The newly-arrived Dutch administrateur sets about displaying his authority. He is intent on impressing the local Javanese and Sundanese with his management power.
“What is this? I am told there are people living in that area of West Java, around Malingping, whose area has not been surveyed.”
An uneasy silence ensues.
“Well? What about these … ‘Baduy’? Why are they so special?”
His staff of local bureaucrats looks reluctant, subdued. “There are Baduy who mix with us, sir. You see them on the street, often selling cutlery or honey. But the ones known as Baduy Dalam prefer to maintain their isolation from outsiders.”
The stout Dutchman barks a haughty laugh. “Oh, do they. Well, I shall show them. We will organise an expedition to, ah, do a census and an inspection.”
More reluctance. “That is not a practical idea, sir. They really do not welcome visitors from the outside world.”
The colonial master looks affronted. “Then I shall take a squad of my Ambonese soldiers with me. For protection. We shall see who has the authority!”
Silence, and nervous looks were exchanged. “It is not … dangerous. You would simply be … unwelcome.”
Undeterred, the foreign bureaucrat organises his march into the hinterlands around Leuwiliang, Pandeglang, Malingping, Bayah – what today is part of the Salak-Halimun National Park. As his band of outsiders strides through the Baduy Dalam villages, they are met with silence, averted eyes. He sternly stares them down.
A bare ten days following his triumphal march through West Java, on a fine evening, the robust Dutch colonial manager is found in his bath, forty-two years old and peacefully passed away. Dead as a Dutch doornail. Natural causes. Natural?
No one in the office is at all surprised by the news. The foolish bule had insisted on showing his “power”. And those who witnessed it had sent their power back at him.
So consider, dear reader: does the occult actually exist, and affect our daily lives? Let us find out.
“Belief in the potency of black magic (or so-called “white magic” – but that will be the subject of another essay) can make you vulnerable to it.” That is how the rational, logic-founded Western mind explains away any effect of purported sorcery: the notion is that if you don’t believe in it, it cannot affect you. A charming, if perilous, notion. Like denying gravity: “I cannot see, feel, smell or taste the force of gravity. How then do I know it exists?” SPLAT! [falls on face]
I personally know two foreigners, a Japanese woman and a British man, residing for years in Jakarta, who were allegedly victims of santet. In each case there was a cui bono: someone felt angry, humiliated or rejected; there was a desire for revenge and greed.
In short, an Indonesian partner wanted to kill – and not get caught for it. In neighbouring Thailand or the Philippines, it’s a simpler matter: the normal path of action would be to hire a local thug to beat up an adversary, or a gang to smash their store. It is also a simple matter to hire one of the legions of amphetamine-pepped-up hitmen (they call them “Petchburi cowboys” in exciting Thailand): two fellows on a motorbike will follow you around and learn your daily routine. Then, one fine morning they zoom past your car and blast you with a couple of 9mm slugs – the same way rappers get murdered in the Land of the Free. Happens twice a week. Read about it in the blats: “Business conflict … family quarrel … love affair gone wrong …”
Indonesia tends to be more subtle, if equally lethal.
Countering logic with logic, the rationale I propose to suggest that the danger is real. We live on an island with an unbroken tradition and cultural milieu thousands of years old. Back when Europeans were still painting themselves blue and living in caves there were sophisticated kingdoms here. Tradition gets quietly passed down, from master to disciple. Since the opening of Indonesia in the 1990s there is little news about the practice of what is known as “ilmu hitam”, but if you ask around, it exists.
Payment to a “dukun santet” (practitioner of the black arts) may or may not yield results. The person targeted may or may not be harmed. In the case of the Japanese woman I befriended, she was bitterly divorced from an Indonesian man. The evidence was circumstantial, but strong: as we were driving along in a car, she laughed, “When my boys visit their father, he tells them that he cannot pay their university fees. ‘Go ask your mother!’ he says. But I know for a fact that he paid a dukun Rp5 million to injure me.” She rolls her eyes in disbelief.
Two weeks later, my phone rang. “Mr Byron, our mother cannot wake up.” An ambulance is called; off she goes to Mitra Keluarga Hospital. The multinational oil and gas corporation she works for pays the steep ICU fees for the full month she is in a coma, before dying. A healthy, thin woman in her early forties. Non-smoker. Hit with a massive stroke… another telltale sign of unusual causation.
The funeral takes place in Cibubur Cemetery; the estranged husband shows up with relatives and does a big show of ceremonial prayer; in fact, Hanako had spent years struggling to escape him, moving from house to house so he would not know where she was.
Click, click, click: I shoot 35mm photos of the event. Later, visiting the Ibu Broto, a famed paranormal in Condet, I shove a sealed manila envelope across the table to her. “What do you make of this, Bu?” Prints of the funeral are inside.
The little woman in a hijab hisses and recoils. “Diguna-guna” is her response, sensing the evil in the envelope. Black magic attack. Proof? None. Suspicion? Lingering.
