“.... And then the ghost said, in perfect English, that she had come to Bandung from England in a shipping container full of recycled hangers”.
An uneducated, Indonesian sewing machine operator from the local village of Rancaekek working the night shift suddenly starts acting strange, speaking in a broad Geordie (North East of England) accent and promptly falls to the floor “because she got possessed by a ghost”.
I’m not sure what to say to that story.
Jeff, never one to mince his words, chimes in with “What a load of old bollocks”.
“You don’t believe it Mr Jeff?” asks one of the Junior merchandisers. “It’s happen before. Ask Didin, from HR. One time, someone start to speak in Chinese. They get possessed”.
“Did the Chinese ghost come in on one of my containers of fabric from Shanghai?” Jeff teases
“Mr Jeff, have you been smuggling undeclared goods into your warehouse again?” I joke.
Whilst most of the merchandisers and office staff come from towns and cities in West Java, our factory employs around 5000 workers from Rancaekek and other surrounding villages where old beliefs still exist strongly, side by side with Islam. Rancaekek itself appears in the “Guide to Netherlands India, 1903” in the following excerpt:
“From Bandoeng we reach picturesque Tjitjalengka in little more than an hour, from where the main road to Soemedang ......... leads through the extensive swamps of Rantja Ekek, the snipe-shooting place par excellence. At the shooting matches held here once a year the best marksmen kill 150 snipes in a few hours”
To this day, every other shop in Rancaekek is selling snipe-rifles
Maybe we could do with some of those guns, and some “excellent” ghostbusters, here. By now we have heard all of the rumours about supernatural goings-on in our factory and have been joined by a young woman, Fenti, who is apparently “cursed” by the ability to see, sense and hear ghosts. I am disappointed to learn that my favourite toilet is haunted – the one that few people go to so that the toilet seat isn’t completely wet after someone has used the water jet to clean themselves (a couple of unprepared visits without my customary supply of toilet roll have left me embarrassingly none the wiser with regards to how people manage not to emerge with wet-bottomed trousers). And in the boss’s office, ghosts apparently like to swivel on the chairs and lark around. I look through the glass partition at Paul who is locked in serious concentration, poring over his usual spreadsheets, completely unaware of his mischievous roommates creating chaos around him in another dimension. I can’t help but laugh.
“So what happens when someone is possessed?”
“Usually they take them to the clinic, but it need a few people to carry them because they are very heavy because they are possessed. Or they will keep lying on the floor while everyone wait for someone who knows about this things to come to help. “
“You mean a Dukun?”
“Yes, how you know about Dukun?” Lina, a senior merchandiser, is surprised
“I heard that there are white Dukun (good Dukun) and bad Dukun (black Dukun), right?”
“Yes, kind of. Although it’s not so simple as that.” replies Lina “But even Dukun can’t help Fenti to close her eyes to the ghosts.”
At this point, the Department Manager, Siana, a Chinese who was born in Indonesia, and who loves a good story or a bit of gossip, pipes up:
“My Oma, my Grandma, she was 95 when she died. But she was very hard to die, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“The one I know...... she just can’t die and can’t die and then my Aunty and my Mum got the Christian priest to come to the house. He said that my Grandma have something inside her. Maybe when she was young she make something with the Dukun, the Black Dukun, or when she was a baby her parents did that – to make her more attractive, you know. We don’t know anything before, so we can’t help her to remove it.“
“I’ve heard about this.... it’s called Susuk".
“The one I know, they put needles into the skin.... and pieces of gold or something”
Photo from The Jakarta Press 21 Oct 2012
“Yes, but there is no pain – it is done by magic - and then she is like glowing” adds Lina.
“She was 95, she take 3 days to die. A lot of pain.”
“But Dukun have many things they can do... they help many people....” defends Poryana. My Guru you could say is a kind of “White Dukun” although we don’t call him that. He is also very knowledgeable – he is more of an “Orang Pintar” – what we call “the clever one”. We learn a lot from him.
Suspending my disbelief for a moment, I admit that I would like to find out more about the Dukun, maybe even meet one.
“What?! Not you as well!” cries Jeff. ”Anya thinks that the devil lives near Henny’s Kost! Now you want to talk to devil worshippers. You’re all a bunch of crazy bastards!” he laughs as he wanders off to find someone to torment in the trims warehouse.
