Apr 14, 2024 Last Updated 4:19 AM, Apr 12, 2024

Seeking identity, seeking Indonesia

Seeking identity, seeking Indonesia
Published: Jan 04, 2014

Pulang's author reflects on writing the stories of those unseen and unheard

Leila S. Chudori

For Indonesia, 1965 is a year which remains shrouded in darkness. To use Goenawan Mohamad’s term, is a titimangsa; a ‘black hole’ which symbolises the establishment of the power of Suharto’s New Order, the beginning of a period which spelled the end of the ongoing political chaos. According to the New Order’s official version of history, 1965 is synonymous with the successful eradication of an unwanted ideology.

As part of the generation born in the 1960s, I initially knew it as the 30 September 1965 incident, which the New Order government called the G30S/PKI. Our generation only knew the official history, which for 32 years was promulgated in Indonesian history books, school curricula, statues, museums, film and in government ‘white’ books (official statements) distributed to the media to be reported on.

No-one dared or was able to question this one-sided version of history – that is, if they were concerned about their personal safety. Everything that was considered to be leftist, left-leaning, Communist-leaning, or ‘Red’ could only be spoken of in hushed tones. One felt that if anyone spoke about these things in a loud voice the country would suddenly be swallowed by the earth.

Shining a light into the black hole

The official ban on the works of some of the famous literary figures – at that time the government dubbed it ‘the spreading of Marxism’ – made people of my generation want to know more. I was 19 years old and home for the summer break after a year living and studying in Canada when I learned about the tetralogy by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. I made a secretive purchase at Pasar Senen. It was like a scene from a thriller. We had to place an order with someone, meet at a certain place to make the exchange of cash for the book wrapped in newspaper, which I took to Canada and read on campus.

The idea to write the novel Pulang did not come on its own. It came little by little, as answers to parts of my questions about that black hole. The big names, important events and monumental years are always a part of Indonesian history. However, among those major figures, between the events which must be committed to the memories of school students in their history lessons or by university history majors, and among the dates considered to be historical, there were thousands if not millions of names which were nowhere to be found.

Restoran Indonesia

I first came across the Restoran Indonesia, on the Rue de Vaugirard in central Paris, when I was on a trip around Europe with my friends from North America and Europe to celebrate finishing my education in Canada. I had been a scholarship student, so money was tight and, with no certainty about ever travelling overseas again, I felt this was my one and only opportunity to touch Europe before going home and entering the ‘real world’ filled with responsibilities. I never imagined that my first experience with that Indonesian restaurant in Paris would be my first encounter with black hole known as Indonesian History.

Even though it was only in passing, it was the first time I directly knew about Indonesian political exile in Europe, although I knew a little about the plight of the political prisoners who continued to live under pressure from the New Order government. Through my late father, who worked as an Antara News Agency reporter, I had had the chance to meet several political prisoners from Buru Island. When I joined Tempo Magazine in 1989, that black hole felt even deeper. I knew Pak Amarzan Loebis, an artist who was held on Buru Island for eleven years, who at that time had to use an alias. I also knew some children of political prisoners who worked at major media outlets in Indonesia, Tempo included, who had to change their names or intentionally avoid using their family name.

It was then that I first became aware of an incredibly absurd concept called Bersih Diri, Personally Clean and Bersih Lingkungan, Associatively Clear, which was issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs. This policy banned people who were not Personally Clean (political prisoners, members of the Indonesian Communist Party or PKI, or similar organisations) or not Associatively Clean (the families of political prisoners) from becoming members of the Indonesian military (TNI) or national police, teachers, priests, or entering professions which could influence the public. Because of this regulation, discrimination was not only directed against former political prisoners of the 1965 tragedy, but also towards their grandchildren. In order to ensure that this system persisted, former political prisoners had the code ET (Ex-Political Prisoner) on their national identity cards. To check that they were ‘Clear of Association’ a prospective employee would be subject to a Special Investigation.

My days as a Tempo reporter during the New Order period were strange and absurd. It was a stressful and interesting time for someone like me, who was still young. I say strange because we were trained to become reporters with integrity, but at the same time we knew - back then - that we could not write freely and extensively about, let’s say, the businesses of the president’s family; nor to mention or criticise or come out against government policies which benefited his cronies. This was especially true about questioning matters connected with the events of 30 September 1965. Once, Tempo dared to skirt danger by touching upon the behavior of the president’s family. Afterwards we had to ‘lay low’ for a few weeks before daring to try anything similar.

I began to feel that there were some Indonesians who had become invisible. They were Indonesian citizens but their rights were denied by the government and in turn by the public, who for decades had been brainwashed that anything associated with communism was denying God. For me, who grew up and became an adult during the New Order period, I was conscious of a historical and political absurdity. I saw how Indonesia had the same president and many different vice presidents during that time. I witnessed the impotence of the legal system, legislature and judiciary. Everything emanated from just one person. I also remember how my father, as a reporter, as well as my seniors, including the Editor-in-Chief, Goenawan Mohamad, were upset on various occasions by warnings and insinuations made by the Ministry of Information – warnings issued on the basis that some media offices continued to employ family members of political prisoners.

