Last week, I had lunch with my friend Laksmi in Covent Garden. She was on her way from Jakarta to Paris; I was just about to take a train to Lancaster where I was to read that evening. Laksmi, who has written both poetry and prose in English, decided a little over a year ago to write an epic novel in her native language. It took her only four months. The book is a reworking of the story of Bhishma and Amba from the Mahabharata, set in the tumultuous period of 1965 which saw the fall of Soekarno and the rise of Suharto’s new regime in Indonesia. It was an immediate success both critically and commercially. She’s just about to publish the English version, and was carrying a proof.

We discussed other Indonesian books. She’d been compared to the great Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who’d been imprisoned during those years on the island of Buru; he remained persona non grata for years after his release, his books unavailable in his own country. Laksmi portrays a period that Pramoedya, though he lived and suffered through it, was unable to deal with in his fiction. Inevitably, her book has been compared to his work and praised as the best novel to deal with the period, which Laksmi researched assiduously as she wasn’t even born at the time.

We talked about language, and how Indonesian literature just doesn’t figure on the world map because of the issue of translation. (Had Pramoedya ever been considered for the Nobel in his lifetime?) I told her I’d been reading a new series of translations issued by Lontar in Jakarta. Several classics I’ve wanted to have in my library — Rukiah’s stunning feminist novella about the struggle for independence, The Fall and the Heart, and Umar Kayam’s Fireflies in Manhattan — have been issued in handsome editions, along with much newer work, and though you’d find it difficult to see them in a bookshop here, many of them are on Kindle or available in just a few days from Amazon. That certainly wasn’t the case in 1989, when I started to read Indonesian fiction and poetry.

I knew very little about Indonesia before I came upon its literature. One of the first novels I remember buying was by Pramoedya, Child of All Nations. The blurb on the cover compared it, quite inaccurately, to Midnight’s Children. The vivid immediacy of this exquisite chronicle of a young man’s life against the backdrop of Dutch colonial rule in Java made me look for everything I could find by Pramoedya. The novel I’ve mentioned was the second volume of a massive sequence, which was being translated at the time. I waited for each new installment of the saga of Minke and I also read Pramoedya’s short stories, a couple of early novels, and was soon immersed not only in his work but in the stories and poems of several Indonesians — Chairil Anwar, Subagio Sastrowardoyo, Danaro, Rendra, and, in particular Umar Kayam. Two of Kayam’s stories — actually novellas — Sri Sumarah and Bawuk, set in Java during the turbulence of 1965, remain among the best I have ever read, not because of their depiction of the body politic but for their subtle, vivid evocation of simple lives, family dramas and survival in a time of siege.

But to return to the autumn of 1989, I was, at the time, researching a paper on Asian writing in English that I was meant to deliver in Hong Kong in the spring of 1990. The subject had been allocated to me by my friend Han Suyin, the Chinese writer, who was presiding over the conference of that name to which I had been invited. I did most of my research at SOAS, but whenever I could I’d escape to the shelves of South East Asian literature in translation, though it really wasn’t my remit; my favourite section was Indonesia.

In the summer of ’90, back from Hong Kong and still reading Indonesian literature, I was told that some Indonesian poets would be reading at SOAS and at the South Bank Centre. Bazaar, a now-defunct journal to which I regularly contributed reviews and fiction, asked me if I’d like to cover the event, which was accompanied by the release of an anthology of poems, Walking Westward in the Morning.

At one of the launch parties I met the poet-philosopher Toeti Heraty, who lived in Jakarta. It was to be the start of a long friendship. During one of the many conversations we had that week, she told me she’d invite me to Indonesia. That promised invitation, along with a ticket, arrived, but a clash of dates made me cancel the trip a week before I was due to leave.

But two years later I did reach Indonesia. I arrived in Bali and the most opulent landscape I’d ever seen: blue skies, green fields, red flowers and a sea that changed colour as you looked. I must have spent a week there before I went to Yogyakarta with a group of friends.

As soon as I entered the unpretentious hotel on Jalan Malioboro I heard singing. I followed the sound of music and came upon a group of adolescents, accompanied by the silvery sounds of the gamelan orchestra, singing in voices that were at once piercing and serene. From that moment I felt I was in a place I knew. I’d left Karachi, my hometown, at the age of 13, never really missed it, and ever since I’d approached all the cities I’d visited with a sense of adventure and discovery but never felt I belonged anywhere.

