The Scrape of Leiden River

August 20, 2018 | Sinta Ridwan



My traces had passed through the gate of Leiden Central and stepped on a cold fall night. Its passed the frozen faces who were back and forth dragging suitcases. I chose to bend in the corner of the bus stop for the arrival of the bus number 182 that would take me to a cottage in a small town. My hands were busy rubbing my body to make it warm from cold. As it turned out, the coldness of Leiden exceeded Paris, the city I had left only seven hours ago by a bus, then I continued the trip for half an hour by train from Amsterdam.

Ah, that was the bus coming. Although the distance between the bus stop and the bus door were looked closely, in the middle of the cold with this strong wind, I had to walk fast and went into the bus. The bus as if to say, “Hey! if you don’t get in soon, I’ll leave with those who have frozen in the night.” And I was lucky, in the last minute, I stood in front of the bus driver, “One ticket, please.” The driver gave an electronic ticket that I put directly into the ticket box to be validated. I felt warm when I sat in the place I chose, the empty seat in the row behind of the window rear seat. I could freely enjoy the view of Leiden at night.

“I never thought that I can get into this town,” I whispered to myself. My whispering voice shouldn’t bother me by questioning I could also come to one of my biggest dream city. My mind reviewing the time that had passed, my eyes constantly watched the passing by roadster bikes. The tip of my ear touched maple leaves that hit the ground after I played with the wind in autumn.

“Leiden,” I sighed. This city had two libraries. One belonged to the campus and another owned by KITLV, an institute conducting a research on countries that were conquered by the Dutch. I intended to photograph the ancient manuscripts in both places. However, I only had a few days here. How could I take pictures as many ancient manuscripts that were stored and the numbers must be more than hundreds or even thousands of them?



I was currently studying at one of the campuses in France, and the Netherlands was once concurred by France. I believed that Leiden campus established since sixteenth century had many collections about science that I studied. For a long time, Leiden college graduates were the researchers allocated to study the history, culture, society, language, social, and political economy of Indonesia. Many artefacts and relics of the past brought to this city.

I promised myself, I couldn’t go crazy at the library later, I must have a strategy to bring the benefits not only for myself, for my school, but also for others.

Arriving at the cottage of Pak Mien, I met some students from Indonesia who also lived there. After telling my journey and the purpose coming to this city, they encouraged me by saying, “You will meet a great excitement after seeing the archives of your country’s records.”

Hearing that, I could hardly wait to visit two libraries. I was wondering where I was going to go, both were very important. But before deciding to go to the first place, it would be more important now if I spent the first night by taking a nap after a long journey and felt the wind of Leiden. I took foetus position in a thick blanket.

In the outside, the strong winds brought maple leaves flying and left on a ship at the harbor. The ship that had sailed in the oceans anchored in Indonesia which was known as the source of spices about a hundred years ago.



A point of light drifted on the ocean. The beam of the light came from a room inside of a ship. It lit a table and a white shirted man with a thick moustache which its tip swooping down. In front of him, there was a palm-leaf manuscript that he had just opened from kropak. After reading a few lines of the writing using the Sundanese-style script, he stopped reading after seeing me, a crumpled girl whom the hair was messy because I was only able to tie with a wooden stick like a size of a pen. I found it in a wooden shed to repair the ship. I was on this ship among some maids and chefs.

“Hey, jij. Yes, jij!”

I stopped stepping toward the exit door after placing a plate containing dinner dish on his desk. There was a continuing mumble in the language of the Dutch that I didn’t understand at all. I still didn’t understand that language, though almost a month I was forcibly taken to help cleaning up and cooking in this ship. I dared to turn around facing him, but I directly bowed my face to the wooden floor, not too brave to look at his eyes.

“Yes, Meneer calls me? Is there anything else that I can help again? But, my apology, Meneer, I hardly understand Meneer’s language, please use a language that I understand.”

I glanced his moustache moving, I still hadn’t had any courage to see his face.

“Come here, you! Come closer. ”

His order made the tray that I held vibrating. What was wrong? I was so frightened to approach him, almost all women in the galley of the ship didn’t want sending the food to this room because they scared of him. I was ordered by them because they knew that I had never entered this room at all. While giving me instructions on how to keep a plate on his desk, they gave me a warning not to make the slightest sound because it could make him angry, especially if he seriously read or wrote on his desk.

“Does I make a mistake, Meneer?” I whispered softly. I squeezed my fingers that were increasingly eroded by sea water incoming to the kitchen because there was a part of the ship that the wood had porous. Every hour, besides cooking and cleaning, I also got a task to wipe out the sea that entered into the ship. I lived in the mountains for the entire of my life, and for the first time interacting with the sea and lived on the sea.

“Come here, you! Come closer.” He repeated the sentence again.