“I have never seen a ghost, or been to a Dukun. But there are people who have a kind of extra sense. I believe this.” Lina rationalises.
Most people in Indonesia that I have met would agree. Siana tells me that Herni, from Tasikmalaya (to the East of Bandung towards Tjilacap and famous for being a spiritual place) can sense ghosts sometimes and that she is receptive to people’s auras and how they are feeling. I remember my unease, something I couldn’t pinpoint when I first met Herni. It was something to do with the way she held her head whilst looking at me, giving her an almost condescending or arrogant expression, as if she were looking at me from above. I wonder whether she saw something in my aura, in how I was feeling perhaps that day, that made her so stand offish. In any case, things quickly changed once we got to know each other:
Some light relief with Herni (above) and Siana (below) – everyone in the factory cannot believe how large some of the women in America must be to wear the clothes that we are now making for our new American customers!
Actually, we are not so different in the West. We are superstitious and many of the traditions, customs and beliefs that help us to understand phenomena or give us hope have no basis in educated logic or scientific reasoning. I wake up every 1st of the month and the first thing I say is “white rabbits” – I have no idea why, but this is how my Mum would wake me up as a child, for good luck in the month to come. We accept things without question or much thought if they are in our culture and if they offer us the chance, however small, for a better life. Even if such traditions are not within our own culture, we are often ready to adopt them for the same reasons. I remember one day, around 6 months after we moved to the UK from HK, whilst driving through a West Country village, my Mother suddenly called out:
“G…Good afternoon, Mr Magpie! How’s your wife?” she stuttered, hurriedly waving her left hand, which had been resting on the gear stick, in the air. Just as I was entertaining the possibility that my Mum might have gone slightly mad, my suspicion was confirmed almost immediately as she promptly spat in the direction of the sky beyond the windscreen, eyes combing the perfect blue mass as if waiting for something to appear from out of nowhere. She then turned her head slightly and with one eye on the road and one eye on me, gave me her special smile: expectant, excitable and childlike. It was a look that reflected a mixture of pride, childish trickery and the itchy impatience of pending revelation.
With her almost imperceptible Dutch accent and perfect grammar (the kind one can only learn) she explained: “I just saw a single magpie. In England they say that seeing a lone magpie means bad luck. It’s a superstition that originates from English folklore. Magpies are supposed to mate for life, so if you see one on its own it means it’s lost its mate or it is alone in this world. There’s a saying that is supposed to tell the future. It goes:
One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a wedding
Four for a birth
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret never to be told…………………
My look must have betrayed my fears, so she went on to explain further:
“A magpie perched on top of a roof is said to portend a death, or some other misfortune, for its inhabitants. So, in order to drive away the bad luck of seeing a lone magpie, some people spit at the Magpie and some people salute him. Years ago, they would tip their hats and salute because they hoped that being respectful to the magpie would encourage him not to pass on bad fortune”. She was obviously proud of her new local knowledge. We shared with her useful information like how to play Mallet’s Mallet (“look at each other and say blurrrg!”) and she taught us crazy English customs such as spitting at magpies. I asked her why she used both of these methods to fend off bad luck. She told me that they seemed so contradictory that she didn’t know which one would work.
We don’t think deeply about our own customs – but I think that this one, which has now become part of our family’s tradition, contains a deeper significance and moral lesson with regards to human behaviour and the dilemma of how to deal with life’s challenges, than is apparent at first consideration. Unfortunately, standing up to, recognising and saluting misfortune, fear and hardships stoically is not that easy to do. In my past, I admit that I have tended to spit at misfortune (often self-created), attacking it and defending myself at times without much grace, thus causing the process to repeat itself. Since I started reading about the Magpie itself not so long ago, the significance of this creature as shadow guide or totem animal has increasingly held relevance for me as I try to navigate my way, striving constantly for something better, to be better, in the various aspects of my life:
“The magpie animal totem is a strong, silent wisdom. It invites us to sing and create with all the beauty in one’s heart, and then to fight like hell for what’s rightfully ours, for what’s there for the taking, for what is within reach. Magpie isn’t concerned with the odds, magpie will “give it a go” at all costs, for [it] knows the prize is great. This animal totem is about thriving, not just surviving day to day..... People with this animal as totem will often manifest traits similar to the animal itself.... Those with this totem are usually eclectic and able to draw on a variety of resources to assist them in their pursuits. Being able to adapt to different situations in a spontaneous way is one of the magpie’s strongest attributes. Those with this totem often find that their interests are varied which make master ship of any one thing difficult, although not impossible..... Since magpies are opportunists, those with this animal totem should pay attention to subtle omens that appear in their life, then act accordingly so opportunities are not missed. The magpie asks us to wake up and be conscious in every area of our life....... Magpie is an animal that comes into our lives to tell us that it's okay to have irrational fears.[it] helps us confront that which we irrationally fear, and does so in a gentle and compassionate manner.............Magically, magpies are thought to be able to connect to the realm of faery. It is thought that they can guide those that wish to explore the faery worlds into that part of the spirit world. They are seen as openers of doorways and gateways to change and transformation” (Sarah Messina – animal communicator)
“What would you ask the Dukun?” Lina interrupts my thoughts.
