Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Soul of Nusantara

The Soul of Nusantara

The great Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer passed away last Sunday at the age of 81. Being a great fan of his works, it came as quite a shock to me. Two of his works, The Mute's Solliloquy and Tales from Djakarta were my faithful companions during my two years stay in Jakarta.

I had the opportunity to meet the man himself when I attended a book launch in Taman Ismail Marzuki in 2003. Listening to his talk, I was immediately taken by the genuine love that he has for his homeland, his wry sense of humour and the deep reverence that he still harbours for his mother. Accused of being a communist sympathizer when the Suharto's New Order regime came into power, he suffered 14 years of incarceration, 10 of them in the harsh penal island of Buru.

Was he really a communist? "Saya bukan Komunis atau Kapitalis. Saya Pram-is", said Pak Pram, referring to his personal sense of conscience which had been the driving principle guiding all his life. His bitterness against the old Suharto regime was still strong. He was a great admirer of the first president, Sukarno, for uniting the Malay archipelago--the fabled spice islands much fought and sought after by the maritime nations of the West--into a single nation.

He admired the womenfolk in his life--his mother and grandmother--who had been a great source of inspiration to him with their quiet courage and independence, in a Javanese society that was traditionally paternalistic. He had a disdain for for what he labelled "Javanisme"--the Javanese's habit of unquestioned submission to authority.

A lot of his writings were influenced by his experiences as a child in his hometown of Blora in East Java and a young man trying to eke out a living in big city of Jakarta during and after the years of Japanese occupation. All these were recounted with great insight and tenderness in his memoir, The Mute's Soliloquy, which remains one of the most emotionally touching memoirs I've ever read.

His collection of short stories, Tales from Djakarta were mostly set during that time, when Pak Pram himself was living with his first wife in their house in Kampung Kebon Djahe Kober. During one of my more adventurous weekends in Jakarta, I managed to trace this old house of his and was surprised to find that one of his daughters, Ibu Indriaty was still staying there. I had the pleasure of spending an hour of so chatting with her, inquiring about the well-being of Pak Pram, who had moved out of the house since his divorce with his first wife in the 50s.

I wrote an article called 'Toer Guide', for a local magazine, based on Tales from Djakarta, tracing the places mentioned in the book and the changes that have occured since then. Researching for the article was a lot of fun--it gave me an opportunity to learn in greater detail about the history of Jakarta; it was a joy to find out the exact location of places like Fromberg Park and Deca Park (mentioned in the short story, 'News from Kebayoran') which the current generation of Jakartans have never even heard of before.

Pak Pram's writing had an honest simplicity about it. To me, he represented the soul of Indonesia, that archipelago of 17,000 islands whose wonderful people, culture and history are an endless source of fascination to me. He chronicled an important transitional period in our history: life under colonial powers, the Japanese occupation and the tumultuous events before and after the abortive communist coup of September 30 1965 (The Year of Living Dangerously).

Those dangerous years are gone, but a new set of equally dangerous forces are shaping our times: terrorism, religious extremism and economic colonization under the guise of globalization. Pak Pram, in all his talks and interviews, often emphasized the need to understand history--our history:
"Orang muda sebanyak mungkin harus belajar sejarah, sebab sejarah itu tempat kita berangkat. Tanpa mengetahui itu, kita tidak tahu ke mana tujuan kita."

(The young should learn as much of our history as possible, because history is our point of embarkation. Without even knowing that, we'll never know where we are heading.)
Pak Pram has passed on. Hopefully the works he had left behind will continue to remind us of our past; they are the enduring folk chronicles of our hopes, strengths and weaknesses, our common destiny as peoples of Nusantara--those beautiful islands between the trade winds, that perfumed spice bazaar of East which had launched a thousand merchant and warships from the West, the land where our ancestors had chosen to trade, live, love and die.

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