I approached the table that was lit by the chandelier oil lamp. The oil lamp light wasn’t the same as the one in my cubicle house for sure, the oil lamp light here was glistening, the body contained coconut oil made of brass. In my village, maybe only the nobles that had such brass oil lamp.

The people on this ship called the moustache man in front of me as Mr. Pleyte. He was aboard by this ship because he wanted to bring some ancient manuscripts that he collected in the western region including Sunda Kalapa and where I lived, Cheribon. I saw around the table that the crates were partly opened. It contained of kropak-kropak. How many ancient manuscripts were in the crates? Why did he take it from the owner of the ancient manuscripts?

“What is your name? Ik just see jij sending the food. Where did jij come from? ”

“My name is Sita, Meneer. From the Cheribon mountains.”

“Cheribon yes, good, coincidentally, can jij see this?” He showed me a palm-leaf manuscript.

“Can jij read this writing?” I didn’t have any courage to come closer to him.

“Come here, jij. Come closer.” His words weren’t loud as before. It was much slower so that I felt calm. I walked three steps and stood at his side. I could see clearly what it said in the palm-leaf manuscript.

I read the palm-leaf manuscript that he held. The sentences were written in the Sundanese script. On his desk, I noticed another palm-leaf manuscript, among which there were several other types of ancient manuscripts made from daluwang, nipah, and bamboo. There was also a large book with a striped paper in his handwriting. It seemed that he was copying the ancient manuscript he had read.

“Yes, Meneer. I was taught by Aki reading and writing such script in the village. “I glanced at the lip behind his thick moustache curving. Ah, he smiled.

Outside the ship, it seemed like the waves were calm as my heart began to get used to the smell of her body that was very close to my nose.

“Sit down, jij, Sita.” He brought a wooden chair and placed it next to it. “Sita, the name of jij was like a character in the Ramayana story. There were some Ramayana stories with a special version, yes, the story in your area was truly interesting. How could a story from India get to your community? Ik was very curious about the stories in the jij region written in palm, nipah, and this daluwang. However, writing on bamboo and bones had not given much information because of the limited writing.”

I could only listen to him while sitting beside him. I felt ashamed of my body odour that might be like a fish. It had been a couple of days I didn’t clean up and slept in the kitchen corner with others.

He poured the coffee into the cup and sipped it. His gestures and his body odour made me like a statue. I glanced at what was written on the large book in lined paper. Apparently, he copied it again with the same script as in the palm-leaf manuscript. I had seen such kind of letters from a collection of Aki’s friends as he worked as a writer. Aki and his friend often read together the ancient manuscripts if there were certain events, such as cleaning the village or sedekah bumi.

There was a wailing wave, a set breeze coming. The door of this room was still open, the light from the oil lamp was wobbling. My head still looked down, but my both eyes were able to pay attention to what was around.

“Sita,” I heard he no longer calling me “jij”. “can you read this kind of writing fluently?” I heard the end of his question was added by a deep breath. What was he feeling right now? I thought.

I got closer to the palm-leaf manuscript that he intended, then the smell of the manuscript was inhaled. The smell was like the blood odour mixed with fish poison. The toxin was made from the root of tuba plants, commonly used to catch fish. I felt breathless in my throat, dizzy when I smelled the old palm-leaf manuscript, whether the palm-leaf manuscript came from centuries, maybe hundred years ago when it was scraped with a pangot knife. My eyes could see the scratches that have a specific fibre curve. I wondered why he didn’t close his nose to avoid the poison of this palm-leaf manuscript, to avoid the inhalation of the odor coming out of the palm-leaf manuscript.

“Yes, Meneer. I can read the script although I am not fluently. I would try to read it, but Meneer let me wear this scarf first so that I can’t smell the palm-leaf manuscript. I also begged to Meneer to wear gloves so that I don’t hold it directly and ,of course, a handkerchief to cover Meneer’s nose.” I tried to explain to him.

He obeyed. However, there was another one that distracted my mind, glancing several times toward the exit door. There were many pairs of eyes that seemed to spy, the people in this ship. They just didn’t like my presence in this chair where I was sitting on. They weren’t happy seeing me talking close to him. I felt uncomfortable.

“Meneer, I want to go back to the kitchen,” I asked him as I stood up to leave. He seemed to understand my condition.

“Don’t! Sit down again, Sita. Hey, jij, yeah, you, guard over there, hey, guard! Close that door! ik is working, don’t disturb! “He yelled to the doorman. Then, the doors closed to reduce the sea breeze into the room. The view of full moon dimmed the sky. The rain began to wet the ship.

“Please read this section now, Sita! While ik will immediately rewrite in this book. Please use a loud voice, close to the ears. Ik wants to hear a clear voice in order I write it correctly,” his command was quite clear. I obeyed. This was the story of the Sundanese pantun, which is considered a red violet of life in the world.

