Apr 24, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024


Putu Wijaya   Image courtesy of Lontar Publishing
Published: Aug 02, 2015

Arguably Indonesia's finest living writer of fiction, Putu Wijaya reflects on Indonesia's nationhood in his short story, 'Freedom'.


On the anniversary of the proclamation of independence, a baby was born in a small city. His father, a former revolutionary, rocked the baby in his arms with pride.

‘Welcome to the world. Welcome to Indonesia, my child,’ said the delighted father. ‘You are my hope, my future, my heir. I give you the name Freedom. Become a hero of the nation. Write a history that differs from what I experienced in the past. Free yourself from all forms of colonisation. Don’t be like this father of yours. Free this country from poverty. Free the people from the suffering that resulted from the tyranny of their leaders. Become the future of us all!’

Little Freedom, able to hear but not yet able to pay close attention, merely opened his mouth and laughed. His father smiled and whispered. 

‘Thanks be to God that you already hear what I say. Hopefully later, once you come of age and understand what I am saying you will still be able to laugh.’

Twenty years later, Freedom had grown into an adult. He became a brave young man, with an intelligent face and active brain—quite likely too clever for his years, energetic and given to disputing authority. Freedom’s friends all liked and looked up to him. But his teachers were quite the opposite. They were irritated by him. 

‘Freedom is a remarkable boy, a genius. He has the potential to be a future leader for our nation. The likes of him are very much what we need for this new millennium. What a shame that he is so stuck on himself,’ they said.

‘If he were a little more humble, there’d be no further delay in being able to serve as our hope,’ continued another teacher. ‘In an age of globalisation, when we’ll openly compete with the entire world, we need human resources with sophistication, like Freedom. But sadly, he matured too quickly. In areas that demand knowledge, what you need to start is acquisition not action. We won’t possibly be able to progress. Look, as far as fixed knowledge goes, in stage one and two you have to be willing to just accept it first, you can’t talk back. Later, after stage three you can ask whatever you want logically. Once you’ve mastered the basics, then whether you want to break things down or build things up, over to you. But it’s impossible to rebel before mastery. Freedom hasn’t been acting appropriately.’ 

Freedom didn’t care what his teachers said. He was hungry for knowledge. He opened his mouth wide to gulp it all down. He didn’t give a damn how his teachers felt either. If he didn’t agree, he’d protest without a further thought. Paying no heed to time or place, he’d straightway move to the attack.

As a consequence, Freedom developed a reputation for rudeness. He was feared but also made an outcast. His teachers were on tenterhooks whenever Freedom was present. Finally, as a result of a trivial matter—being late to pay his tuition, Freedom was expelled. 

Whereas his friends received diplomas upon graduating, Freedom received only knowledge. But he did not feel abashed. ‘All I need is knowledge, not a diploma,’ he’d say. With the stock of cleverness in his possession, he descended to the people and imbibed life for real.

Among the people, reality differed from what was discussed in class. Although everyone agreed that knowledge was paramount, in practice, what determined whether someone received work was a degree. Wherever Freedom went, he was always asked to show his diploma before the door would be opened for him. And once they learned that Freedom lacked one, the door would be slammed shut.

‘You talk a good game, but where’s the proof? Let’s see some reference letters.’

To a man Freedom’s stupid friends received work and a position. Even worse, the one who’d gotten through by buying his degree and bribing the headmaster was able to swing an important post for himself. They observed that dissonance with disgust. Freedom felt that an injustice was being perpetrated. Straightway he flew off the handle, shouting to carry out his protest. But to whom? Clearly everyone only admitted to giving voice to justice and truth. When the time came to act, all had reasons to pull away. What’s more, the most vocal newspapers’ courage for accusation fell away when coming up against a powerful person capable of smoothing things over with cash.

‘All of you are full of big words, but when push comes to shove, you sell out. Evidently you’re studying all the deceit that you curse yourselves!’ shouted Freedom.

Freedom began to harbour anger and hatred toward life, because life favored  injustice. He became cynical and apathetic. The world that he’d pictured as a sea of hope had now already become a lair of evil. The future was only attractive in chatter; in reality, everything was flatus.

But fortunately not all that blackness was black. Even in the midst of that jungle of hellishness, idealists remained. After his head was knocked soft by irritation Freedom met someone with an inclination to truth.

‘Sure, a degree is necessary, because it’s our only foothold in choosing the best candidate. But a diploma now is simple to fake,’ said the idealist. ‘So, Brother Freedom, the superior quality guaranteed by a degree only applies to school, whereas we cultivate hardship in fields that require strategy. That is something that’s neglected in every school. Consequently, Brother Freedom, don’t feel lonely. I’m not blind. I see your potential clearly. To hell with degrees—it’s not people who cloak themselves in a degree who’ll improve this country but geniuses like you!’

