Unfurling the Sails of Time


Changes happen in time. That’s obvious. But how often do we willfully choose to disregard the part about time? We choose instead to accept these most common and contradictory statements: change is inevitable and those unprepared will soon find themselves unmoored in the future. Both statements appear to make sense, that is, until you pose this overlooked question: if change is inevitable, shouldn’t we also assume by the unpredictability of changes that it’s impossible to prepare for them? Granted that there are indeed things we could prepare for. For instance, at the first ominous signs of a storm in the offing, there are viable and sensible options at one’s disposal to brace for something of this nature. Still, we’ll not be any more prepared for the when or how or where the storm will strike. The weathermen would likely show you convincing charts of a prediction, the precipitations, the cyclones, and so on, but at the end of the day they will not bet their lives on the precise minutes or seconds of the actual event. Neither will they be able to know with any certainty the intensity of the strike. We have in this instance erred by the acceptance of the first statement, that which we know, for the assurance of the validity of that which will happen.

Changes are manifested over time. They are always already have been. In other words, they are always retroactively visible. This truism, Change Is Inevitable, has been shown to us as far back as when Heracles first walked into the river and stated, “One never walks into the same river twice.” While this is established knowledge, we often overlook to pursue this other more significant question, one that is indisputably the root of all changes: that is, the question of Chance.

To illustrate Chance, let us go way back to 1932, to a specific place, Hollywood Boulevard, and a specific woman, then unknown to the world, in the person of Muriel Pearson, a.k.a. K’tut Tantri, Surabaya Sue, Vannen, Mrs Manx. A Scottish American woman who, on a wet afternoon, probably at the lackluster stage of her life, happened to stand before the poster of a film, Bali, The Last Paradise, outside a small cinema on Hollywood Boulevard. This instance, out of the many instances of her life, was far and away from any association to an island named Bali. And yet this instance presented itself to her in the shape and form of Bali and the seizure of this instance would totally transform whatever she had been up till that moment. She would take a ‘fat cargo boat’ transatlantic to an island in the Pacific Rim. Upon her arrival there, she would be adopted by a Raja in Bali and became the confidante, and later the lover of the Raja’s son, Prince Anak Agung Ngurah. In 1936, she would build the first of a series of hotels in Kuta Beach and played a significant role as an hotelier in the pre-war tourism industry there. When the Japanese invaded, she was imprisoned and tortured, and later, after her release, she ran blockade-busting missions for the resistance movement, then became Soekarno’s scriptwriter and propagandist against the returning Dutch, earning her the sobriquet Surabaya Sue to the world at large, the Merdeka Mole to the Dutch Intelligence. In 1960, she would write a book, a memoir described as a romance, Revolt in Paradise, and became known internationally. In the ensuing years, she tried unsuccessfully to have her book made into a Hollywood film. An ironical fact that, because had the film been made, she would have returned to where she had started: a Hollywood film.

The pragmatists would perhaps speculate that K’tut Tantri’s life after that eventful encounter with the film, Bali, The Last Paradise, was due to her choice. To the superstitious, it was her fate. To the intentionalists, it was her character. Such speculations based either on the determinisms of the self or those that conjure up the divine for the ineffable are of course not uncommon. But there is more to it than all that put together. There’s something out of the ordinary taking place when she encountered the Hollywood film. Something powerful enough to uproot her from out of a known world, America, into an unknown new world, Bali. From a regular Scottish American, Muriel Pearson, she had turned into an extraordinaire, K’tut Tantri, the Joan of Arc of Indonesia. There’s then in this sense an intra-worldly transmigration, which suggests that there is not just a world, but worlds.

In an event of this nature, there is no going back. The paradigm has shifted. The new has arisen in the rupture. Nothing will remain the same ever again. In any case, this has nothing to do with choices and least of all intentions. Fate is simply a homonym for the failure of description of this nature. A person in the grip of an event brought about by Chance is like a person backed against the wall with no other options than to carry on with whatever that is presented to him or her. A path is opened up. He or she has no knowledge whatsoever of where this newly projected path will lead to. To stay back can only mean to deny the event. To take a step is the only way to fill in on the void opened up by the rupture, so that a name is to be inscribed and a purpose projected. Fidelity to the event, by stepping up courageously to what the event presents, albeit one’s always shrouded in unknowingness, is the only way to ensure that whatever that has happened will not fade away into oblivion.

