The Many Taboos of Being Gay

The Many Taboos of Being Gay is a stage performance consisting of four different scripts, four different plays, depicting the dilemmatic contradictions surrounding the life of homosexuals, be it stemming from the pretext of religion or the society’s expectations. I just saw this played performed at Teater Salihara last night.

Before I moved on with the summary of the play itself, I thought it wouldn’t really hurt summarising the social perception and condition on the issue in the country as a background.

So in recent times in the country, the issue of homosexuality has made it into the national news’ headline. Of course, this has previously been an undiscussed issue long buried or simply avoided in the country for some time, but the general opinion of the society especially in more rural areas where education access are still more difficult compared to, of course, in urban areas, is that homosexuality is abnormal–this is, however, an argument usually backed up with religion. I would rather not create an assumption that all Indonesians are extremists or chauvinistic, nor are they conservatives in a bad way. In fact, having been a secular state for so long, Indonesia is actually far from becoming extreme as of now, and the fact that the country’s majority is Moslem has got nothing to do with it. Nevertheless, the issue first came into public’s attention when a support group called Support Group and Resource Center on Sexuality Studies (SGRC) at one of the university in the capital city said to offer a counseling for the LGBT groups. Protests on the group’s existence claim this fear, which I consider to be groundless, of the growing number of LGBT “invading” the campus. To make matter worse, our Minister Technology and Higher Education, M. Nasir responded on the issue by making a statement on denying access for those belonging or identifying themselves in and within the LGBT group into the campus. Our brilliant vice president then followed by saying that international organization–the UN included, yes–should stop channeling funds for any activities or community events, or research which is related on LGBT.

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Photo taken from thinkprogress.org

Ever since that day I no longer shocked when I saw a big banner with “Indonesia Darurat LGBT” (Indonesia Emergency State: LGBT)–which then basically mention this propaganda that LGBT is a disease and that it should not be allowed in the country itself–hung outside of a local mosque near Thamrin City.

So the debate on homosexuality escalated (well, why shouldn’t it, especially when you got the minister and the vice president supporting this baseless fear already), and for some time, that’s pretty much all I see in the newspapers. Oh, and added with another minister saying that homosexuality could be cured when you poured hot, boiling water to them. I’m beginning to doubt this is already the 21st century…

Anyway, I wouldn’t really want to give the impression that the play itself stemmed from this background, nor would I claim to assume that the script/playwriter bore this in mind back then as they wrote the play. They might or they might not, I think we shall not assume so just because I do so.

Anyway, The Many Taboos of Being Gay  features four different scripts, all set for two players each. In short, they’re gay, they struggled, and they’re still human beings nonetheless.

In the first play, Sweet Hunk o’ Trash, Rob met Gene and asked him to dance together, but he reluctantly refused, thinking that it would be too awkward for two guys to dance together. But as Rob smooth talked him and they talked more about their works and passion (explicitly and implicitly), Gene slowly warmed up to him.

The second play, Twenty Dollars Drink, however, was what has truly stole the show for me. Set in a fancy restaurant in town, Bete and Star, ex-lovers, decided to meet with each other to resolve undiscussed issues. Both used to be actors at a theater company, before Star finally gained fame and was now a star. Bete, on the other hand, was already married and no longer an actor. The tension was quite high in the beginning of the play, as Bete was obviously pissed off, and Star, looking awkward in front of Bete, finally broke the ice talking about the award he received three months ago. Turns out Bete was extremely pissed off at how he felt Star had treated him now that he’d become famous. What really stole the show for me, I guess, is the inner conflict within each character here. His anger, perceived by Star as envy and jealousy, was then revealed as frustration towards the people around him who seemed to have left him now, including Star, as he continued struggling in life trying to survive with his child. Star, on the other hand, stroke me at first as perhaps being a bit too cocky, but later revealed that he neither enjoy his new fame as it brought along with it responsibilities and unwanted attention he did not want, just like “whoring” to a lot of people now, as he put it.

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Photo taken from Salihara’s facebook page.

Then in the third play, Frozen Dog, I was intrigued to see how the play might turn out, as the two main characters in the play are pastors. Kevin wrote to his superior to have Vinny as his roommate, and later revealed that this is because he fell in love with Vinny. Unfortunately for him, Vinny had other thing in mind. Not only he fell for someone else, but he was also dead set on devoting his life for god, hence deciding to commit celibacy. Weighed down by the moral doctrine dictated by both the society and their faith, Kevin tried to show Vinny the extent of his love and devotion.