The roar of the waves began to be heard and the rush of the doormen outside of the room as well as the wooden stroke that hit the ocean making this ship increasingly away from where I was born. In the night and accompanied by a brass oil lamp light, I read the scripts to him. Occasionally, he smiled and nodded as if he understood the language I was saying while writing back line per line.

Another full moon was on the ocean.

Since that night, I was no longer in the kitchen in the evening. I spent the time accompanying him reading the palm-leaf manuscript one by one. While this, I hadn’t read all the ancient manuscripts made from daluwang. Ah, Meneer Pleyte, I didn’t know what to say to you, being at your side when you were concentrating on copying and translating the stories in the ancient texts. Occasionally, without a level class between the two of us, you asked me what the meaning of the sentence that you just found out for the first time. I gladly explained with the knowledge I have, without a dictionary, no assistances, just relying on my memory of what Aki told for so long.

Every time I started reading the scripts, I asked for permission and forgiveness to the ancestor who had written it and looked after it. He always watched the way I treated the old manuscripts. My mouth mumbled as I gently stroked the scratches with the handkerchief that he gave to me. I had smeared with roasted pecan oil, I cleaned the dust and the poison that covered the scratches for hundred years.

And you, Meneer, you increasingly appreciated of my ancestral heritage. I saw you like holding a woman who couldn’t be hurt when touching her. Being at his side, I was like being with Aki, learning all over again. I didn’t feel the sea shake that made my stomach shacked by a wave. I didn’t feel the pain of my hand when touching the sea from the leaked roof when I dumped back to the sea every morning. Everything was gone because I was happy being his side, reading these scratches for him until the night gone. As stars were replaced the blue-sky, I left him sleeping on the desk.

He said, shortly this ship would be anchored in the city of his birth and where he worked, a strange city in my ears, Leiden.


The sun covered a thick morning fog. This week was the end of autumn that would turn to winter. It made me to dress extra thick to penetrate the temperatures that had reached below fifteen degrees. I borrowed a roadster bicycle owned by the owner of the cottage. Although the strong wind came, I rode the roadster bicycle as hard as I could in order I could go to the library that I first addressed, owned by the KITLV that I had to see.

I tried to enjoy this powerful stroke, while letting my eyes look at the views. There were enormous trees lined up all the way although the leaves almost lost and left the brown leaves waiting for the wind to falling them. There were black-and-white cows that were similar to a picture of cows on a milk can that I used to drink when I was a child. The cows busy grazed in the wide field of the roadside. There were many roadster-bicycles I saw along the way. I whispered to myself, “this is the reason why the posture of these people is bigger and taller, every day they fight with the weather like this and kept biking everywhere. Great!”

I had a small posture occasionally blown away by a strong wind that passed and made me fallen. The safest ride on the road was in between skyscrapers. But when I found an intersection or a path where there was no protector, I got ready for restraining and keeping my own bicycle from the wind. Feeling this ride wasn’t easy trip, I even cheerfully laughed and enjoyed it all. In fact, I couldn’t feel the coldness, closed by the spirit to touch the ancient texts quickly. This was to make my dreams come true that were previously only staying in the head for years, the campus library of Leiden and KITLV.

“Ah, the smells. It smells of a history, “I whispered to myself after locking my bicycle in a bicycle-only parking lot. I opened the door entering the KITLV library at the downstairs.

However, suddenly I was covered in a strange feeling, like I had been here before. Lastly along the way, I felt the same feeling while enjoying the atmosphere of Leiden. Feeling familiar! But this was just the first time coming to this city, I erased the oddities that remembered me to the past of this memory. There were many important things that I wanted to do immediately. After breathing deeply of the aroma in the warm library, I stepped on to the librarian’s desk and instantly free register as a member.

The librarian gave me many information after my membership card was made, from the arrangement of the book to how to get a book, either new books published by Indonesia or old books including the ancient texts. To find the old manuscripts, I had to open catalogues that kept the information first. The catalogues were created by the ancient manuscript researchers who had-hundred years ago-collected their data.

For several hours I was in front of a computer looking for code numbers of the ancient manuscripts. I was so excited seeing the data, but I reminded myself, “Come on, Ta, focus on searching the data for your research first, don’t be crazy! Remember, don’t be crazy.”

One by one the ancient manuscripts that I had chosen, I gave to the librarian. As long as they took what I ordered, I was asked to wait for a few minutes. After the order came, I would be called again. Immediately I photographed page by page after getting the permission. I photographed the writings of my own ancestors, most of which I order were written from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Although the arm muscles cramped because holding the camera with the right position in order to get a good and readable image, I was happy. When else could I take many ancient manuscripts like this. In my own country getting the coy of old manuscripts wasn’t easy and free. Moreover, if the old manuscripts were still in the customary land, it was difficult to touch it.

In a break time, I chatted with the librarian, asking one thing that made me curious, “Where’s the storage of the manuscripts I ordered earlier?”

