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Confessions of a spice girl.

Running amok in Java

I am sitting in Cafe Batavia under the old wooden fans. Batavia is the old Dutch Kota right on the mouldering Port of Jakarta. You flatter yourself if you fancy you might catch a whiff of cumin and tea, cloves and spice under the viral pall of open drains.

There is only a memory of the smell and the sweat and the greed. And even that has been layered over by the memories of other sorts of sweat and smell and greed. Batavia is close to the Kampongs; the city slums push up against them like a litter, only to discover there is nothing to suckle; that they are in fact simply shoved up against another sort of litter, which might be a mirror of itself, or at least a country cousin, differentiated by acid-covered banana leaves and fewer antennae and not even the illusion of a drain. In this place, typhus vies with fitful dreams of tabula rasa; feeding off the anger that rises up with any idea of ground zero.

The area behind the Taman Fatahgilla saw the worst riots and looting during the spree of 14 May after the deposition of Soeharto in mid-1998. The burnt-out buildings sit right behind the square. I am looking directly out onto the Taman now. There is not a tourist in sight. These many months after the deposition, I have been told to be very cautious here; anxiety is already taxiing towards me without a meter; it still accompanies any foreigner cocky enough to set foot in a cab, or who thinks for a foolish moment or two that there should have been heroines in Conrad novels. The possibilities for a Girls' Own Annual in this town are remote. There is a successful market for kidnapping sweaty foreigners -- but the plangent hope is that this trade confines itself to business-men reeking of old spice and aramis, brandishing suitcases that hold little other than a cellular phone. Cafe Batavia is an elegant desolation, layered in white linen, polished timber and a staff with nothing to do. The whole place is scented with the traces of colonial evacuations.

It had its time long ago and now nobody comes to scent the past. It could be the set for Red Dust or Casablanca; but the extras haven't turned up. Oh wise extras! It is so hot I have to wipe a moustache of sweat from my face in order to navigate a Koffie Aroma. It has taken me about ten minutes to order it in faltering bahasa. In the gloom a lone caucasian man, absolutely enormous, sits a mile away consuming a vast yum cha, a blur of colour spinning past his gob on a lazy susan. The Chinese-speaking giant is in emerald green, the same colour as the birdcage covers that float above me in a field of crinolines. The wooden ceiling is strangely silent; a sleeping aviary. Three tiny Indonesian women eat with him, and one older Indonesian man. Their hands move deftly over the wheel as it picks up speed. They are eating like they are running out of time. I drink and drip in the same way. I look out to the heat and the light and when my eyes return to the inside, the white shirts of the staff fluoresce and die. Out in the square, the dream is running amok.

Amuck, as a word, came down to English differently, like many things, too many to imagine, let alone count. The original spelling derived from the Indonesian dialect spoken about the port of Batavia, which still survives in the language and songs of the port. It was originally spelt A-m-o-k. But by the time the first and second traders had cruised back into British and Dutch ports, it had transmogrified into A-m-u-c-k. Lifting a fine cup of something narcotic to your lips, pause for a moment and consider how this might have occurred.

These vowels and consonants were sensitive to cold. They were entirely stunned by the cooling of air over the larynx, as trading ships passed through the warmer seas of the Indian Ocean and on to the chill hem of the Atlantic. In this way the `o' of amok came to sound less like the hollow knock of wood inside bamboo, than the low curtsey of a `u', ululated in the back of Dutch and English palates. This is one simple fable of origin that you might set against a hundred others. But as this one smells sweet and dangerous, I will tell it, whether it be true or not. What is true to say, is that in the beginning there was that problem of presuming things would always come down to English, as if this was as right and natural as filling ships' hulls with spice and mineral money, and going to the trouble of moving them half a globe away on strung webs of longitude. The Dutch, as we have been taught, went to Asia to produce and buy at low prices, certain goods which yielded enormous profits in Europe. Chinese porcelain, for instance, could not be made in Europe, as the use of kaolin, or china clay was not yet known. European cloves and nutmeg, and also pepper, were so exclusive, that at the beginning of the seventeenth century you could buy a large house for a small sack of cloves. That's one-hundred-and-fifty tubes of toothpaste, two-hundred-and-twenty apple pies, one hundred gallons of mulled wine and the queasy smell of a million dental surgeries.