Freedom was embraced straightway. He was put in charge of a huge project that would determine the fate of millions. A position, strength and hope were handed over to him. 

Freedom recovered immediately. Color blazed on his face once more. He received the handshake and was ready to race.

But of all the luck. On the day of his appointment to leadership of the project, the one who had taken him on appeared holding a wad of cash. With a sweet but shy expression, he drew Freedom to a corner.

‘Freedom,’ he said with the voice of a sinner, ‘we all know, everyone seeks work to earn some money. Right?’

Freedom nodded. Correct.

‘Well, that means, Brother, others are also working to make money. If you already have the money you want, what’s the point of working? Right? Look at this. I’m bringing you a sack full of dough. Take it. Enjoy the windfall. And hand over the position you’ve got back to me. There’s the son of an official who needs it. He has plenty of cash. But he gets no respect because he doesn’t have a position. He’s buying yours. Bam! You’re lucky and I’m lucky!’

Without waiting for a reply, he took the position back off of Freedom, while stuffing a wad of bills in his hand. Before Freedom could restrain him, the idealist had already run off. Freedom grew hysterical. Cursing, he tossed the money away.

‘Bastard! Of course, I need money. I know that a man needs money to live. But I’m not living for money.  I need money to live. And I live to put into practice my father’s mandate to awaken this race. To become a human being with meaning who acts benevolently for his country and people!’

Freedom’s voice rang out with piercing clarity. But that idealist had already fled who knows where. The Freedom that remained now truly felt that his fate was cursed. He shouted and shouted, no longer capable of restraining himself. People said that the young man was becoming disturbed.

‘You look frustrated, Freedom,’ said a friend. ‘In these wacky times, who isn’t? If you follow your feelings, you’ll go crazy. You won’t be special because you’re crazy. Everyone already is crazy these days. Better to stay cool and collected. Fight all this!’

‘Fight? Fight what? I can’t see my enemy. If I had one, I’d thrash him here and now!’

‘Then don’t be confrontational in your fight. Fight with an attitude of love. Accept! Submit, Freedom!’

‘No! I don’t want to turn into a passive Javanese. That’s ancient thinking! I’m a modern guy. I’m not some colonial subject who just wants to become a slave to all this injustice. I want to rebel!’

‘Impossible! The insane can’t rebel. At best you’ll wind up in a mental hospital. If you want to rebel, don’t use muscle, use your tongue and diplomacy. Learn from politicians. To master diplomacy, your thinking has to be clear.  And you need to be stable for the clarity of your soul. To make your emotions stable, you need to have a companion. In other words, Freedom, the only road you can choose now is marriage. Marry, Freedom, before it’s too late!’

Freedom was startled. ‘Marry?’

‘Yes! Marry! Aren’t you aware that people can’t live alone? Every human being has got to have a life partner, for copulation and conspiracy. If you stay by yourself, you’ll be incomplete, half a human being. Your emotions will be unpredictable. You’ll have the staying power of a chicken headed for the chopping block. Your spirit will crumble. You’ll be finished before you know it. So be quick about it and find yourself a life companion. Form a partnership, oppose the depravity of this world. If not you’ll be too late. How old are you now? Don’t spend all your time fighting. Before you know it you’ll be old and decrepit and nothing will come of you. Do you want to live past your expiration date?’

Freedom was stunned. He quickly went and stood before a mirror. He observed a strand of white hair flutter in his nostril. Wrinkles were beginning to appear on his face. He was no longer as young as he thought. Freedom had little choice but to accept that he’d almost gone stale.

Then, without thinking about it long, Freedom proposed to his girlfriend, who happily accepted. After years and almost losing her patience, Freedom finally found fortitude to make a decision. Ready to risk his freedom, to enter the prison of marriage.

But catastrophe. Although his girlfriend was 100% in favour, Freedom’s prospective in-laws were fickle. Initially they accepted him, but then they suddenly turned around and refused. Their reasoning made no sense at all to Freedom.

‘You want to marry my only daughter, Freedom?’ asked his father-in-law-to-be. ‘Why? Because you love each other?’

‘Yes, sir, we love each other.’

The man smiled bitterly. ‘Don’t you know that love isn’t enough to carry you through? In three months, you’ll have drunk your fill of passion and gotten bored. Then life’s hardships will undermine you. You need money and a position. That’s the source of success and happiness. No. You can’t marry our daughter if you can’t make firm promises. You want to take this beautiful only daughter of mine elsewhere. Prove first that I ought to surrender my daughter to you, then talk. Don’t tell me to be patient and wait. If you can’t assure me that you’ll be able to make her happy physically and spiritually, leave my daughter to another. I hope it’s my daughter you’re attracted to and not to her inheritance. To my wealth and position. If so, my apologies, young man, but flee right this very moment. Leave this house and don’t you dare come back or I’ll pop you one in the head.’