Throughout the entire ordeal, while K’tut Tantri was in this new world, she had never once thought of abandoning it. She persisted in her fidelity to the event, at considerable risk to her life during the Japanese occupation.

“Instead, she renounced the life of a white person for the second time and took up the hard life of the Indonesian guerillas. She can and does go where she pleases among the Indonesian people, by foot, by car, or by train, in perfect safety, the only white person able to do so. Everywhere she is greeted with smiles and cheers, upraised hands and shouts of Merdeka, low bows and respectful tipping of hats. If night catches her in some remote spot she makes herself comfortable in the native compounds with limited facilities at hand. She’s known, and trusted by the peasant folk, nobles, and officials from one end of Java to the other.” Vern Haugland, “Introduction to K’tut Tantri.

Instead of turning away at the first peril, K’tut Tantri persisted in this world. She reinterpreted the odds at every point she encountered and re-transformed herself to meet these odds. Since her arrival in Bali, she had turned herself into a recognized figure, first through her association with Prince Ngurah of Bangli, later as an hotelier. She was known along with a coterie of artists such as Walter Spies, Le Mayeur, Miguel Covarrubias and Colin McPhee as the fervent promoters of the island to the West. They were most probably responsible for Bali to be discovered as the Lost Eden. It was due to their presences, illustrious guests such as Margaret Mead, Charlie Chaplin and Cole Porter soon came to visit. Unlike her contemporaries, however, who in their separate ways evacuated promptly from the island at the news of the impending Japanese invasion, K’tut Tantri stayed on and got involved in the national resistance movement. Her courageous act manifested more likely out of her faith to the world she had been transplanted in rather than through any other considerations. We see again that at every point of the truth procedure of an event a re-affirming act takes place at a crucial point and in consequence the elevation in the post-evental movement. K’tut Tantri at this juncture turned from a familiar figure in Bali into a widely-known personage throughout the country and beyond.

Chance has thus in an event been subjugated into the banality of daily procedures. While changes are the procedures of banality, slowly visible retroactively by recount, Chance is contingent. There are no discerning patterns by which to decipher its being. There is no way to predict its appearance. A throw of the dice, says the great poet Mallarme, will never abolish Chance. This statement from Mallarme may very well explain why until today we can’t figure out the turns of events since K’tut Tantri’s rise to fame and her eventual dissolution, from her many failures to have her book made into a Hollywood film and her general dismissal from the annals both of Indonesian and world history to record her contributions to Indonesian independence. By all accounts, to this date, she is considered, if anything, a footnote in the island where she had discovered her Utopia and to the rest of Indonesia, a myth.

To understand Chance and the many changes that take place as a result of an event, it’s best perhaps for one not to speculate on the meaning or meanings strung together from the many strands of changes that take place in a life. There is as such no precautionary tale to be constructed from a path taken. What there are, thus plausible to speculate, are the manifestations in consequence of an event. The constructions of every act at every point in the fidelity to an event make themselves visible at first locally and then observable globally. Meanings are construed always retroactively, and usually disproportionately annexed to those who enact the acts of an event. Mallarme has already warned us when he says, Nothing Will Have Happened, but the Place. As such, the many consequences of an event are but the lot allocated by Chance for a person to see it through faithfully to the end. The courage to take one more step in the projection opened up by an event makes these manifestations possible in place. These manifestations, the realized acts constructed from changes, are what make it possible to describe a life. Not from its totality, because to do so, one would inevitably impose one’s autobiographical construct on another’s historiographical life, but through the dissemblances at each point of a life so a new opening is possible to be reconstructed. And thus a life is not fixed invariably in time, but is always congruent with time.

A paradigm shift in this sense can only be understood when one takes into account the role of Chance in an event, by whose sheer force, in fidelity to the newly minted name of the event, an intra-wordly transmigration is possible to take place. Only those with courage, unfazed by the odds presented by the unknown, seized as they are by something totally out of their ken, will the first steps toward a new horizon be paved. We call this rare breed, mavericks, innovators, or game changers. Believe me, they will be just as puzzled and unaware and frustrated as any one of us as the event presents itself. But those whom we will retroactively recognize as such are the ones who take those courageous steps forced upon them.

They are the ones who unfurl the sails of time. We can admire their breakthroughs, but can’t hope to emulate their endeavors. We’re, however, awed and ultimately inspired by their courage.

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