Tempo was finally banned by the government in June 1994, for a cover story about the purchase of used warships from East Germany. That story criticised the policy of the Minister of Research and Technology, BJ Habibie, but President Suharto took it personally. Some of my friends and I are still bitter about this incident. We felt the source of our productivity was suddenly taken away. It was no surprise if we were among the tens of millions of Indonesians who were brimming with hope when university students occupied the House of Representatives (DPR) building in mid-May 1998, demanding that President Suharto step down. For me, the black hole named ‘The History of Indonesia’ found a ray of light when President Suharto resigned on 21 May 1998.

Writing Pulang

The novel Pulang commences at the beginning of 1965 – with several flashbacks to the 1950s – and ends in the year 1998. I had determined that I wanted to tell the story of two generations, the generation of the father (represented by Dimas Suryo) through the events of September 1965 and the generation of his daughter, Lintang Utara, who comes back to Indonesia to find meaning in being an Indonesian and finding out what Indonesia really means.

I was interested to tell the story of political exiles who could not return home. I wanted to dig into their psyche; delve into the minds of those who lived far from their homeland but still felt they were a part of Indonesia, no matter what kind of passports they were issued and no matter how the government treated them.

I became acquainted with Oemar Said, Sobron Aidit and their friends in Paris, as a group of Indonesian political exiles who had decided to establish Restoran Indonesia as a part of their resistance. I used them, and especially Oemar Said, as the ‘model’ in the novel for a group of political exiles, consisting of Dimas Suryo, Nugroho Dewantoro, Tjai Sin Soe and Mohammad Risjaf. In Pulang, the story goes that while they were on a trip as reporters, to Santiago, Chile, the bloody 30 September 1965 incident took place back home. Their passports were revoked, after which they had to move from country to country, until finally settling in Paris and establishing their restaurant.

Of course the real lives of the founders of Restoran Indonesia in Paris are far more complex and difficult. Their journey from one country to another was a harrowing one. It is important to remember that Pulang is fiction, not a history book, memoir, or a biography. Even so, for six years I have researched and written – in the midst of my work as a journalist of Tempo and as a mother – I visited Paris twice and corresponded through email and even met Pak Sobron in Jakarta. The exiles and prisoners agreed to and supported my desire to write a novel.

What I have taken from their stories are the feelings and psyche of a political exile. Through Dimas Suryo’s character, I hoped to convey a sense of how Indonesia remained in the hearts and souls of these exiles during their time in Paris. How they demonstrated their deep concern for Indonesia in a manner which was so sincere, like the character Ekalaya from the Mahabharata plays who loved and respected his teacher, Arjuna, unconditionally. So much so, that he sacrificed his own passion for archery and ambition, so that his teacher could remain the greatest archer.

Despite Dimas’ love for Indonesia his citizenship was denied by the Indonesian government. His passport was revoked and after he was granted asylum by the French government his visa request to enter Indonesia was always rejected. The existential dilemma faced by Dimas was one theme which greatly drew my attention. I remembered when President Abdurrahman Wahid visited Europe, and asked if anything could be done for those who had been exiled. They replied that they simply wanted (standard) green Indonesian passports.

For me, who read about this on the front page of the Kompas newspaper, this was an important and moving question. Even though they had already received asylum and had passports from European nations, they still wanted to feel that they were a part of Indonesia. This is why in the novel I stressed the strong desire of the Dimas character to define himself as an Indonesian who wanted to return to Indonesia to live and die, but who was unable to reach his homeland. Each year Dimas applies for a visa in order to be able to enter Indonesia, but he fails time and time again.

I chose to make it a family drama. Besides the political prisoners and exiles, those who suffered most were their families. I decided to make Pulang a story about Dimas and his family, with all of the little details in the daily lives of the families of political exiles including Dimas’ political prisoner friends and their families living in Jakarta. I was not interested in portraying the major events, such as political disputes among elite military circles.

I also intentionally did not pay a much attention to the authorities. The reason for doing so is simple enough, even though it would easily become a point of criticism. I felt that for 32 years the rulers had given their version of history so long that it had become the entrenched version. The New Order government had sufficiently spoken and dominated their view of Indonesian history. Now it was my turn to try and listen and understand those who had lived life as shadows. They existed, but they were non-entities. They had physical form, but they were not treated as complete human beings. For me, as the storyteller, I wanted to listen and (possibly) retell their stories, albeit as a work of fiction.

That is why I am interested in exploring what frolicked in the soul and minds of figures like Dimas Suryo in Santiago, in Havana, in Beijing, as well as in Paris. I am interested in the friendships and betrayals that exist in every relationship: romance and partings; joy and sadness, everything that exists in every family, though this particular life is far from that of a normal Indonesian family.