The last play, Uncle Chick, I think, is another gem. This explores further on the relationship which could occur within the family dinasty itself as Brian turned to his gay uncle to “guide him” and “direct him” as he bore the moral responsibility as his godfather. The uncle, Chick, however, had been meaning to avoid it, under the pretext that living as a homosexual in this world is not easy. As he tried to drive Brian away and dealt with his past instead–also seemed to be weighed down by the prevailing values and stigma the society from his day has implicated on homosexuals in general–Brian was dead set on showing him that such a thing should not instead dictate their way of life, nor should it become a pretext to prevent them to have a relationship.

These plays truly drew me in with the social issue they brought up, and I personally wish more people would see this play without any initial prejudice, hoping that watching this would instead open more and more minds that there truly is no different between them and us, and that they are just human beings like us.

I love how they display the inner conflict of each character, and the actors are excellent in showing these–between the humour, the sarcasm, the frustration, anger and love–I just love these intensity that I felt on the stage. And they all made it so believable and natural, so I guess they did a magnificent job after all.

I sure hope that I would see more of each of these play, since I think on a bigger scale, it could also show more explicitly on the context surrounding the story, which I think would be just as interesting to explore to see how the people around them would treat them and react, and how, should they do have any problem about it, they reconciliate with it. The cultural and social background here were mostly implied through the interaction of each character which affect their attitudes in treating their own homosexuality in relation to their work, or in finding their place within the society, but on a bigger scale, I suppose it would be interesting to see how that would be depicted in a bigger and longer play.

The only trivial thing that quite puzzled me is the perceived insistence to use Western names in all play, despite the fact that the plays were all set you in Indonesia, which made me start to wonder if the scripts were all adapted from foreign plays. Then again, thinking of the trend in the country to name kids in western-sounding names–something which has started quite long even before I was born, I suspect–this shouldn’t have bugged me too much. Besides, this is a tiny trivial detail (I could however, overthink and make an over-assumption on how this could be the byproduct of the impact of the global culture in the country).

That aside, I think the play is a genius concept.

 

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Objects of Affection by Krishna Udayasankar

I am the almighty border between that which can be and that which ought not to be, the line parting sacred from profane. I reveal and inspire judgment. I hide and so ignite desire.

If this was a quiz, I would definitely ask: What am I? And the correct answer would be: a skirt. That was also the title of part of the poetry quoted above.

Just like the title of the poetry itself explicitly describes what the story is all about, the book title, Objects of Affection, also tells the readers about what the rest of the book contains. It is a compilation of short stories from the perspective of everyday objects, each voice personified, telling stories of mostly their owners who would use them most often, and sometimes other person or people who got entangled into.

Take, for example, the story Scar, which told a story of a broken-heart and a promise of a new happiness in a relationship, or a premonition in a couple’s relationship as they shopped with their kids in through the perspective of a shopping cart, as well as an affair told from the perspective of an apartment’s key.

My favorites, however, other than Skirt, would be Language and Book. Perhaps it has something to do with me being interested in language in general and my affection for books. But what took me by surprise–because I had not expected to become very fond of this thin book–is the beautifully phrased words, which was arranged and structured to tell each story, and this is, to me is the main attraction of the book itself.

For example, in Camera, the object eloquently describes itself as “borrowed eyes” which sees things beyond what normal eyes could never see–things that are so carefully hidden are laid bare for the camera, although not so much for the camera-holder.

I am borrowed eyes, yet I have eyes of my own. And I will see that which she tries so hard not to reveal […] I will see the emotions of magnified heart and zoom in on the sadness behind her smile. I will take the longing in her eyes and hold it in my keeping, letting only forced laughter through into viewfinder.

And through the narrative of each object, we could deduce what was going on in the lives of the people surrounding the object, including their emotional state or feelings.

It was not all right. Every now and then they met. Every now and then they fought. He’d come home and run the conversation over in his mind, again and again, till he could point to the exact moment when he ought to have shut up and stopped himself from saying those words that would have been nothing but innocent when whispered with a smile in the safety of each other’s arms, in the simple trust that no longer was.

Stories of daily lives would usually be boring, but told by the supposedly inanimate object provide a fresh perspective, especially when it is very elegantly written, making each sentence and in each story feel special, adding weight to every word written; making the implication of the affairs going on in the characters’ lives themselves sound very natural, just like what every excellent story-teller would do.

Overall, I would consider this a light reading, but a very amusing one, and definitely recommended, be it for traveling or simply for passing the time.

