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.

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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.

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.

Lobakan: Antologi Cerita Pendek (Kesenyapan Gemuruh Bali ’65)

I have no idea what ‘Lobakan’ means. I’ve checked both Google and Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian Dictionary) and found nothing about the word, but the words after the colon mean: “A compilation of short stories (The silenced thunderstorm of Bali in ’65).” The number 65 at the end of the title there refers to the year of 1965.

That is the title of the book that I just read.

*edited March 20, 2012 – Just found out from my grandpa that Lobakan is actually a Balinese term for lamp–the old, ancient, petromax lantern. (Doh, I’m such a fake Balinese!)

So, back in December, my grandpa gave me this book Lobakan after I shared with him my interest and findings on one of the darkest history of Indonesia about the PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia/The Communist Party of Indonesia). After getting enough courage to finally asked him about the incident, my grandpa decided to give me this book ‘if I’m interested.’ (He’s gotta be joking. Of course I’m interested!)

Just in case you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a bit of background information based on my findings:

Soekarno, the first president of Indonesia, once proposed a political concept called as ‘Nasakom,’ which literally is an abbreviation of three words: ‘Nasionalisme’ (nationalism), ‘Agama’ (religion), and ‘Komunisme’ (Communism). This is the notion invented by Soekarno as a part of his vision to unite three big political parties existed in Indonesia at that time–PNI (Partai Nasional Indonesia/Indonesian National Party), Islamic parties which were divided into two parties at that time: Masyumi (Partai Majelis Syuro Muslimin Indonesia/Council of Indonesian Muslim Associations) and NU (Nahdlatul Ulama–a traditionalist Sunni Islam group), and PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia/The Communist Party of Indonesia)–in order to create harmonies between the three, and hence: peace amongst society.

By 1965, the member of the communist party had rapidly increased to 3 million people, and this worried the other 2 parties. Negative sentiments against Soekarno also grew as he supported and protected PKI, along with his ideology as it’s similar with his own.

Long story made short, the tension finally broke by September 30, 1965 as a movement called the 30 September Movement kidnapped several Indonesian war heroes in the army and killed them. Hence, General Soeharto (later the 2nd president of Indonesia) took control and provoked massacre of those known or suspected as “communist allies.” As the army publicly announced that the communists had killed Indonesian respected war heroes to encourage and approve the killings (of the PKI partisans), the Islamic forces did the same thing as they labeled those “communists” as atheists–a word that does not make any sense to most Indonesians, even until now, as Indonesia is not an “atheist country.”

Today it is speculated that the movement was actually a coup d’etat provoked by Soeharto and his army friends, backed by the CIA as they were afraid that Indonesia would become a strong ally to the communist (remember the Cold War?) and the PKI and its “allies” were merely victims of false accusations.

Of course, I might get this wrong, so feel free to correct me.

Here are the links to the sources (most of them, of course, will be Wikipedia):

*

Okay, enough about history. As my old man put it, “History is about perspective. The more you read, the more you find out.” Well said, grandpa!

Now, aside from the fact of who actually did what, or who was the bad guy, or even who was right or wrong, the thing is that the massacre killed a lot of innocent people. The army encouraged citizens to kill their neighbors, friends, and even family members without trial. And those were the people who might not even know what on earth PKI actually was. Most of them were actually those who merely hired to entertain the actual PKI members in one of their events/propagandas, or hired as a guard during a PKI meeting, and these people are poor peasants who, even if they actually owned the land or the field they were working on, they were really poor that eating rice was considered a luxury for them. Worse, they could even be poor farmers who didn’t even own a land, and merely working on a landowner’s land and gained almost nothing as a result of their hard work. Uneducated people, already suffered, and then suddenly stabbed or even tortured for reasons unknown to them.

Meanwhile, the religious parties (those who does not want to be associated with atheists) also made propaganda as they identify all communist partisans as atheists. They used folklore, myth, legend, belief, and they toyed with people’s faith to encourage the killings. They believed (and I am not referring to a specific kind of religion here because this includes all kinds of religion existed in Indonesia at that time) that killing communists was a religious duty. I am not a big fan of religion so of course I mock this idea. Were I lived during that time, I would definitely be assassinated.