The other case I knew of was that of a loud, abrasive British man married to an older Indonesian woman. We used to go touring on motorcycles together. He frankly didn’t belong in Indonesia; he was the classic “bule kurang ajar”, arguing with “tukang parkir”, talking big and showing off. The wife, a kind, quiet woman in her fifties, frequently interceded to solve problems.
In the course of events, this loudmouth gets involved with a 25-year-old Batak cutie. The two of them plan to move in together and live in sin. He will simply ditch the old lady who had brought him to Indonesia and supported him here. Dirty move.
Phone rings. Ibu Yuli says, “Cedric had a stroke. He’s in Mitra Keluarga Hospital.” Damn and doubledamn! I was so outraged. That’s twice I’ve known someone hit unexpectedly with a stroke.
I go visit and find the six-foot-tall Cedric in a hospital bed, half his body paralysed, looking woebegone.
Uh-oh. Two plus two, hmm.
I study his wife carefully. Naw, not a chance. She is a modern Muslim woman, good in business, and not likely to monkey around with black magic. It makes no sense.
Against his fervent protests (he could barely talk), Cedric gets shipped back to the UK, where a socialised medical regimen keeps him alive and functioning, barely.
A year passes. Ibu Yuli phones and invites me for dinner. “Mr Byron, you remember that wealthy Chinese woman who brought the ‘jamu’ for Cedric?” I did not. “She got it from an old Dayak man in Kalimantan. When he asked who it was for she told the story of Cedric’s mysterious illness.
“The old healer poured water into a saucer and stared into it carefully. Then he told her what had happened.
“Yes, there was an occult attack, instigated by the young woman that Cedric was screwing.” (She didn’t say “screwing” – but that’s what it was.)
“The woman didn’t just want to take Cedric away from me; she wanted our nice house here in Kemang, and the car – and everything else. So she took a snapshot of me and Cedric to show to the “dukun santet”. She figured that if I died, then she and her new boyfriend would inherit everything.
“But the old sorcerer got confused, I guess, because he sent a bolt to the wrong victim.”
“Salah tembak!” I could not control myself: I snorted a laugh. Now it all made perfect sense.
In case any of our esteemed readers get a curious notion of learning how to be a “dukun santet”, let me state unequivocally that it is a poor career choice: quite often the bolt of occult force will bounce off an intended victim and boomerang back onto the sorcerer, injuring or killing them. A very high-risk profession.
Note that former President Soeharto was notorious for having some forty-plus “dukun” on call to consult, before a decision would be taken. In his 32 years of rule, there was not even one assassination attempt on The Smiling General, as he freely moved through crowds; there had been at least six attempts on the life of President Soekarno, including one in Cikini where schoolchildren were killed.
Apart from the confidential workings of the “dukun”, there is the widely accepted phenomenon of the “pawang”: one variety of these occultists is the person who has mastered communication with animals.
Japanese golfers were enjoying a session at Jagorawi Golf Course, but were frightened when a snake wiggled out of the rough and stuck out its tongue at them; they ran away and reported it to the clubhouse, whose manager promptly summoned a “pawang ular” from a nearby “kampung”. Half an hour later, a shy little man with a big burlap bag shows up and is led out to the tuft of greenery that golfers try to avoid losing their little white balls in.
The “pawang” silently wades into the thicket and begins to scoop up snakes, poisonous, non-poisonous and maybe-poisonous, like he was scooping up grain, and slides them into his burlap bag, where they coil placidly. He shows no fear; the serpents show no alarm, as they are obediently pulled out of the brush and sacked up.
It is an amazing sight for the plump Japanese businessmen, who now have a nice tale to tell when they return home. (Explanation: golf clubhouse = food, discarded food = rats, rats = snakes.)
What force of nature does the sorcerer use to calm the normally-aggressive serpents? He never gets bitten.
Simeulue Island, in Aceh, is famed for its “pawang buaya”. While few of our stalwart readers would consider befriending a crocodile (they have vile manners, and are usually in a bad, hungry mood), the “pawang buaya” is alleged to exert absolute control over the carnivorous amphibians, through supernatural power. No crocodile dares to disobey him. A “pawang” named Pak Kalitua astonished the locals by standing on the back of a crocodile and commanding it to transport him across a river. “That’s just showing off”, his Sinabang Village wife complained. “What am I going to do when a disobedient ‘buaya’ decides to eat him instead?”
The “pawang buaya” has a smooth, clever technique; he beckons a surly crocodile with eggs, betel leaves and a recitation of mantras. As a matter of fact, not only men can become “pawang buaya”. A very old woman is a renowned “pawang buaya”. When she goes shopping, none of the vegetable sellers in Latiun Village dares to cheat her with the change or try to sell her mouldy veggies.
Moral: be nice to others, keep your distance from those you are wary of, and you’ll be immune to the nasty “dukun”.