Ernest & Celestine

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Enter the world of mice and bears, where there could be no more prejudiced race/clans/animals–however they’re classified as, except for the two main characters: Ernest & Celestine. The rule is simple: Bears live up on the ground, while the mice underground, each race build their cities and feeding their children with stories full of overgeneralization and stereotypes of the other living on the other side of the ground, scaring them so they would always fear one another, if not hate, never allowing them to break the prejudice and live side by side as friends and companions. Again, all of them basically obey this rule, except for the two main characters.

In the beginning of the movie, we are taken to Celestine’s childhood, where apparently she had already been against the current mindset that bears are scary enemies who’d crush and eat mice at the sight of them. She adorably drew a picture of a bear and a mice together, smiling to each other while her friends were busy telling her that such thing is just impossible. Not the mention the adult mice who kept brainwashing them with scary stories of the “Big Bad Bear.”

IMG_0137.JPGNevertheless, Celestine grew up and maintained her fascination toward bears as she roamed the city of bears, to collect the bears cub lost teeth, just like the “little mouse fairy,” to bring those teeth back to her city where apparently these teeth are extremely important for a mouse’s wellbeing, as they lost their inability to talk comprehensibly should they ever lose any of their incisors. Bears’ teeth are a perfect replacement for these missing incisor because they’re apparently very strong. This explains why basically most mice live to collect teeth and later become dentists. This is also expected of Celestine, of course, but, as usual, against all odds, she never wanted to become a dentist because she’s too busy and too fascinated observing bears and drawing them.

IMG_0136.JPGThen she met Ernest, an aspiring musician and entertainer who barely had enough to live by to from becoming a street musician. Contrary to what his real desire, he was also expected to be something else: a judge.

So these two find each other, sharing the same unfortunate fate, fighting against the two societies’ expectations and stereotypes, to show that a bear and a mice truly can be friends with each other.

Ernest & Celestine is adapted from a children book of the same name by Gabrielle Vincent, and later made its way into one of the 2013 Oscar nominations for animation film (not really sure if this is exactly the category). The movie itself is entertaining and (as for me) engaging as we are drawn into the world of Ernest & Celestine, and follow their adventure as they were chased by the police force from both worlds.

At the same time, being a children story, it is also quite reflective, in my opinion, because the stereotypes between the two races also remind me of similar phenomenons that could still (and still does) happen in the current society system with their expectations and overgeneralization. I might be overthinking it, but the story itself is, I think, quite thought-provoking. Of course, this does not make the story itself too heavy and difficult for children to follow, unlike another animation I’ve watched earlier a couple years ago, The Painting (Le Tableau). Another strong point of this movie is also, I think, the animation style, presented like sketches and pastel colors, simple but attractive, which is quite different from most animation movies these days. A unique and interesting find, I must say.

Watch the trailer here.

All That Is Gone (Tjerita Dari Blora) by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

All That Is Gone is another masterpiece by Pramoedya of short stories compiled, said to be adapted from his own childhood. Although I initially thought that this is supposed to be the English translation of its Indonesian title Tjerita Dari Blora (Stories from Blora), later I found out that only seven out of the original stories are included in the book, added with an additional short story originally appeared in another work by Pram, Dawn. As for whether the other three short stories from Tjerita Dari Blora are also translated or what happen to the English translation of those three, I have no clue yet. In the preface by Willem Samuels, it is indeed said that this selection was by the Pram’s personal favorites themselves.

The original story, Jang Telah Hilang is literally translated into All That Is Gone, and become the first story in the book itself. The story itself is full of nostalgic note of the main character’s childhood, and hence the title: All That Is Gone. The story is presented from the point of view of a child, not yet fully comprehending the political tension and situation which was happening at the moment of the story, which, at that time was the Indonesia-to-be, still was the Dutch East Indies under the rule of Dutch colonials. Not only that, it also presents the culture and belief of the Javanese at that time in the perspective of a child still very naive. All these are set in the house of the main character, near the River Lusi which personified in the author’s narrative as the witness of all that has happened—all that is gone. To me, this serves as a perfect beginning of the book, welcoming the readers into the author’s world, and perhaps one of the strongest stories in it. I say one of the strongest, because as expected of Pram, he didn’t stop there to get you book hangover.