Many believe that at least half a million people died during that time. In one article I read, people were getting used to seeing tons of dead bodies in the river, floating from one village to another village, spreading awful smells of rotten corpses. “No one wanted to risk coming out of the house,” said my grandpa. If I had not mistaken, the biggest killing happened in either East Java and Central Java or Bali, where they said that it was one step closer to become an anarchy.

These are the stories I read in Lobakan. All of them are, of course, fictionalized, because, as I read in the foreword, most of the victims interviewed (or talked to) tried so hard to erase those tragic events from their memories that most of them tried to deflect or even talked about something irrelevant instead of retelling the truth. In the end, no one actually ever find out what actually happened, and I doubt anyone will ever do.

One of my favorite stories is titled Monolog (Monologue), by Putu Fajar Arcana. It contains a speech of one of the victim of the massacre, who told his story of how he got involved with the PKI (although it is not explicitly stated whether he realized and fully acknowledged PKI at all) and later caught and killed. He said he came from a very poor family, whose field were taken by landowners and later were forced into a huge amount of debt by those landowners where in the end they had to work on the land they were supposed to own. The PKI held meetings talking about possibilities to get their land back, and as a poor peasant, how could they say no? The idea alone already seemed like ‘water from the moon’ (meaning impossible) to them. Later, of course, it costed him his life.

Another favorites are Warisan (Legacy) by Putu Satria Kusuma and Menanti Tantri (Waiting for Tantri) by Soeprijadi Tomodiharjo. The first one tells a story about Wayan Guru who was suspected as a PKI partisan and were hiding at his parents’ house while many people were waiting in front of the house, ready to ambush and slay him. His parents told the masses that Wayan Guru was away in Java, yet they waited. At the same time, Wayan Guru begged to see his son, Kadek, who stayed with his wife in his house near his parents’. He was determined to see Kadek, even if it would cost him his life, but his parents asked him to think it through, because death means missing his son’s 3 months ceremony, as well as watching him growing up.

The latter, Menanti Tantri tells a story about Made Arka Wiratma, an activist in fighting against illiteracy, who got a visit from a respectable figure: The governor of Bali, when he was lying sick on a hospital bed, suffering from malaria. His wife who accompanied him at that time was pregnant with his son. The governor suggested to name the unborn child Rai, taken from Balinese war hero: I Gusti Ngurah Rai. To them the visit was such a great honor. Little did they know that the governor was a leftist, and hence, a PKI partisan, as well as what the visit would cost them later.

What’s ironic is how I Gusti Agung Ayu Ratih put it in the foreword about how the government seemed so easily dismissed the tragedy and instead polished the so-called “The island of the gods” with monuments, malls, hotels and clubs to attract investors and tourists from around the world by making the native of this “island of gods” to work (I actually intent to use the work “slavery”) for these visitors who’d see Bali as, indeed, their “heaven on earth.” Try ask the people whether they think it’s a heaven on earth to them.

*

What? You didn’t expect me to write the complete stories as well as all of the short stories included, right? That wouldn’t be fair to the writers (says the person whose life is devoted to download free stuffs). >:D

I owe my grandpa for willing to give and share this with me, and I love the inscription he wrote on the first page of the book (I always love inscriptions on the first page of my book!) for me:

Of Bees And Mist by Erick Setiawan

When I first saw this book, I was curious. Partially because Erick Setiawan is, of course, Indonesian. Another thing is because he wrote this book in English instead of in Indonesian. Not to mention the positive reviews it gets and that it’s his first novel.

I mean, really? What’s the appeal?

So, of course, I hunted the English version.

Not that I don’t respect the translator or my own native language, really, but I just thought that a book is best read in its native language. Meaning the language in which it’s originally written. And since the book is written in English, so I tried to restrain myself not to buy the Indonesian translation. (I’m curious, though, so I might gonna read the Indonesian translation as well soon.)

