I wish that I had been at the bonfire in the Sumatran jungle when the hantu (ghost) entered a stick and wrote on the dirt.  I wasn’t, but my roommate Sjafiroeddin (Sjafi for short) was.

Sjafi was an important friend during my Peace Corps service in Malaya/Malaysia from 1963 to 1965. 

He was remarkable and we spent hours talking – often about his difficult but fantastic life. 

He had escaped from Indonesia on a Dutch merchant marine ship as the Japanese entered the harbor at Jakarta in the early days of World War II.  After the war he received training as an engineer in Holland, after which he returned to Indonesia and eventually joined the anti-Sukarno rebels in central Sumatra.  As their public affairs officer, he was sent to Singapore to report to the United States CIA as to their progress and to seek their additional help.[1]  As luck would have it, as soon as he arrived in Singapore, the rebels surrendered.  He was a man without a country – no passport, no identification.  After several months dodging the authorities he somehow got into Malaysia where he got a job as a translator with a publishing company. We became roommates. 

Scratch most Asians and they will tell you a story of a hantu – either one that happened to them or one that happened to a trustworthy friend.

One evening in about 1964, Sjafi told Gucharan Singh, my other roommate, and me about his experience with the hantu named tinikling.  In 1958 he was with a group of the rebels in the Sumatran jungle who were sitting around a bonfire in the depth of the dense jungle that even the moon could not penetrate.  The bonfire was the only light.  It burned hot with yellow and red sparks piercing the air.  Smoke was dense.  The eerie silence was interrupted by animal sounds on all sides – gibbons, orangutans as well as other animals of the jungle.  It was spooky.  The bonfire was fueled all night to keep the animals at bay.  The superstitious rebels were uneasy and somewhat afraid. 

In order to lessen their fears no doubt, one of the rebels suggested that they call up tinikling.  Sjafi, a trained engineer, told Gucharan and me that he was skeptical about all of this and initially didn’t participate, except as an observer.  One of the rebels picked up a stick and as he held it started calling “tinikling come, tinikling come.”  As first, tinikling didn’t come; however, after many calls, tinikling entered the stick and the stick begin to shake.  Emboldened by their success, they started asking tinikling questions.  All of this of course was done speaking Bahasa Indonesia.  Tinkling, through the stick being held by a believer, would write the answers in the dirt.  There were many simple questions such as “How many children does Abul Razak have?”  “Four.”   “When will I get married?”  “Two years.”  Sjafi, believing that the person holding the stick knew all of the answers, decided to enter into the action and wanted to ask a question that he was sure the stick person wouldn’t know.  He asked Tiniling to solve a complicated mathematical equation.  Tinikling gave the correct answer.  Sjafi became convinced and from then on believed in hantus.

Gucharan, an Asian, believed the story.  I didn’t; however, I was polite and made all of the noncommittal oohs, ahs, wows, etc., that I could without saying that I believed or disbelieved.

[1] “… By the mid-1950s, the CIA was spending millions to finance two parties in opposition to Sukarno.  The CIA supplied weapons and advice to anti-Sukarno rebels on Sumatra and sponsored their 1958 revolt providing bombing missions and support …CIA pilot Allen Pope was shot down during a May 18, 1958 bombing raid, the U.S. involvement was exposed, the CIA pulled out, and the rebellion fizzled.”  — Rollback!  Right-Wing Power in U. S. Foreign Policy by Thomas Bodenheimer and Robert Gould.