Another favourites of mine are two stories titled Acceptance and Revenge. The first one is a story of Sri’s family, who’s been forced to leave Sekolah Rakjat  (the elementary school at that time) at a very early age in order to take care of her younger siblings after their mother passed away, while their father and three other older siblings were too occupied with their own jobs and political involvement, neglecting four children with little to care for their health and securities. This one is probably the longest stories in the book, following the struggles of Sri to provide for her brothers and sisters, and at the same time, trying to make their father and eldest sister who lived closest to them at that time, to understand Sri and the younger children’s situations, but then left herself to become submissive to her elders. Following the political turmoil and ever-changing power on the throne—the Japanese occupation, the independence day, the invasion of the Red Army and the coup afterwards—the kids were neglected further to accept their fate, unable to do much about it, and hence, teaching them very well the meaning of acceptance itself. Probably the most heartbreaking story, it’s easy to believe that Sri’s story depicts the chaos happening back then and the impact it has on the common folks like Sri and her younger siblings. This is exactly like one of the saying we have in Indonesian: “Gajah bertarung lawan gajah, pelanduk mati di tengah-tengah” (Elephants wage war against elephants, deer die in the midst—taken from wikiquote.org).

“Their laughter brought some respite from hunger but also the knowledge that they had learned to resign themselves to the situation, that they had come to accept things as they were. This was no crime, they had decided. Acceptance was a tool for survival, a means to get by.”

The latter one is the most unforgettable story, actually a story taken out of the three original stories from Dawn, also by Pramoedya. The title Revenge depicts the desire of most Indonesians at that time, tired of colonisation and oppression, hence trying to get revenge on just anyone who looked suspicious enough. In this story, the unfortunate revenge was done to a pilgrim accused of being a British spy. Being a soldier himself, the main character described with horror and tremor what his comrades did to get the suspected pilgrim to confess, at the same time, coming to a conclusion that being a soldier was not for him.

“It dawned on me that torture was the only thing these people were capable of doing. It was their second nature, no different from the pickpocket with his innate skill of lifting wallets, the lawyer with his gift of gab, the accountant with his ledger, and the doctor with his cures. And this was the verdict handed down by a court whose members were intoxicated by their own sense of intoxication. It was a court whose members despised the police for never having protected them and who hated informers for revealing to the Japanese their hidden supplies of food. Experience had taught them nothing about the proper role of judges.”

* * *

Only after some time that I got my hands on the original 1952 publication of Tjerita Dari Blora, still written in the old Indonesian spelling, undergoing a change only in the spelling of “oe” into “u.” The rest of the spellings themselves appear the same to me (do correct me if I’m wrong.) This book is supposed to be the original version of All That Is Gone. As I have never checked the newer version of this book (already using the New Order Speling—Ejaan Yang Disempurnakan (EYD), hence the title is written Cerita Dari Blora), I am sorry to admit that I don’t know whether the number of stories included is the same, as well as the stories in it, but this older publication has the original 11 short stories (Jang Sudah Hilang, Jang Menjewakan Diri, Inem, Sunat, Kemudian Lahirlah Dia, Pelarian Jang Tak Ditjari, Hidup Jang Tak Diharapkan, Hadiah Kawin, Anak Haram, Dia Jang Menjerah, & Jang Hitam). Initially unaware that the English version, All That Is Gone, contains of only 7 stories and one additional story not from the Indonesian counterpart, I ended up disappointed not finding the Indonesian version of Revenge. However, I didn’t let myself be disappointed for too long, since I get to read four new stories I haven’t read in the English translations: Jang Menjewakan Diri, Pelarian Jang Tak Ditjari, Hidup Jang Tak Diharapkan, and Anak Haram.

Out of these four, two of them stand out the most to me: Pelarian Jang Tak Ditjari (Unseeked Runaway—rough translation) and Anak Haram (Illegitimate Child—rough translation).

The first one tells a story of Siti, a witless country girl who married Siman who were just as stupid as her. Because of their stupidity, unfortunately, their situation soon changed. Siman was unable to get a lot of money to provide for his family, and when one of their children got sick, Siman was ready to sacrifice his kid due to the lack of money, causing a quarrel between the couple which later led to violence. This soon triggered Siti’s runaway.

Siti was stranded and finally ended up in a warung located between Blora and Djepon. The need for money to provide for herself finally forced her to use her youth and charm to the customers coming to the warung. Although finding it hard in the beginning, she soon got used to it, and the memory she has for her neglected family was slowly fading out.

Meanwhile, Ahjat in the story Anak Haram, suffered from bullying from his friends and teachers in his school, being the child of a father who once turned his back on his own country. A traitor. Therefore, Ahjat seeked for comfort in music. In fact, he doted on music very much, and he played the instruments just as well. Contemplating of his own situation, with only Mini and his music teacher to console him, he went home to seek tranquility in his piano. But that was not enough. Ahjat liked the piano, but not as much as the violin, so he asked his parents for one. Little did he know that the violin and the very sound of the instrument itself was closely intertwined with his father’s dark past, but Ahjat was sensitive enough to understand his father was not fond of his favorite instrument nor did he fulfil Ahjat’s wish to own the instrument. So, trying to be agreeable to his parents, he vowed not to play the violin again, especially in the house, with his father around. And he succeeded. At least until his music teacher finally decided to give him a violin.