Of Bees and Mist is basically a more modern, and more complicated version of Romeo and Juliet. That’s one way to see it.

Under the title on the front cover, it is written: “Three strong women. Two feuding families. One singular story of enchantment.”

The three strong women are obviously a referent to the main character–Meridia, her mother-in-law–Eva, and her mother–Ravenna. Although other than those three women, there are other women as well, who are just as tough, like Meridia’s sisters-in-law, Malin and Permony.

Meridia is the only child of Ravenna and Gabriel, who used to be so much in love with each other until “a cold wind” blew into the house and never left ever since. Hence, Meridia’s father, Gabriel, started looking someplace else to find warmth that he could not find in Ravenna anymore. Every evening when Gabriel left the house, a yellow mist would appear, followed by a blue mist in the dawn when Gabriel returned to the house.

For several times in the week, a yellow-eyed ghost would also come at night to haunt the house. Later it would be revealed that the ghost is a manifestation of Ravenna’s anger and frustration toward Gabriel’s affair.

In the novel, it is revealed that Meridia didn’t really have quite a happy childhood. Ever since the cold invaded the house, Ravenna always took refuge in the shelter called ‘forgetfulness’ where she would seem to care for nothing in the world but her cooking. She spent major times in the kitchen, cooking for too many food in which would later be delivered and shared to the neighbor. One thing she never shared, though, is the breakfast  she made for Gabriel because they had this unspoken pact where she and Gabriel would not communicate at all anytime (ever since the cold, yes) but he would always return from his affair on time to eat Ravenna’s breakfast.

To add Meridia’s misery during childhood, Gabriel always showed this hostile attitude toward his own child, letting her into thinking that her father never loved her, and even hated her.

The first time Meridia felt actually happy was when she met her BFF-to be, Hannah. However, throughout the novel, Hannah seemed to be described as imaginary since Meridia (and later her son) seemed to be the only one who could see her. But Hannah didn’t always stay. So Meridia was miserable again. At least until she finally met her husband-to be, Daniel. I chuckled the first time I read the description of Daniel, though:

‎”Eighteen and handsome, he was carefree by nature, and rarely distressed, considered himself immune to temper. He was loyal and generous. He saw no faults in those he loved, and despite his share of skepticisms, believed the world a just and harmonious place.”

Oh yes, he was charming.

Despite Gabriel’s protest, Meridia married Daniel nonetheless, with Ravenna’s help. This was probably the first time ever Meridia felt her mother’s affection.

Escaping to her in-laws house, Meridia soon discovered that she simply moved from a haunted grim house to another one full of anger and bees. Her mother-in-law’s bees, to be exact, for she soon found out (with the help of her sister-in-law Malin) that her mother-in-law was nothing but a backstabber who loved to conspire and deceive others.

The main conflicts throughout the book is basically the dispute between Meridia and Eva, where sometimes got Daniel torn between two side, especially since he was raised and taught into thinking that he’s supposed to be totally obedient to his mother. Hence, it was not until at least the second half of the book that Daniel started to question her mother’s integrity.

The side story includes the life of Daniel’s sisters, Malin and Permony, as well as the love story of Meridia’s parents–what’s behind the cold wind, and how they ended up toward the end of the book.

A review I once read put it that “Setiawan has a supreme grasp of dramatic tension: how to manipulate the reader’s sensibilities and ultimately shift their beliefs and sympathies from where they lay initially.”

Oh yes. That’s true.

I mean, the only constant emotion I have for a character is probably hatred toward Eva, but even that changes.

The story definitely got plenty of dramas here and there, which made me think whether I was actually reading a written version of Indonesian Sinetron.

FYI, Indonesian Sinetron is a TV series, mostly talks about teenage love and life, and it always got plenty of conspiracies with never ending, if not immortal, antagonist. Not to mention the dramatic effect when the protagonist cried or when two enemies met each other face to face where they would stare at each other for what seems like forever, added with this overdramatic zooming on each character’s face over and over along with this never ending drum as the sound background. Oh yes, that happened, my friend, for like at least 1 minute before they finally take an action and start stabbing each other.