Back then, the map was an uneasy jigsaw. A long glass kept them all partially sane and plotted; on track for completion. Seabirds and stars provided a backup for any captain relying upon a whiskey compass with bad dancing legs. But the smell from the hulls was sure. Mapped and rounded. Giant cloves, nutty coffees, cinammon bark the size of tree trunks, large leaf teas and an endless abacus of peppercorns gave the ship its ballast, and all this kept dry by thin creaking belts of mahogany. Sacks of kaolin had been mined to make small and delicate pottery; one half of the ship was packed with porcelain flour, fine as meringue dust. The officials on board dreamt of hundreds of thin saucers rimmed with gold and celadon; the pouring of elixirs that would beget a long culture of rattling and stirring.

But coming back down to the English. It's like a staircase, this `coming back down' thing. All the treads and risers of so-called linguistic inevitability. The lazy archeologies of the sound shift. But the idea of `coming back down' was a terrible assumption in itself. You might just as well have said: coffee and cloves came back down (or sailed back up) to the Northern Hemisphere differently, as if the action of temperature and shrieking wildlife, the exchange of promissory notes and the occasional descriptions of poets somehow ameliorated everything; made the huge shifting of resources appear as (un)natural and inevitable as an etymological shift.

Who can prove if flavour, words (or history for that matter) are really alterable by cold and the call of a bird or a poet over time? ... No-one really can ... all we get to do is percolate the changes, without ever being able to guarantee the brew. Only occasionally will someone bother to think about the grains that got left behind in the boat.

We do know that coffee, for example, caused a great shock amongst pre-caffeinated society, catching fast in pale and trembly epiglottises, used to centuries of blandness. Such was the shock, that the imbiber seized upon stray granules as the most delicious irritation. One shot of coffee and words would tumble from mouths like so many pearls, as if they had been long and slow to form. Predictably, churches and newspapers initially condemned the stuff; preachers and landowners were the ones who usually did the talking ... now, after two nips of the stuff, everyone was speaking up, breaking the silence, seizing the pulpit ... and the force that drove them was not always a lucid one. Some feared that coffee would bring on the sort of revolution that only kings and princes could imagine.

The women in particular had been entirely sped up. By the drug, you see. And this speeding; this gentle agitation was important in itself, even if the new caffeinated trances pre-dated a great deal of writing on the subject of women speaking up and reflecting upon their dreams and lives. Formerly, in well-to-do houses at least, drugs had been the province of the men. But the men who had paid for the coffee now put down their newspapers in dismay. It was true to say that pineapples and coffee had done strange things to their women folk; the effect had been triple that of the tulip bulb mania that the Dutch had endured and survived with minimal loss of life.

For example, after two coffees, and seventeen acidic slivers of pineapple, the women of the olde worlde generally began to shake and shudder inside their whalebone. They felt their temperatures rise. They wanted to speak. To hold forth. To run amuck. To wrap themselves in coloured sarongs and go walking bare-shouldered into warm evenings, and smell the pepperdur exude from working armpits in the fields. There were even some unsigned adventuresses who wanted to feel the day press and steam them down like a laundress, until their own fair skins jellied and blistered and needed to be cooled and soothed with banana leaf. These were the sort of women who ran amok after breakfast every morning, exhausting their husband s with desire and geographical quizzing. In secret, they read the maps that were locked away in drawers.

Amuck, in this sense, was a boon for proto-feminism. As were coffee, kaolin, cloves. The catalystic, cataclysmic fragrances of amok.

Clearly, amok was and is a variable phenomenon. The officials of the European spice cartels ran amok and took what they wanted to. The memory of how they ran amok and what in the first place had chartered them on a course to amok, quickly faded, until memory itself had run amok and thence become a museum to amuck. Within the halls of industry, all violence, all greed had been forgotten or entered in the ledger as business. Bonded slaves were used on Javanese nutmeg plantations up until the 1920s but no-one remembers this now. No-one considers how a small sound shift might have in itself summed up certain transactions between present and past, corset and no-corset; theft and redemption, arrival and departure.