* * *

One of the thing I really like about most of Pram’s work is how the theme in each of his story never really shows any allegiance toward a specific side of religion or allegiance. Instead, he tried to show a strong message of humanity, which to me was shown strongly especially in Revenge, but not neglected as well in his other stories. What he shows is not which ideology is right or wrong, but what happen to those who got tangled in the middle of the clash of ideologies, the helpless folk who are only able to be swept aside back and forth, and many times, suffer and died out in the midst of it. It shows the multiple face of those people holding on to certain beliefs—how they seemed to appear to one side, but so differently towards the other side as well. This was shown in the story Acceptance, where the family was entangled between Nationalism, Communism, and the remnants of the colonialism who still tried to fight back. We also see a different side of this through Ahjat’s father who happened to be someone who decided to put his allegiance on the “wrong” side for the means of survival, and later suffered and punished because of this misdeeds. Unfortunately, the punishment also extends to his offspring. And in Revenge, Pram couldn’t be clearer when showing the sad human nature which could come to the surface when the soul is fed with hatred and disappointment for too long, which indeed, still happen as long as the human race exist. The 1740 pogrom, the 1945 “Bersiap” and the 1965 coup have proven this to be true. In the end, there are always at least two sides of a coin instead of just one. But many times, only one side appears, that is, the side of the winner, and this is not always the right one.

“There is nothing more disastrous in life than a stupid judge. The same kind of stupidity that was evident here had also killed Socrates, Giordano, Bruno, Galileo, and Jesus.” —from Revenge, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

Please keep in mind that the thoughts and opinions written here are my own interpretation, which might differ from others.

Letters of A Javanese Princess by Raden Adjeng Kartini & Agnes Louise Symmers

Raden Adjeng Kartini, or more known now simply as Kartini, is one of Indonesia’s most acclaimed heroines prior to the country’s independence day. Every year on 21 April, local schools usually commemorate the image of Kartini by having female students to dress up in batik kebaya and sometimes having traditional competition in schools. Back then, I learned about Kartini simply as a heroine who was among the first to fight for women’s right, especially for education, because my history books and my teachers said so. I did remembered one of my history teachers said that it was thanks to Kartini that we girls are now able to pursue education up to that level. However, outside Indonesia, she was famously known by those familiar with Indonesian history or the Dutch East Indies back then, even during her time, through the letters she wrote to many of her friends, where she really dedicated her time to write down her thoughts on various things related to her motherland and, of course, on the native women.

She was born on 21 April 1879 as the fifth child and second eldest daughter in an aristocratic Javanese family. Her father was a regent of Jepara, a government official, and from the letters, we could deduced that even back then, Kartini’s family was a bit different than most families in Java back then, because dating from her grandparents’ time, each children in the family, especially the boys, were all sent to schools and encouraged to read a lot, and hence, to study and to learn. Yet, even then, when they reached a certain age, the girls would then be called back home to continue their education to be a good, dutiful housewives until they were taken to their future husbands’ home. (Read more of the biography in the Wikipedia.)

I never really thought about the significance of Kartini’s letter or her contribution to her country until I read Letters of a Javanese Princess.

The book is a compilation of her letters written to many of her European friends during her lifetime, and published about 15 years after her death in 1904. The Dutch title is Door Duisternis tot Licht and translated into Indonesian as Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang.

I just finished reading the whole book the day before yesterday, and it gave me a book hangover.

I read her first letter in the book and fell in love with the book right away. Throughout the book, I could see and feel her passion and energy toward learning. She wanted so much to continue studying in schools, and later, to pursued her passion further in the Netherlands—but alas, it was very uncommon back then for women to continue studying in schools after the age of 12 because by that time, they needed to start focusing on preparing themselves to be a good wife-to be and daughter-in-law-to be. But she tried to fight this tradition, and eventually, her father allowed her to go out occasionally during special events. It looked as though, despite Kartini’s protest on her seclusion, she was actually among the few lucky ones who were allowed to do so, and were even still allowed to continue studying by herself at home. It was quite obvious from the letters how much love the father and the daughter shared for each other, up to the point where Kartini was ready to give up her dreams if it meant sacrificing her father’s happiness. But she managed to learn many things through reading during her seclusion anyway. I took down as many titles I could find in the letters and googled the free e-book versions later. At a very young age, she already read a lot of books about her country and she was probably one of the most modern, open-minded women at that time. I got so excited upon reading her letters and her thoughts, and wondering what she would say if she could see the present-day Indonesia. I think that even in the present, if Kartini was still alive, she would still be considered very modern (especially looking at how, as time goes forward, this country seemed to go backward, becoming more medieval instead), and even put together with a lot of leading minds and women leader in the country, perhaps not even they could produce the same thought and ideas. I felt so in awe with Kartini after reading this book.