Freedom fainted. He’d never encountered such a harsh declaration.

‘I’m cursed. I’ll be thought of as a failure,’ Freedom wailed, desperate. His thinking truly began to be disturbed. He no longer knew what to say or what to do. 

Finally, feeling squeezed and panicky, Freedom went to a dukun. Yes, a dukun. Why not? Even though we have entered the new millennium, many people still consult those traditional soothsayer doctors. Officials visit dukun.  Athletes, politicians. Even some presidents retain one. What is more, some artists have become dukun themselves.

The dukun grasped Freedom’s hand and read his fate.

‘Actually, according to the scenario, you are a genius, like President Habibie, Freedom,’ said the dukun. ‘Basically you are an extraordinary human being. You can become a leader of this people in the future. In your body flows the blood of royal warriors. But unfortunately, in practice, you are not turning into anything, because your offerings aren’t up to snuff!’

‘Offerings? What offerings?’

‘You know. Everything requires offerings. Brains alone aren’t enough. Cleverness alone does not offer guarantees. Furthermore, it appears that it’s not a golden bullet for making you a success. You have to give your heart and soul. You need sincerity. Sincerity means you are honest, which in turn means that you have to be willing. Willing to sacrifice. You have to sacrifice what is necessary. You won’t be able to be a success if you don’t have the courage to sacrifice yourself sincerely, Freedom!’

Freedom was stunned.

‘Sacrifice? Sacrifice what? This is the age of freedom. We don’t need martyrs like we did during the time of revolution, like my father. We need workers in sophisticated fields. And I am sophisticated. I don’t want to sacrifice my life. I want to serve the people, the nation and society. Don’t be like this, Doc!’

‘Calm down, Freedom. I’m not talking about physical sacrifice. This is a spiritual sacrifice. Sacrifice doesn’t mean that you’ll lose anything. You have to give of yourself through the loss of your name. Change it now. Take another one. Stop being Freedom. It’s too big, too heavy for you to bear by yourself. Impossible. If you shoulder the burden, you’ll be too busy carrying it and won’t be able to accomplish anything. So just get rid of it. Trade it for another one. Swap Freedom for something lighter. What’s the point of a name? Right?’

Freedom disagreed.

‘Change my name? No. Not possible,’ he said. ‘My name is a gift from my father. He was a great warrior, an honest man. He served this country, but he didn’t have money. He didn’t have a factory. He didn’t have power. He only had ambition and ideas, and all of that he handed down to me. I can’t change what was handed down to me by my parents just like that. This name was entrusted to me. I refuse to be insubordinate!’

The dukun shook his head.

‘It really is hard to talk with someone who is clever but dogmatic like you, Freedom!’ he said, shooing Freedom away because his other patients were crowding around.

Freedom returned home, grumpy and out of sorts. For several days he grappled with the dukun’s suggestion. On the seventieth day, he conceded defeat. Then, donning a batik shirt, he left for his parents’ home.

‘Sir,’ he said, kissing the hand of his now elderly father. ‘I come to report what has happened in the field. Clearly I failed. But that doesn’t mean I surrender. I am continuing my efforts. I come not to ask for assistance. I come only to ask for blessing. Because I am free from Freedom.’

The old man immediately scowled.


‘I want to change the name that you gave me.’

‘Change your name? What do you mean, Freedom?’

‘The dukun said that my fate is cursed because my name is too heavy. If I change it, in a split second I will become a new man, a successful man. So what fault would there be in changing my name? And I won’t choose another name by myself. I leave it to you to give me guidance.

The old man’s eyes were now open.

‘You want to stop being Freedom, Freedom?’




‘Yes! Why?’ shouted his father.

Freedom was taken aback. When he was little he didn’t care if he was shouted at. But now, as an adult, already far cleverer than his father, and with a bitter life too boot, he no longer wanted to be shouted at.

‘Because I don’t want to keep being cursed!’ shouted Freedom.

But his father scolded ever more harshly.

‘Idiot! No!’

‘Why not?!’

‘Absolutely not!’





‘Bloody hell!’ shouted Freedom, freeing himself. ‘You don’t know what happened in the field. I’m the one who was involved in it all. I know what I’m doing. I’m the one who deals with what’s going on. My education broke down just because I am Freedom. Positions slipped through my fingers just because I am Freedom. Even worse, my girlfriend gets hit on by other men just because I am Freedom. The dukun also said I was stupid because I am Freedom. I don’t want to be Freedom anymore. Enough already! I don’t want to be constantly ordered around. I want to be relieved of Freedom! I want success, I want happiness, I want to see results, I don’t want to be Freedom anymore!’

