I am in the city of Pontianak. I have heard dozens of pontianak stories. Now I want to encounter one for myself.
A friend finds an urban shaman who is willing to hold a séance and, through a medium, introduce me to a “real” pontianak. The only hitch is that the shaman-for-hire has to pay the medium, buy offerings, cover his costs. “How much?” I ask. “About six hundred and fifty dollars,” my friend says.
Time for Plan B.
* * *
The alternative to the expensive séance is provided by my friend Din Osman. One rainy afternoon we visit the home of one of his office colleagues, Rustammy. He runs a music café that is attached to his house, and in his home office I notice a few electric guitars lying about, like a poor man’s Hard Rock Café.
“Why do you want to speak with a pontianak?” Rustammy asks.
I explain it’s part of my quest.
“Yes, but why? It’s difficult.”
Yes, and that’s why I need your help.
“But it can be dangerous.”
That’s okay. Din Osman is translating this exchange, and I can sense he is concerned about what he’s getting me into.
Rustammy tries again to discourage me.
“And it’s difficult.”
I can handle it.
Rustammy looks at me closely. He appears skeptical. Finally he relents.
“Come back tonight. Around nine.”
* * *
When we get to Rustammy’s house, there are about 10 people chatting among themselves. Two additional men stroll in.
“Who are you?” Rustammy asks.
“We heard you were going to call a pontianak and we came over,” the strangers say.
Rustammy is clearly annoyed.
“I don’t know you,” he says to the men, angry, but in a polite Indonesian way. “How did you find out about this? Please leave.”
* * *
Rustammy explains the two options. I can “call” a pontianak myself and have a one-on-one experience with her. Or I can “speak” with a pontianak via a medium, a much easier option, he explains.
We could do it right now.
“Are you really strong enough?”
He’s still testing my resolve.
Send me in, coach.
The shaman asks me again. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
I feel like I am back in high school again and my soccer coach, Charlie Koch, is looking down the bench to see who he can put into the game. “Put me in coach. I can do it. I’m ready.”
I am the first European to pose this particular challenge, which adds extra zing to the Rustammy’s decision whether I have the strength to handle what might take place if he is successful in calling the spirit.
Send me in, coach.
He is relentless in offering me a way out. He points to a 30-something woman named Dewi, who is seated nearby, watching quietly.
“She’s a medium. She can channel the spirit and you can watch. It’ll be easier for you.”
But I have come this far and can be stubborn when faced with a challenge.
Put me in, coach. I’m sure. I want to see a pontianak.
* * *
Rustammy explains the procedure, what I must do and what I might expect.
Suddenly, one of Rustammy’s friends, a man named Andi, starts shouting. His eyes bulge, he arches his back and pounds the table.
“He’s a foreigner,” the man yells, looking in my direction. “It’s not right.”
“Ah, that’s Datuk Jangut ,” Rustammy says, referring to “the Bearded Lord.” “Datuk Jangut often speaks through Andi – he goes into a trance easily.
I find it refreshing that in a city named after a spirit even the guests at a séance are mediums. Everybody can play a role.
“There are so many spirits in this room and some of them don’t want to be bothered,” Rustammy says. “Can you feel them?”
No, I don’t feel them. I have attended dozens of séances throughout Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia. I’ve seen men in trances speaking in tongues. Men in trances stabbing themselves with knives and broken glass. Men in trances claiming to be my father. One time a man in a trance said he was Moses and that he wanted me to go to the Middle East to stop the never-ending feud between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Rustammy calmly tells the spirit that we aren’t going to bother anybody, just settle down and be cool. Datuk Jangut leaves Andi’s body without another word.
* * *
Too many people. For a bit of privacy, four of us – Rustammy, Dewi, a translator and I – go into a partly enclosed adjacent room. Din Osman and his wife are discouraged from joining and they agree to sit outside with the other guests. I feel bad not having them with me – they made this event possible, after all, and Din’s a good friend. They watch Rustammy lead me away, almost like family members might watch an ill relative being led away for a difficult operation.
“You’re really sure you are strong enough to see a pontianak?”
“Sit in a lotus position, close your eyes, and call the pontianak,” Rustammy instructs.
I’m not comfortable sitting in a lotus position and sit against a wall.
“Hold your hands out in front of you.”
Which I do.
“Close your eyes.”
Which I do.
“Now call the pontianak.”
Which I will do. But I don’t know if I need to say it out loud or just think it? I opt for a silent murmur. Hello Ibu Pontianak! Good day to you. Respected Miss Pontianak, where are you? I know you’re here. Come to me. Mademoiselle Pontianak, I want to see you.
“She’s close, I can feel she’s close,” Rustammy says. “Order her to come.”
Get your vampire-ass over here right now.
“She’s right here,” Rustammy insists. “I can feel her.”
I don’t feel her.
“Be strong. Order her to come,” Rustammy says, insistent that his tactics will work.
I’m not sure that it’s a good idea to boss around a female vampire spirit who hates men.
I mix the strategies of command and request. Come closer, Madam Pontianak. Close to me, close to you. I order you. I command you. You’re close. I want to see you. Come closer to me.
And then my monkey-mind kicks in. I start to hum the Carpenters’ song “Close to You.” Why do birds suddenly appear, every time, you are near?
I want to giggle.
Do pontianaks have a sense of humor? Do they appreciate music of the 1970s?
After about five additional minutes of unanswered entreaties and scraps of banal music, I open my eyes. “Nothing,” I say.
(For the next installment, click here.)
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer who has lived and worked in more than 80 countries, including long stints in Southeast Asia. He has written 14 books; the latest, Dead but Still Kicking: Encounters with Mediums, Shamans, and Spirits, was published by Explorer’s Eye Press in May 2019. He can be contacted at www.sochaczewski.com.