I mean, really? So many dramas here and there–really, Americans? You actually love overdramatic dramas?

But I kept reading, of course.

Now, as Erick Setiawan was born in a Chinese Indonesian family–and as I was raised partially in a Javanese family and partially in a Chinese Indonesian family as well–I think it was pretty obvious what Daniel’s family actually portrayed. Of course, this could also be a stereotype, if not racism, as well as the fact that fiction is always a fiction, never a fact.

One thing is the portray of extended families in Meridia’s family as well as Daniel’s, where the bride would later move to her in-laws family, or vice versa, where they would live together with the whole family, although the story didn’t really include grandparents or great-grandparents. But in most American novels or English novels I read, most characters would rarely stay together with their parents unless their jobless (sorry, that’s the impression I got). Of course this might not be true, but still, most characters would find a place of their own–and apartment, a flat, or just a small nice and comfy bungalow.

Another thing is the portray of a Chinese Indonesian, if not Chinese, family, where each of the family members, especially the eldest son, would always be expected to help and maintain family’s business–in this case, a jewelry business (a typical Chinese Indonesian family business as well). As soon as Meridia moved to her in-laws’ house, she was expected to do the house chores, and definitely, served her husband (definitely no liberte, egalite and fraternite in the house).

The most common stereotype is, definitely, the intrigues inside the family as well, and in most Chinese (Indonesian) family, where money matters the most, which lead to deception to get most profits and money and to be as greedy as possible. Eva definitely got this very trait where she would always ask for her shares even from her son’s shop and would criticize and mocked Meridia for trying to get and eat the healthiest food for the baby in her womb, in which Eva would later referred as “a waste of a lot of money.” Not to mention she’d previously stole Meridia’s wedding gift and told her that she gave them all to charity, hence, left Meridia with very little things. Of course Meridia later found out that those luxurious wedding gifts were never given to any charity, which lead to a conclusion that Eva had been keeping it for herself. Yet she barely spent it, for God’s sakes!

Can you imagine how much drama it would be only with such a horrible mother-in-law?

Of course, to make it clear again, those could only be a stereotype or even racism toward Chinese Indonesian, but believe it or not, that actually happened. Those stuffs written in the book–what Eva always did to irritate and control her family with the bees–sound so horrible and you’d probably think, “Really? How could there ever be someone so evil?”

Oh, believe me, there are.

And those stuffs really happen, I assure you.

But I suppose that’s a part of the charm of the book for that definitely contribute a lot the intenseness of the emotion throughout the book. I guess it got a bit boring halfway, when Meridia and Daniel finally settled down in their own place, away from Eva’s interference and everything seemed so peaceful and quiet, and it went on for quite some time that you’d sometimes read and read and wondering whether there wouldn’t really anything significant anymore afterwards.

But by the end of the book, I got definitely fascinated and charmed by the story, and I decided that if this book is really a written version of a Sinetron, this must be a very fine one. And definitely not any Indonesian Sinetron industry should ever got their hands on the book for they would definitely exaggerate so many stuffs every two seconds.

True, hereby I would like to declare that I definitely am not a big fan of Sinetron.

Of course, related to what Lamott said about how writing tends to make you become a better reader, I tried to savor every details of description Setiawan used to describe his imaginary world of the book, and to me, those feel really vivid. The symbolism of the bees and mist definitely add the mystique sense of the story, yet those aren’t supposed to be really hard to be understood by the readers.

I love how Setiawan seemed to take his reader to this imaginary world of his where illogical things happen to each of the character, which make it even more extraordinary and wondrous, yet at the same time, the emotions feel so real and lively.

To me this is definitely worth-reading, although you might need to hang on and try to bear with the dramas presented if you’re not really a big fan of dramas, but I would totally recommend this book to anyone who’s interested.