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Former points of View: Postcards and Literary Passages from
Pre-Independence Indonesia.
Author: Stephen Grant

THE POWER OF A POSTCARD


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Look at the carefully-posed family gathering in the postcard I chose to display on the above book cover. It is the ruler of Boni and his retenue from the island of Sulawesi. Even a carpet has been hauled outside for the occasion! The patriarch, seated in the middle, belongs to the Bugis Kingdom in the Dutch East Indies, later to become Indonesia. The English expression “boogieman” meaning a terrifying specter comes from the Indonesian word “bugis.”

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After my book was published and I was giving a book talk in Jakarta on the island of Java, a member of the audience asked me: “do you know the significance of how the four ladies sitting in front have positioned their knees?” I had to admit my ignorance. “The one with the left knee in the air is the only one unmarried.”
The power of a postcard was in the meaningful detail obvious to someone initiated into that ethnic tradition and totally lost on a foreigner like me.
I hastened to rewrite that section of my commentary for a second edition of my book, which has not yet seen the light of day.


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I took a pack of old Indonesian postcards to my first Indonesian language lesson in Bandung, as a means of developing vocabulary. My teacher Ibu Leila Hasyim leafed through them, picking out a word here and a word there to teach me. Then, before a card of a large residential building, she froze. “Rumah ini, rumah saya,” she gasped, leaving the room in a dash. She returned with a framed picture removed from her living room wall. “This house is my house!” The skin on her arm showed goose flesh as she explained that this brightly painted wooden adat (traditional) house had been built by her family in Padang Pandjang, central Sumatra in the 1870s. Although she possessed photos of her house in the 1950s, she had never seen a picture of it with a thatched palm roof. She knew that, starting in the early 1930s, a zinc roof had been put on. I gave her the old card, and several months later visited her in her family home.
“How small the world can be” shows the power of a postcard. The story was written up in the March, 1994 issue of the in-flight magazine, GARUDA.

 

 
©2008 Stephen H. Grant.
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