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Fragments of a Journey

A Fistful of Life

Fragments by Jose de Koster, Blog 3

Fragments of a Journey

A Fistful of Life

Blog 3

After a delay of a week and with any apologies, here is the third instalment of Fragments ofa Journey, A Fistful of Life by Jose de Koster.

happy reading. Please feel free to leave a comment.



Birth, green jungle, storm. Plantation life, animals, Musinem, momohs.

Such a long time ago! My God, time presses on without mercy. My ex- cursion into the daylight came on the 29th January, 1929 in the city of Medan, to where my mother travelled from her isolated plantation, Belawan Estate, to facilitate my birth. Medan was, at that time, a small city, a provincial town really – neat streets, dokars, a few cars and naturally, the grobak (a cart dragged through the street by oxen) which stood out so noticeably because of its slow progress through the street and its noise, created by the roll- ing of the wooden wheels, gedebuk-gedebuk, its sound vibrating in one’s ears. I still hear and see them in the far memory, stored for the duration of my life. Medan! My mother almost did not survive my entry into the world, a world I was very reluctant to face as I was a month overdue. Nevertheless, the course of nature could not be protracted indefinitely and after a long and painful labour, Jose, more commonly to be known as Joost or Joosje, was born. After my birth, my parents brought back their little baby brother for Ed, an older sibling, into the deep green jungle, where, in a clearing, our house defied the said jungle like a fortress. Those houses stood solid and alone, even those constructed from wood and bamboo; open houses, allowing the cool air to circulate. Kerees, lowered to keep out the harsh sun, would also shield the occupants from any prying eyes.

I was born when my parents were on the Belawan plantation but my first eight years saw us shift several times. My father, being a good administrator and organiser, of people and generally, was a valuable employee and so we were shifted to wherever a plantation needed growth, solidifying, re-organising or building up of morale amongst the workers. Some of the places we lived in were the Deli Tua, Toentoengan and Belawan estates, I still remember the silence and the feeling of safety even despite the prolonged absences of my father. He was a planter, manager of a tobacco plantation owned by the Deli Maatschappij. His working day began with the rising sun at 6 o’clock in the morning and continued through to the dying sun at six in the evening. Six to six – a daily routine – walking to the office and the sheds hung with tobacco leaves on racks and then walking home.

My father loved that life, so different from the one he left behind. He was a Dutchman, born in Amsterdam, the city which, for him, was a place of constant conflict with his bickering family, a place of small spaces and small minds, close and constricted. He longed for escape and decided to seek space, freedom and adventure in the Nederlands East Indies (as it was known then). My earliest, fondest and most frequent memory of him at that time was him coming home from the plantation and with a laugh, slinging me onto his shoul- ders and exploring the perimeters of our house looking out into the jungle. Many, many years later, sitting at my father’s deathbed in Goes, Netherlands, as my brother, Guus and I watched the last bubble of life cease growing and hanging on his nether lip, I felt his shoulders under me and for the last time, my father lifted me high to the heavens.

I do not remember the days and routines of our daily life other than the stories told to me later on, when the baby had become a child. The first memory that I do recall is that of one late afternoon. The day had suddenly turned dark and an ominous thunderclap heralded the arrival of a tropical storm. Within seconds, a cacophony of sounds invaded the serenity of our day. Hard-driving sheets of rain lashed the roof causing it to shudder and groan, crashing of nearby timber unable to sustain the weight of the streaming heav- ens creating a river on the lawn outside and all the while the continuous peals of thunder followed immediately by the cracking of lightning so loud that it seemed to split the sky. I was in my playpen, and suddenly, startled by a particu- larly loud thunderclap, inadvertently swallowed a safety pin which I had been sucking. I began screaming. My mother and Musinem, my babu (nanny) flew to my side simultaneously, lifting me up, soothing me with their cuddles, first one then the other. I was blessed with being doubly loved as were many children in the colonies, with having two or even more mothers, our birth mother and our babu. The mystery of my screams was solved, when in my faeces sometime shortly afterwards, a safety pin was discovered, closed no doubt. That, I do not remember. What I simply remember is my scream, the sudden attention and the sound of the thunder rolling over and through the jungle surrounding us, a jungle full of sound – screeching monkeys, howling siamangs, the roaring and purring of roaming tigers and the chattering of birds galore, each with its own call. To this day, I feel very much akin to that long gone origin of man where we too were simply animals and not the greed-invested mob we are today. The jungle established itself in me, all its mysteries hidden in my skin. All three sons were born on the plantations so the silence of the Sumatran jungle which surrounded our houses would be the main factor in our lives. We watched it as it watched us and its denizens – whether feared or not, were my brothers and sisters. So now and then, one of those sounds out of my primeval age will rip- ple through my skin and I feel strong and whole. The tiger and the orang-utan especially, speak to me and I to them.



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It is the anniversary of Guus de Koster on Monday 13th September. I came across this page while trying to find videos of him acting. I am one of his Great Granddaughters -Hope. I remember Jose coming over from the Blue Mountains to Auckland to visit my Papa. I have fond memories of Jose teaching me how to paint. Thank you for creating this space where we can come and remember them.
Please keep in touch or share any photos you have.
Take care!


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