left for Paris where he lived until the Soeharto regime was toppled.

Life has taken Sitor through thick and thin, but he is said never to have harbored any feelings of vengeance, even over his unexplained jail sentence.

Instead, Sitor firmly believed that his belief in the truth was what helped him through these years.

"I am a person who has faith in what is the truth, and I am ready to face the challenges to this faith."