Beginning in 2005, each year Tempo magazine produced a special edition marking 30 September. In this first edition, prompted by Goenawan Mohamad’s suggestions, we included long features on ex-political prisoners and their families. The team of journalists, including myself, learnt of the difficulties endured by the families of political prisoners during Suharto’s regime. Again, what I portrayed in the novel was nothing compared to what the family experienced in real life.

From the outset I had decided that Pulang was not going to be a passionate novel about ideology. I did not want to put on any pretenses of wanting to join the political discussion. For me, that is not a novelist’s job. A novelist is a storyteller, not a historian or a politician who unleashes propaganda. The story is about the characters, the figures. I am just the medium.

I felt I owed it to myself to find out about that black hole which had been covered up for 32 years by the New Order, the story of the suffering of those whose ‘voices may not be heard’, and ‘whose bodies may not be seen‘, who are not recorded in history. It was well-said by Bagus Takwin, a lecturer in the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Indonesia in a discussion last January at Salihara, that this novel is about ‘those who were not counted in the collective known as Indonesia’.

Lintang and the next generation

These 'voices from the unheard' became the focus of attention in the final academic task of the Lintang Utara character, when she decided to go to Indonesia. Lintang Utara, Segara Alam and Bimo Nugroho are from the second generation in this novel, representing a generation that – as Goenawan Mohamad said in the work Catatan Pinggir – actively and consciously ‘wants to change Indonesia’. The youths who ‘took over the story want a different republic, one with the liberty their fathers and mothers never got to enjoy’.

Nothing is more pleasing for a writer if the intensity of the characters they create can be understood by the readers. For me, Lintang represents many youths of her generation, myself included, who intentionally make efforts to define what 'Indonesia’ is all about.

I always refer to a poem by Jalaluddin Rumi, from the Fantastic Stories of Persia: ‘Have you ever known a name without a nature? Or can you pick a rose from a “rose”?’ This verse forces me to see and understand everything more deeply. Lintang knows Indonesia, a part of Indonesia, from her father’s stories that actually have become a figure of history. Ironically, he is a part of Indonesia’s history that is not written.

For that, Lintang needs and wants to go to Indonesia to seek and swim in ’the blood relationship which I do not know called Indonesia’. Ever since she was a child Lintang has been well-acquainted with this chaotic politics and history. She knew why her father was in Paris: not for education; not an excursion; and not for work. She watched how the restaurant, where her father and his friends made their living, was terrorised. However, these are the only splashes and fragments she is experiencing. It is far lighter than what the families of prisoners’ experience in Indonesia. With that realisation, Lintang faces her professor, and says ‘I think I will not make myself a victim’.

In Indonesia, Lintang meets with children of her father’s friends, Segara Alam, the son of Hananto, and Bimo Nugroho, the son of Nugroho Dewantoro. From these two new friends Lintang feels that the life of advocacy taken up by those two activists is a way of life which is similar to her own direction: searching for a new definition of Indonesia.

Lintang also realises that she is facing a situation where she must define herself vis-à-vis the New Order establishment, something she rarely experienced while in Paris. She sees the Lubang Buaya Museum, which is a symbol and foundation of New Order power. She meets Bimo’s stepfather, an army general who married Nugroho Dewantoro’s ex-wife.

In a dinner scene that I have long prepared, Lintang must choose whether to reveal herself and the history of her family in front of the Priasmoro family who insults ‘that Commie restaurant’. Dinner time is a moment which, for some reason, always draws my attention, because this a time – in western and Indonesian families – when there are always moments where family members insult or belittle one another. The family dinner, in every culture, always becomes a stage for displaying power or frailty, or the cowardice or hypocrisy of family members. I like moments like these, because the truth is often revealed when someone who feels pressured has a psychological eruption.

Dinner in the Priamsoro house becomes a catastrophe, yet it reveals a truth. It becomes a source of pride and gives Lintang a definition about Indonesia and Indonesians. In Jakarta, too, Lintang sees Indonesia as it is. She sees daily protests and the terror her new friends face, before finally facing the May riots, which end with the resignation of President Suharto. That time was later seen as the downfall of (a part of) the New Order establishment.

I am not going to give a justification as to why I want to remain optimistic after 1998, especially since the country is still a mess. However, the end of this novel represents my optimism. When Lintang hears the sound of the university students occupying the DPR building she remarks, ‘the sound of those university students sounds so beautiful, much more powerful than a Ravel composition’.

I still feel the same way about hope for the future of my country. It is not nationalism or blind love, but a desire to do simple work. The use of the word ‘pulang’ (home) in this novel does not only represent Dimas Suryo or Lintang Utara, or even all of those who are not a part of the historical record. It represents all of us who want to take a step, however small, for Indonesia.


Leila S. Chudori (leilachudori@yahoo.com) is a novelist and journalist at Tempo magazine. She is also the author of 9 dari Nadira, Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, 2009. In December 2013, Pulang received the Khatulistiwa Literary Award for a work of outstanding literature.

Read Pam Allen's review of Pulang in this issue

Inside Indonesia 114: Oct-Dec 2013{jcomments on}

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