She hated the tradition and the culture that seemed to determine the fate of many Javanese women without considering their thought on marriage, as well as because the two also hindered her path to pursue education further. She said:

I would still go further, always further. I do not desire to go out to feasts, and little frivolous amusements. That has never been the cause of my longing for freedom. I long to be free, to be able to stand alone, to study, not to be subject to any one, and, above all, never, never to be obliged to marry.

I didn’t think, however, that she, in particular, was against marriage completely. I thought she was more against the tradition of having marriage as the only highest and noblest goal women back then could have, especially when the men they were marrying were the ones simply decided by the family, without having to have the women’s consent or even presence during the betrothal arrangement.

And about her seclusion, she shared her feelings through this:

Gone, gone was her merry childhood; gone everything that made her young life happy. She still felt herself such a child, and she was that in fact too, but the law placed her inexorably among the full grown. And she to whom no ditch was too broad to be leapt, no tree too high to be climbed, who loved nothing so much as to run like a wild cold in the meadows, must now be calm, composed and grace, as beseemed a Javanese young lady of a high and noble house.

As much as she longed to continue staying in school and learn, she did not keep this dream only for herself. She also longed to have other women to long for the same thing, instead of being like another obedient little daughter, like a “wooden doll”, only doing what is told and expected of them. She wanted others to have the same chance, just like the boys, and she was more than ready to help her fellow countrywomen to learn. She inspired her younger sisters, Kleintje and Roekmini to do the same, and together, they wished so much to open a school for girls, and were even ready to “work for it in some other way, ask our friends to subscribe, start a lottery or something,” should the government against their plan.

I know that the way I wish to go is difficult, full of thorns, thistles, pitfalls; it is stormy, rough, slippery and it is—free! And even though I shall not be happy after I have reached my goal, though I may give way before it is half reached, I shall die gladly, for the path will then have been broken, and I shall have helped to clear the way which leads to freedom and independence for the native women.

And just as much as she hated the way old traditions treated native women, she felt the same toward religion, although in the end she managed to regain her faith upon finally realising that it was not the belief or the religion itself that kept disappointing her, but its massive followers. Yet she kept calling out for peace and scorned the misdeeds done in the name of religion.

O God! Sometimes I wish that there had never been a religion because that which should unite mankind into one common brotherhood has been through all the ages a cause of strife, of discord, and of bloodshed. Members of the same family have persecuted one another because of the different manner in which they worshipped one and the same God. Those who ought to have been bound together by the tenderest love have turned with hatred from one another. Differences of Church, albeit in each the same word, God, is spoken, have built a dividing wall between two throbbing hearts. I often ask myself uneasily: is religion indeed a blessing to mankind? Religion, which is meant to save us from our sins, how many sins are committed in thy name?

We think that love is the highest religion, and must one be a Christian in order to love according to that Heavenly command? For the Buddhist, the Brahmin, the Jew, the Mohammedan and even the Heathen can lead lives of pure love.

However, the chains of old traditions which shackled her didn’t, surprisingly, lessened her love and passion for her land’s cultural art and customs. She loved the music—the sound of gamelan in particular, the paintings and literature made by the natives, from the most educated minds to the ones less educated, and she thought highly of her native Javanese language.

Have you any desire to learn the Javanese language? It is difficult—certainly, but it is beautiful. It is sentient language; often the words seem to be conscious, they express so much. We are astonished sometimes, own children we are of the country, at the cleverness of our fellow countrymen. Things of which one could never imagine anything could be made, they express charmingly. Name something in the dark, give out a subject at random, and a simple Javanese will immediately make a rhyme that astonishes by its aptness and clearness. This facility belongs peculiarly to our Eastern people.

I remembered back in elementary school where my English teacher was teaching us new vocabularies of animals and that not all little, younger animals who haven’t matured yet can be called differently, just like “dog” and “puppy,” and then compared it with the Indonesian language and Javanese. He eventually admitted proudly how rich the Javanese vocabularies are.