“Oh, just for a blessing.....” I lie.
Later on, I ask Luki about whether he could set up a meeting with a Dukun for me. A few days later he says that his friend has recommended one in Banten, on the outskirts of Jakarta. I do a search on google and find:
“The dukun is the very epitome of the Kejawen or Kebatinan belief system indigenous to Java. Beneath the thin superficial practice of Islam, very strong and ancient beliefs of animism, ancestor worship and shamanism run through the people of the Nusantara. Most Javanese are Muslim, so they are not supposed to dabble in other supernatural practices. When personal family crisis arrives, people will often consult a Dukun, behind closed doors........ Banyuwangi has long been known as one of the most powerful centers of black magic in Indonesia, along with Banten in West Java and the island of Lombok.”
I bring up the small, yet important, point about Banten being a place known for Black magic. He replies “iaaaa black Dukun. If white Dukun you must doing something like fasting.... black Dukun only buy something or give money”. Oh my God.
“But isn’t black Dukun what happened to Chris’ parents?” I point out.
“iaaa black Dukun go to Ghosts and white Dukun go to al Quran. Parents Chris have problem coz somebody ask Dukun to make them like that. What you want from Dukun? You not make somebody bad, so still can go to black Dukun yaaa”.
I am confused and I am suddenly thinking about golden needles and excruciating pain in the stomach – what if I offend him or something got lost in translation? A thousand pairs of lucky red underpants wouldn’t be able to fix that. I just want some blessing, maybe some more opportunity in my career, to get better sales, a nice animal to sit on my desk and get people to buy from me, the chance for a family. I want to stop driving myself mad with fear of the future.
“Just some blessing and luck, for my job maybe” I moderate.
“I ask to my friend again yaaa... if not, why we not go to my village in Sukabumi...there have a white Dukun there”.
“Yes, I think a nice white Dukun that you know in your own village to whom I could ask nice things , not curses, would be better” I say with sarcasm that escapes him. “And I could do with fasting anyway... too much nasi goreng!”.
“You are only a little bit wide now, you not fat, it nevermind” he says in all seriousness. “Okay, I will ask my uncle in my village. He is a white Dukun”.
Oh dear god, give me strength. “Your uncle is a white Dukun and you wanted me to go to a Black Dukun?!”
“iaaaaa he can do it... if you want only blessing and luck, aja. He only doing who he know, like family. But if you come with me, yaaa I think it’s nevermind. He not want money but we can bring cigarettes”.
I suddenly remember something that Luki once told me about his Uncle and so I ask “Isn’t your Uncle the one who “borrowed” your university money that your father had saved and never gave it back?” (meaning that Luki has had less chance to succeed in a career thus far). “No it’s my aunt’s husband, not my father’s brother.”
I decide to go for it. Is exploring the possibility of a spiritual world of Dukun spells, medicinal remedies and blessings any more crazy than spitting at, talking to, or believing oneself to be under the guidance of, magpies?
- Any of various birds of the family Corvidae found worldwide, having a long graduated tail and black, blue or green plumage with white markings and noted for their chattering call.
· A Curious, resourceful and adaptable bird that has a reputation for taking anything that it can carry away. It is particularly attracted to bright or shiny objects.
- One who compulsively collects or hoards, especially small objects that may or may not have been discarded by others. (The Free Dictionary)
- Female magpies are strong and ….. assertive. (Sarah Messina)