Review: Toraja: Misadventures of an Anthropologist in Sulawesi, Indonesia by Nigel Barley

Monideepa Sahu reviews Toraja: Misadventures of an Anthropologist in Sulawesi, Indonesia by Nigel Barley for Kitaab (Monsoon Books; US$ 15.95, Pp 232)

toraja-jpgThe name Sulawesi, Indonesia invokes mystery and the lure of the exotic and unknown. This book offers a knowledgeable and entertaining account of an anthropologist’s journey through a remote, largely uncharted region and culture.

The author succeeds in making us laugh page after page with hilarious accounts of his travels rife with the human touch. He also offers enough insights to engage serious readers. The spontaneous flow of humour is sustained throughout the book, with only a few points where it could seem contrived. This is certainly no mean feat.

As author and anthropologist Nigel Barley states in the introduction, this book is far from a bland monograph written by an omniscient scholar. “It deals with first attempts to get to grips with a ‘new’ people – indeed a whole ‘new’ continent. It documents false trails and linguistic incompetences… Above all, it trades not in generalizations, but encounters with individuals.”

Amusing, animated descriptions fill page after page.  For example, the author is compelled to stop at a hotel called the Bamboo Den, which also doubles as a language school. “It was a vision of hell. Hot, dirty, full of cockroaches so confident of their tenure that they sat on the walls and sneered at passers-by.”

Elsewhere, a policeman rushes to stop a cockfight ostensibly to moderate gambling.  But clearly he too wants the prize money. Meanwhile, “The victor seized washing from the line and began to gesticulate dramatically with a tablecloth.

‘He wants the leg of the dead chicken. It’s his right.’

The owner of the defeated chicken grabbed its corpse by a leg and brandished it in his opponent’s face”…wanting to be paid for his chicken.  Meanwhile, a woman emerges to shout the loudest of all, since they are fighting with her tablecloth.

Nothing, not even fellow anthropologists, escape the author’s witty barbs. Field work satisfies anthropologists because, among other things, “he ceases to belong to the impoverished part of the population and becomes, in relative terms, a man of wealth – the sort of man who can blow seven pence in a gesture of sheer altruism.”

The author’s observations on local culture are just as humorous, while containing a core of serious truth.  He and his guide wear t-shirts with silly slogans to a Torajan funeral, not just because these are the only black clothes they have, but also because “Torajan funerals are inherently jolly occasions, at least in the later stages, for grief is long behind them. The body may well have been kept for several years while resources are mobilized and people summoned from abroad.”

Such animated descriptions are alternated with occasional comments on serious issues such as value judgements and ‘cultural prejudices’. The author finds the Indonesians to be warm and friendly.  The blemishes which surely must be there, are not easily noticeable to foreign visitors like him.  In contrast, he finds “talking to West Africans is always a struggle. You are aware the whole time that you are fighting for understanding, building a bridge between two worlds, subjecting everything to secondary interpretation. Indonesians, however, seem to be “just people.”  The author also observes that he found it difficult to make friends in West Africa because their culture had “no notion of friendship to correspond with our own.” Their culture supported mingling only with kinfolk. In contrast, while family ties in Torajaland went beyond the grave, there was room for friendships too. “Maybe it was simply the different cultural expectations aroused by a white face – a different history of colonialism.”

The wonderful thing about this book is that such serious observations are kept brief and do not weigh down the overall ebullience of the narrative.  Indeed, some of these serious observations are also presented in an amusing style. “It is always slightly shocking to be in a country where Christianity is regarded as a serious religion and not a mere euphemism for godlessness.”

The author leads us in an unexpected and delightful twist, when he brings Torajans to England to build one of their elaborate rice barns in a museum. The Torajans find England as exotic and outlandish as the author found their land, and much fun happens from culture shocks. In earlier times, people from remote foreign cultures were usually treated by Westerners “like wild animals in a zoo. At the end of the exhibition, they were sometimes simply thrown out to fend for themselves.” But now, “It is good to be able to organize an exhibition that does not simply take from a Third World country but fosters a skill under threat.” So Johannis, a thoroughly modern young Torajan who accompanied the rice barn builders to England, learns the dying art of carving from his companions. “In a sense it seemed as if it was through coming to London that he had fully become a Torajan.”

Overall, this is a thoroughly delightful read about a little-known, remote region of our globe. A section with the author’s own black-and-white photographs supports the text. One only wishes for more photos, and in colour. Also, little errors creep in every now and then, which could have been cleared with more careful editing.

Monideepa Sahu, the fiction editor of Kitaab, is a former banker, who had a whale of a time writing her fantasy adventure novel, Riddle of the Seventh Stone. She has since authored a biography of Tagore for young people, and hopes readers and publishers will indulge her if she writes more. Her short fiction for both adults and children have been widely anthologized. She’s shot off her opinions on deathly serious subjects, and sometimes raised chuckles. She lives in Bangalore with a vintage PC, countless arthropods and people. She blogs at