Now Yogyakarta seemed to claim me. I’d picked up a little Indonesian which meant I could understand simple exchanges and even timidly say a few phrases. I’d enter one of its beautiful palaces or mosques and I’d be welcomed because of my appearance while my European friends, if they’d been on their own, might be told it was the wrong time for a visit. I’d never known what it was like to belong to a place before because of my name or my religious heritage.

Yet Indonesia didn’t seem remotely fundamentalist. I was in Yogyakarta during the time of the celebration of the Prophet’s (PBUH) birthday which included shadow-puppet performances of the Mahabharata in which the hero Yudhistira leads his brothers in a recitation of the kalma at the gates of paradise. They are accepted in the afterlife as good Muslims, thus absorbing ancient Hindu legends into the syncretic Javanese system of belief which includes traditions from three important Asian religions. (Near Yogyakarta are the monuments of Borobudur and Prambanan, respectively Buddhist and Hindu; you can recognise the iconography of Indonesia in their ancient stone carvings.)

Much of what I recognised about Indonesia — or, I should say, Java — probably came from what I’d read. The first time we went out to eat I asked for chicken with jackfruit, which I’d read about in Umar Kayam’s stories: it was the essence of Yogyakarta, its inner lives and not its topography, that Kayam had so successfully captured in his work.

I reached Jakarta after about two weeks spent in Bali and Java. It was a sprawling metropolis of the kind I was familiar with from other cities in Asia, but here I had a different sense of homecoming: it was Toeti’s city. After travelling around the region with a group of foreigners I saw the city through her eyes, and a completely Indonesian milieu. I stayed some nights at her home, sleeping in her library; I visited the university campus with her in Depok, where she had a little house in the West Javanese countryside nearby. I woke up there to the sound of people singing to each other in Sundanese, and watched them from the balcony, working in a field.

On one of Toeti’s shelves, I saw Umar Kayam’s new novel, titled Para Priyayi. Toeti, who had been who was reading it when I saw her in Holland the year before, told me it spanned almost a century of Javanese history through the eyes of one upwardly mobile family and their progress from colonial times through the Soekarno years. I was deeply frustrated not to be able to read it.

But the years and a decade went by and there was still no translation. I visited Indonesia again in 2003, for Toeti’s 70th birthday celebration and the launch of a collection of her poems in translation. (I’d written the introduction.) Jakarta had changed in 11 years: skyscrapers, malls, flyovers — the slightly rundown atmosphere of the early 90s, with its Dutch-colonial touches was almost invisible now. This was a thriving city of 21st century. In a smart new bookshop I found several of Pramoedya’s works in new translations, locally published. Finally, his writings were openly available in his own country. I asked Toeti if we were likely to meet him. But years of imprisonment and house arrest had worn him out and he didn’t want to meet anyone new. He was one of the few writers I’d have liked to see in person. Two or three years later he was dead. Umar Kayam had died the year before, at barely 70. His novel wasn’t available yet in translation.

Now, in 2013, I tell Laksmi I’ve read Para Priyayi, translated as Javanese Gentry in 2012. It ends, I say, in ’65, the period of her novel. She doesn’t remember it; she probably read it when she was too young. It isn’t out on Kindle; I found it on the library shelves, just as I had first found Kayam’s work 20-odd years ago. It’s not quite what I expected: it’s sprawling, epic and, at times, lurches into melodrama; it’s almost 19-century in its depiction of armed conflict, multiple imprisonments, illegitimate births and occasionally improbable coincidental meetings. But like his stories, it takes the reader into the heart of Javanese life with its delicate interweaving of secular and sacred concerns. And it’s extraordinarily even-handed in its treatment of conservatives and communists alike, though I felt throughout that Kayam himself was an advocate of the middle path. Traditional values are both deconstructed and praised here; class — the illusion of nobility — dealt with unsentimentally, as a social construct with its own codes of conduct.

Unlike Toer, Kayam had a long and respectable career as an academic and public intellectual, and wasn’t known for his radical beliefs. His aesthetic, though, is at its best quite impressive, I read the long novel in a sitting or two, and was entranced in the way I was when I read Dr Zhivago as a youngster. Again I had the sharp sense of familiarity I’d felt in Indonesia when I visited, with the difference that the first time I’d been there I’d seen it through the lens of the books I’d read, and this time I revisited the places I’d seen in a book I was reading.

I’ve since been back to Kayam’s short fictions to find them better than ever in their new translations, and hope that I’ll soon have the chance to plan a visit to Indonesia, where I haven’t been for nearly 10 years. But before that, I have Laksmi’s novel to look forward to.

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