All we have been left with is a vague, inconsequential shaking of spice grinders over custard and whipped cream; a vague dusting at the back of the brain, something to do with the wordless knowledge that such a fragrance could never have originated out of the same soil that seeded juniper and holly. Custard was garnished with clove and nutmeg, and the nose and mind, for an instant, with the scent of worlds beyond. But over time, spiceworld became a sort of long term PR for a cloven amnesia. In 1663 the word amok was set into dictionaries as the idea of `a frenzied Malay'. By 1672 this had given way to the notion of running amuck, that is `to run viciously in a frenzied quest for blood'. In 1689, Pope recorded politely over coffee that he was `too discreet to run amuck and tilt at all I meet'. And Dryden chattily records the social type who `runs an Indian muck at all he meets'.

In this way, the passage between amok and amuck came down to English; outwardly it appeared seamless and sociable. Inwardly, it ran amok with its own racist projections. And this is only one word, reinvented to conceal the linguistic layercake of centuries. The English seem to have been better than the Dutch at these swift concealments. But the Dutch, for example, still use the phrase, `It is as expensive as pepper'. Or, `het is Peperdur'. So traces can be found. Traces that contain the map and the mire, the hull the heyst; the word, heated or cooled according to the political recipe best served.

But as the dream suddenly re-enters the square of the present, it seems the word has changed again. There is the scent of something else, something seldom bottled or set inside a hull for export. I drop my silver spoon and it clatters to the floor. The big man is up and the lazy susan arrested by the fine darting hands of the women. If food was roulette, this is it. But the round day, spinning away from easy consumption, has itself become a game; the women are its sudden dice. The women are Chinese Indonesian. The green man, who seems to be the part owner, ushers them out a back way. No-one is concerned with a caucasian woman, dipping her pen into a well of fear. The birds (in the covered cages) are awake and shrieking. A waiter is yanking off the cloths at speed, as if enlisting a small, feathered battalion to his aid.

Outside in the square, handmade weapons are lifted up into a hot sail of sky. The policemen stand idly by, clove cigarettes between their fingers. The staff watch without moving. Then, there is a faint dusting at the back of my brain. I am in a frenzy, a frenzied caucasian, who needs to quickly find a halfway decent cab that can get in and around the violence and secrete me away to Kebayoran Baru, to the illusions of a guard's hut and a ten-foot concrete wall. I think, abstractedly: Queen Beatrix of Holland, the richest woman in the world, does she keep a cache of the first cinammon under her bed. Is it kept in a porcelain pot? Is the palace made of porcelain too? At what point do guards become too well paid to dream of a perfect future? Is it true or false that they shoot peppercorns at the drug runners who arrive at the port of Amsterdam?

A frenzied caucasian; I beg the staff to get me the best cab they can. Bluebird; silverbird ... one with a meter and a driver who doesn't dream. I tilt as hard and hysterically as I can. They look at me doubtfully. The fragments of shared language have suddenly fallen away; but the meanings rise up; residual, shouting difference. Can we ever really know each other away from a context of food and drink? The theft and redemption of it. Its control and release. The language given over centuries to this very control and release?

In Indonesia still, the crisis price of rice is still more than sticky. And we still shift around the issues of sticky-by-implication, wondering how to describe this most viscous of relationships. Diplomatic branding fails to have a memory of language. Indeed, it makes a custard of its most important histories. And custard has always been a favorite comfort food.

There are long patches of sweat on my back and under my arms. Fear is rattling in the throats of cups. Naivety suddenly seems to be a caffeinated, cloven thing. `Please! A cab, a good cab if you can! Silakan Bu, Taksi bagus, sekarang!' `But, Ibu, you haven't finished your coffee', one of the girls says, in impeccable English, sweet as spice.

Silakan Ibu, kopi anda, belum minum minum!
COPYRIGHT 2001 Arena Printing and Publications Pty. Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:observations of Batavia, Indonesia and the spice trade
Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Jun 1, 2001

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