Did a dreamy song never reach you then? the song of a Javanese, who sings to his family and to his neighbours—of love—of heroic deeds, and glittering pageantry—of beauty and of wisdom; of mighty men and women, princess and princesses of the long ago. It is that loveliest hour when the Javanese, tired from the hard day’s work, seek rest in song, dreaming all his cares away, wholly lost in the singing far away past, whither his song leads him.

I wonder where have all these old customs gone. An article which is related to the 1965 tragedy brought my attention a couple days ago (click here to read it in Indonesian). In it, the author talked about how imaginative and culturally rich Indonesian people back then prior to the mass killings—especially those from lower-income class like farmers. It was a custom for farmers to actually dance and sing to celebrate the harvest, yet now… there’s the harvest, and that’s it. How I long to be able to see such thing. (Sigh.)

Another thing that caught and crossed my mind when I was reading this book was, other than the letters which made me in love with the book right away, is the language style used in the letters itself. I suppose I can’t help noticing, even though it’s the English translation, how strong the emotions shown with each words, especially when it comes to expressing love to the recipients of the letters whenever Kartini wrote about how much she loved him or her, and how she longed to be with them, to kiss their cheeks, and care for them. I know that it’s a translation, and I wish so bad that I could read her letters in the language in which the letters were written, except that I do not know any word of Dutch—even though some Indonesian words are adapted from Dutch, yes—so I could only imagine how it was written and expressed in its original language; I could probably look for the Indonesian translation, but it would still be a translation. However, what crossed my mind whenever I read such emotions strongly expressed in the sentences is the question whether back then every one actually expressed things similarly. And one thought lead to another, so I wondered again, since I do not know many people who do the same thing in the present days, whether the communication between one another now is becoming less intense and personal because we now have sophisticated technology to back us up such as Instant Messaging, SMS, emails, telephones and video callings. If I were born in that much older eras, would I write in a similar way?

But now I’m starting to ramble again. I would definitely recommend this books to my feminist friends, as well as my male friends—well everyone who might be interested in reading more about the past Dutch East Indies from the perspective of Kartini, if not about Kartini’s life itself. She was definitely an exceptional figure, and I wish I could have a time machine to transport me back to that time so I could have a chat with her. (Stop being delusional, Dian!) Back then, I simply considered this as something of the past—a part of the past that has shaped the present days, but still a part of a distant past, and not significant enough for today. But I suppose this book has helped me to appreciate Kartini’s effort more.

Tempo Doeloe by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

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Another masterpiece by Pramoedya, I have to admit this book has taken me by surprise. The title said it from the beginning: “Tempo Doeloe: Antologi Sastra Pra-Indonesia,” and once I accidentally opened the book halfway before I started to read it, I was mixed with both surprise and thrill to find out that the book is written with the old Indonesian spelling.

The book, compiled by one of Indonesia’s most prominent writer, contains 8 short stories written not by Pram himself, but instead by various different writers in during the late 19th to early 20th century. This was when Indonesia was known as the Dutch East Indies back then. Even though he did discussed a number of literary works written in that era, Pram said that he decided to collect and select only the ones with similar theme that could chronologically sum up the progress of the politics-social-economic situations of the citizens, especially the ones that keeps getting worse towards the natives, starting from the 17th century up to the 19th century. Pram also decided not to change the language style and spelling of the original versions, although I kind of wonder whether he at least simplified it–and this is what I had previously stated as the one that had taken me by surprise earlier. Only recently finishing another book by Pramoedya, Sang Pemula, I decided to move on to this book just because Pram kept referring to this book in his biography of R. M. Tirto Adhi Soerjo. As soon as I found out that the stories are written in Bahasa Melayu Pasar (Malay), I recalled my experience of struggling with the language style used in Sang Pemula, which mostly consisted of articles written by Tirto Adhi Soerjo in Malay language used during his time. Therefore, it’s no wonder that I only expected to meet the same struggle. Turned out I was wrong, and this was what had really strike me.

Despite the old spelling and the old style, as well as the use of words that has now either unused or change in meaning, I found it much easier actually to understand the meaning. Even much easier than when reading Sang Pemula. Pram did provided footnotes for each stories with explanations of those long-forgotten words, but many times I found it unnecessary because I already deduced the meaning, and when I decided to double check, I only found confirmation of what I had guessed before.