He replied, “Under the ground.”

Suddenly I creeped and glanced out the window, “That’s a river! What if the river next to this building seeped into the storage of the ancient manuscripts and these books?” I covered my face, didn’t want to imagine the bank of my country’s history data being flooded. However, I calming myself by assuring the technology here would be safe and strong to keep them.

I looked out the library from a window which had a clean glass. Shower wet the buildings, trees, roads, and a bridge across the river. I was still busy photographing after the break over. Occasionally, I was reminded by a librarian to lower the sound of my photographing activity, Click! Click! Click! I smiled with satisfaction and whispered once, “In my country, it can’t be like this, it can’t be.” I laughed to myself.

In the library room, several times I met with students from my own country, luckily, I also met an acquaintance on the social media that was studying here, His name was Koen. He told me a story that made me shocked. The library owned by KITLV would be closed next year. I was limp hearing it. In fact, this news had spread several months ago among the students who regularly worked in this room. It was said that new published books would be returned to my country while the ancient manuscripts would be united with the campus library.

I grimaced, just enjoying the ancient manuscripts that had been treated and maintained very well here, how come it would be closed?

It was said that the reason for closing was because the budget funds from the government were rotated to other museums. I was staring. Could my country take and request all data? It costed much money, then there must be special rooms to store it all, including daily preservation. I doubted it, because several times in my country, books or ancient manuscripts were burned or buried for some political reason, I didn’t want to tell about it here.

My thought was really bothered by the news, but I had to make the most of it by taking many pictures as I could and I collected them to bring back home. I focused again reading the catalogue after an ancient manuscript had been photographed and returning it to the librarian. The catalogue that I hold collected the ancient manuscripts from West Java and Banten. The name of the editor was “Pleyte.” Ah! Pleyte! a familiar name in my ears. I opened a list of Pleyte collection manuscripts. One by one I read the description of the ancient manuscripts that Pleyte brought from my country. All Pleyte collections were stored in this library. At the end of this handwritten catalogue, there was a brief biography of Pleyte.

CM Pleyte (Leiden, 24 June 1863 – Batavia, 22 July 1917)

I noticed a photo apart from a catalogue sheet. Ah, this! Apparently Pleyte’s face was like this. He was photographed with a girl. A girl dressed in batik cloth. Beneath the photo was Pleyte’s handwriting, “Nuhun Pisan, Sita.”

Sita? Reading the written name of the girl made my hand shaking. In Sita’s neck, it was shown a red ruby necklace. This made me shocked, beyond the name. That pendulum, that pendulum! I took out the necklace in my neck for three years, there was a pendulum hanging, and it was the same as Sita used. This pendulum I found at a flea market in my village. I wondered how come there was a pendulum that looked exactly like this. The girl in the picture sat next to Pleyte who were standing with kropak. It looked like the kind of kropak I had seen in one of the ancient manuscripts exhibition.

I opened again the pages of Pleyte’s catalogue. There was a picture and the information was added with an explanation, “This manuscript was assisted by Sita in the translating and the translator. This manuscript is called ‘Goenoeng Soenda jeung Jalma Manoek’. I also recorded the palm-leaf manuscript code and handed it to the librarian. I wanted to take a complete picture of the manuscript.

Time was like couldn’t stop if this library didn’t have working hours. I ended the photo session and got ready to go back home.

The twilight outside of the KITLV library flushed with memories. I went out to the parking lot and led the roadster bicycle to the west, heading to my home. Before I rode my bicycle, I glanced over the river across the building, two figures standing on the bridge. They seemed to be falling in love under the light of the twilight as if they did a ritual of worship to the appearance of the twilight.

I actually didn’t want to bother their intimacy, but I had to cross the bridge. Slowly I moved my legs, not sitting on the bicycle pedal. I passed them slowly, the edge of my eyes seeing them watching my presence.

“Sita,” I looked toward the voice of a woman close to me, the woman on the bridge. I felt called because Sita was my name. I stared to them at a very close distance.

“Sita,” once again she called me. “May I have a pendulum on your neck?”

My body was instantly stiff. In front of me, there were two faces that I had just seen their picture in the library room. They both smiled at me, “we have been waiting for you for a long time, Sita,” said the man who put his left hand around the waist of the woman next to him.

Strong wind suddenly came from my right, from the direction of the river. My little body was unable to hold it, my stiff body was unstable to the strength of the wind. It made me and the bicycle that I tightly held floating passing the barrier of the bridge.

“Watch out, Sita! Be aware of falling into the river!” heard Koen’s voice from across the river. Before I drowned. I saw two faces still smiling to me from the bridge, “That, that, that face, the face of Pleyte and Sita in that picture!” I didn’t get a chance to scream.

La Rochelle – Les Minimes, 22 November 2013

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