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.)