Now, the 8 short stories in the book are: Dari Boedak Sampe Djadi Radja (A Slave Who Becomes A King) by F. Wiggers–which tells a story of Surapati, Pieter Elberveld by Tio Ie Soei, Tjerita Rossina (A Story About Rossina) & Tjerita Si Tjonat (A Story About Tjonat), both by F. D. J. Pangemanann, Tjerita Njai Dasima (A Story About Njai Dasima) by G. Francis, and the last two are Tjerita Kong Hong Nio (A Story About Kong Hong Nio) & Tjerita Nji Paina (A Story About Nji Paina) written by H. Kommer.

Looking into an insight of the Dutch East Indies, we could find out more about the condition and situation of the era from multiple perspective (the Natives’, the Chinese’s, and the Indo’s). My personal favorites are Tjerita si Tjonat and Tjerita Kong Hong Nio.

I did learned that the Dutch used to enforce a racial politics where people were supposed to dressed up based on their race, and they would need formal letter of permission to allow themselves wearing outfits belonging to other racial groups. Or that the term “Islam” or “Slam” was used to address the Natives, regardless of their actual religion.

Of course, as a language geek, the language style and the old spelling are amongst those that really intrigued me. Even simple stuff such as “kabaja” that apparently means pajamas, or the term “peloek dada” (literally “hugging one’s own breast”) means folding your arms, and “menjaru” means to disguise yourself, even those really captivates me.

What’s even more interesting is the thought-provoking comments on the back of the book that the enforced New Spelling created by Soeharto’s regime during the New Order is merely politics in disguise, yet it had unfairly treated literary works belonged to the previous Order as old and outdated.

Overall, again, I would highly recommend this book to you who are interested in Indonesian history, or you who are just a language geek like me (I’m still checking my geekiness level… Hold on), or perhaps are interested to the history of Indonesian language. I think at this point we can safely assume that I already fell in love with this book.

Sang Pemula by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

So, after months of procrastinating, as well as distraction from my guilty pleasure of Amanda Scott’s Scottish historical romance, I finally finished my reading on Sang Pemula, another masterpiece by Pramoedya. Literally means “The Pioneer,” Sang Pemula is a non-fiction works containing a biography of Raden Mas Tirto Adhi Soerjo, the father of Indonesian press, and dubbed, if not by Pramoedya alone, as the one who sow the seed of Indonesian national movement in the early 20th century.

If you’ve read, or familiar already with Pram’s famous masterpiece the Buru Quartet, it might delight you to know that this is book is the very biography of the person who became the inspiration of Pram’s main character, Minke, in his famous quartet. I sure got very excited when I found this book in my aunt’s bookshelf. I never thought this book even existed!

Due to the lack of available, preserved articles and sources, most are far from intact and in good condition, Pramoedya could only seemed to gather so much.

The R. M. Tirto Adhi Soerjo (or also famous as T. A. S.) really existed in the late 19th century of Indonesia. Born in 1880, he was of a Javanese noble family who went so far to a medical school only to drop out later. Already writing series of articles from the early age, he started out as a journalist and later published and circulated his own newspaper. His articles were known to consist of harsh critics and very bold, creating a lot of enemies, especially from the government he definitely opposed. His newspapers were the first to use Malay, and amongst these were Soenda Berita (1903-1905), Medan Prijaji (1907), and Poetri Hindia (1908). Too modern for his time, he stuck me as not only open minded and critical, he was as well a humanitarian and feminist. However, just as depicted in the last part of Pram’s Buru Quartet, Rumah Kaca (House of Glass), those opposing him were determined to shut him up and erased his name of the history. In some ways, this might be true. Not as many people know him as they do Ki Hajar Dewantara despite his just-as-important contribution. And even though the Indonesian government finally acknowledged him and his effortless works, even named him the father of Indonesian modern press, Pram clearly thought that he hadn’t got the recognition and reward he’d deserved.

The book includes several news articles and opinion written by T. A. S. himself, as well as two short stories (one with missing parts) and one incomplete serial–all fiction works. Those works, along with his biography provides us many insights of the life of people, especially the oppressed natives, at that time.

What really interests me, as well as amazes me is the language used in the book, varying from the older style dating back from the late 19th century up to the ones from not so long ago during Pram’s era. I can’t believe how fast the language is evolving that even though Pram’s tried to simplify some of the words and sentences, it struck me that I still find the language used by Pram (which means that it’s also the Indonesian language used during the time Pram compiled the book) very different from the ones I’m seeing and using right now, and it’s only with difficulty that I finally grasp partly, if not fully, what each of the sentences mean.

All in all, I’d highly recommend this book to those who are a fan of Pram’s works, as well as those interested in Indonesian linguistics and history. But this book is a very serious reading that I actually feel like procrastinating once in a while whenever I’m in need of a lighter reading.