I was taking a shortcut around behind the Sabeuleleu uma and associated sapou, heading for the Samatobe uma, to catch up on some gossip, when I first met Taptapmanai. I passed what appeared to be an abandoned chicken coop, some three cubic metres in volume. From the gloom within came a voice asking, in good Indonesian, a rarity in the settlement, where I was going: “Mau ke mana Pak?” As my eyes adjusted I made out a figure, sitting, legs folded up tightly against his chest. His cheeks were sunken, his limbs impossibly thin, accentuated by the pronounced swelling of both knees and both elbows. Some sort of advanced “rheumatic” condition according to those who could be bothered to talk about it. Possibly an advanced case of tuberculosis going by the chronic cough and difficulty he had in drawing breath.
Taptapmanai was confined to his hutch on the very edge of the settlement. His illness confined him to a life folded up on the margins. The only way he could move about was by placing his hands on the floor of his hutch and shuffling forwards, backwards, or sideways, his heels and buttocks the only contact points other than his hands. He shuffled towards the light and asked if I happened to have any “medicine” that might relieve his symptoms. I asked what he had used in the past. “Rheumatic medicine”, he replied. I said that I did not have any, and speculated out loud that he might need more than this. Taptapmanai confirmed this to a degree saying that no treatment that anyone had given him over the years had really had a beneficial effect. Not long after I took my leave. We only met on one other occasion.
Some time later I recalled that I had already heard about Taptapmanai from a prominent member of the Minangkabau community at Muara Siberut. It was in the context of a discussion, rather one-sided, in which he was informing me of the deleterious effects of tourism that were already making an impact on local culture. He told me of an individual upriver who had obviously contracted AIDS, which must have been caught from a (western/”orang barat”) tourist, particularly given the well-known sexual appetites of orang barat, present company excepted of course. Taptapmanai’s condition was described in some detail, in which Taptapmanai himself, however, was merely a symptom of deeper, more fundamental changes that were envisaged to be enveloping the island.
One morning I awoke to the sounds of the tuddukat being struck in the uma to which Taptapmanai was affiliated. Someone has died remarked Bailar, when I enquired what the commotion was about. We walked the 200m to where the body of Taptapmanai was on display on the veranda of the uma, still in the position in which I had encountered him previously. Mourning was in process with one of his younger brothers particularly vocal in his public expression of grief. “Kebbuk (“older brother”), kebbuk, kebbuk…”, he sobbed, wiping the tears away with his hands. (In between sobs he did manage to mention to me that large amounts of coffee, sugar and tobacco would be needed to sustain them through the day, the supply of which is only ever an honour bestowed upon visiting or resident tourists.)
There was nothing much to be said. You just sat and participated in the acknowledgement of a life, now extinguished, whose journey now must be away from the uma, and whose return, as spirit, would only be under strictly controlled circumstances, but even then not in its current incarnation, but simply as “ancestor” (saukkui). People came, mainly kinsfolk, sat for a while, then left. Later that afternoon Taptapmanai’s kinsmen carried his wrapped remains to the river, transferred them to a canoe then took them upriver to the general burial ground.