‘You fool!’ his father bellowed, slapping his son.

Freedom gaped. His eyes bulged as he gaped at his father. He’d never been swatted like that. How could the son of the hope of the nation be called stupid and be slapped?

But the father of Freedom also showed no fear. He approached, seething. Then he throttled Freedom’s neck.

‘Freedom!’ whispered the old man, his breath flaring. ‘Freedom, do you think that Freedom equals pleasure? Do you think that freedom is free from all disaster? Do you think that Freedom means that you’ll suddenly become rich and happy? You truly are stupid! Freedom is a burden. A burden as broad as the heavens on your own shoulders. Freedom is suffering. Freedom is a million miseries without end. Freedom means that you walk alone, that you do not have a master and boss who’ll help you if disaster strikes. Freedom means that you must face pain, suffering, a rotting fate by yourself. Freedom is ill, very ill. But you must be proud because you’ve been chosen to shoulder the burden. It means that you’re considered competent. People still believe in you. If you still are believed in, it means that you are still counted on. If you’re still given suffering, it means you’re still alive. You are not yet a corpse, not yet a robot, not yet dead like others—all this means you are still free. You are stupid if you want to stop being Freedom. Got it? Get it!’

Freedom was confused.

‘Get it?!’


‘Yes, God, I don’t understand either!’ shouted his father, even more imposing. Then he grabbed his chest. It was as though he was being choked. Then he suddenly toppled over and died on the spot.

Freedom was beside himself. When he came to his senses, he embraced the body of his father. But suddenly the old mand’s hands moved again and grabbed at Freedom’s throat. 

Sobbing, he whispered to him. ‘My son. Persist as Freedom. Don’t stop. Promise me. Once Freedom, you have to stay as Freedom. Don’t ever stop being Freedom, my child. Don’t vanish. Hang on, Freedom!’

The old man’s hands shook. His grip around Freedom’s throat grew weaker, weaker, weaker, then slowly released. His corpse thudded to the ground, dead for good.

Translated by Stephen J. Epstein


Putu Wijaya (full name I Ngurah Gusti Putu Wijaya), born in 1944 in Tabanan, Bali, is one of Indonesia’s most prominent literary figures. He pursued his tertiary education in Yogyakarta, studying at the Indonesian Fine Arts Academy, the Drama and Film Arts Academy and receiving a degree in law from Gajah Mada University. He then moved to Jakarta, where he launched his literary career while simultaneously working for several years as a journalist with Tempo and Zaman.

Putu has been extraordinarily prolific, having authored some thirty novels, forty dramas, numerous film and television scripts and literally scores of short stories and essays. He is also known for his work leading Teater Mandiri, widely regarded as Indonesia’s foremost theatre collective. Putu’s philosophy of theatre is to create a tontonan (spectacle) that establishes a dialogue between author and audience and imparts a powerful, even shocking, experience rather than didactic message. His fiction is likewise marked by surreal, extravagant flights of imagination and his unique brand of magic realism presents a frequently mordant view of life in contemporary Indonesia. While drawing on indigenous genres, he recasts them in disorienting ways that push readers to question received norms. 

Over the course of his illustrious career, Putu’s work has won numerous awards and he has received recognition outside of Indonesia as well, which has included fellowships to study kabuki in Japan, a residency at the University of Iowa’s prestigious International Writing Program, and a Fulbright Scholarship to teach Indonesian theatre at universities in the United States. His writing has been translated into Japanese, Arabic and Thai as well as various Western languages.


Stephen Epstein is the Director of the Asian Studies Programme at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and served as the 2013-14 President of the New Zealand Asian Studies Society. He has published widely on contemporary Korean society, literature and popular culture and translated numerous pieces of Korean and Indonesian fiction, including the novels Who Ate Up All The Shinga? by Park Wan-suh (Columbia University Press, 2009), The Long Road by Kim In-suk (MerwinAsia, 2010) and Telegram by Putu Wijaya (Lontar Foundation, 2011). He has co-produced two documentaries on the Korean indie music scene, Us & Them: Korean Indie Rock in a K-pop world (2014) and Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community (2002). He co-edited Complicated Currents: Media Flows, Soft Power and East Asia (Monash University Publications, 2010) and is currently completing a source book on the Korean Wave for the Academy of Korean Studies.

The translation is provided courtesy of the Lontar Foundation. Published here with the permission of the author.


Inside Indonesia 121: Jun-Aug 2015{jcomments on}

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Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.