Nov 23, 2020 Last Updated 3:35 AM, Nov 18, 2020

Essay: Seeking solace in the midst of COVID-19

Category: Articles
Published: Sep 25, 2020

Sebastian Partogi

As Jakarta faces another period of PSBB or large-scale social restrictions, the coronavirus outbreak along with its corresponding health and economic crises continues to take a toll on many of its residents, including on the mental health of young adult middle-class Jakartans. Some are unable to sleep due to anxiety. Some slip into the habit of sleeping for more than 12 hours due to pandemic-induced lethargy. Some escape into workaholism. Some cannot even muster up enough energy to attend to projects.

They have good reason to be stressed out and anxious. Although they may belong to a relatively privileged middle class and some are still fortunate enough to retain their jobs at the time of this writing, others work as contract employees or freelancers, and so lack employment security.

For those still employed, in order to keep their jobs, the pressure is on to come up with new ideas and initiatives for alternative revenue sources for their companies, making them even busier than before. God forbid they will be the next person fired from the company if their bosses perceive them being idle.

The PSBB was first put in place in the Jakarta from April until June 2020. A senior economist at the Institute for Development of Economics and Finances, Aviliani, estimated that if the PSBB – which was designed to ‘flatten the curve’ of the COVID-19 daily infections – had lasted until July, some five million formal workers would have lost their jobs, resulting in a massive downward social mobility: 100 million middle class Indonesians would fall on or under the poverty line.

With this concern in mind, in order to turn the economic wheels a little bit, in June the government relaxed social restrictions, allowing essential business workers aged 45 years and younger to return to their offices. Yet, truly, the pandemic is a catch-22 situation: people who returned to their offices were terrified of contracting the virus, or God forbid, infecting other people as carriers. No wonder urbanites feel like they are in over their heads.

Bonding over books

In the midst of this crisis, thanks to our mutual love for books, literature and intellectual discussion, every Saturday afternoon, some of us – a group of around 20 bookworms – gather our collective strength to emerge from our beds and COVID-19-related mental preoccupations, sometimes forcing ourselves awake with a cold bath to join our weekly virtual book club.

Baca Rasa Dengar book club’s May 2019 meeting featuring Indonesian novelist Ayu Utami / Baca Rasa Dengar

The book club was initiated by our eponymous Jakarta-based community Baca Rasa Dengar (Read Sense and Listen) in February 2015 led by literacy activist Aqmarina Andira and her former colleagues. We came together for monthly face-to-face meetings at a café somewhere. For each meeting we set a particular discussion theme, allowing members to talk about any book they wanted as long as was related to the theme.

In response to the coronavirus outbreak the community swiftly shifted to the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Our first session online was held as the PSBB was looming in late March, on the topic of feminism. Members were clamouring for a weekly virtual meeting during the voluntary quarantine period in order to ‘sustain their mental health’. Their wish was granted. Since then we have held weekly meetings, discussing various topics ranging from health to environment to local ghost stories.

The hunger to connect

Aqmarina and her former colleagues established the group to satisfy their hunger for quality connections and friendships. Many of the book club’s regulars feel that after leaving college, it becomes much harder to find friends with whom we can engage in quality discussions. Aqmarina said she was particularly concerned that her former co-workers seemed to indulge in too much gossiping.

A 2016 survey by the Central Connecticut State University ranked Indonesia 60th out of 61 countries in terms of reading interest. This low literacy rate means that us bookworms longing for in-depth, mentally stimulating conversations, can sometimes be a lonely bunch. The New Order totalitarian regime succeeded in crushing Indonesia’s intelligentsia culture, starting with the 1965 Communist pogroms which claimed the lives of so many teachers and intellectuals. This legacy of anti-intellectualism remains.

To heal the cultural damage done, the book club, which came to life during the Reform era, has become something like a clearinghouse for so many lonely bookworms in Jakarta, mostly aged between 20 to 40 years. We use stories and characters in literature as jumping off points to launch into discussions about our personal problems and to speak about our anxieties; an openness which has been the norm since our first meeting five years ago.

The club’s members come from all walks of life in terms of educational and professional backgrounds. They work as researchers, activists, journalists, bankers, politicians, teachers, lecturers and university students. We are ethnically and religiously diverse, and span the political and economic ideological spectrum from the left to the right, although most members seem to be anchored to the moderate centre; at a crossroads between libertarian/authoritarian political thinking and the leftist/free-market economic school of thought. This has resulted in rich and divergent discussions, which in their virtual form can last up to six hours per session.

I think it might have something to do with the Malay culture of nongkrong (hanging out), where people can sit down in large-scale gatherings for hours long divergent conversations, such as depicted in Filipino-Malay filmmaker Lav Diaz’s eight-hour Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to a Sorrowful Mystery, 2016) centred on men who chatted beneath a tree at length.

Books, it turns out, add more depth to the discussion: more than just gossiping, we can be vulnerable and open ourselves up regarding the loneliness and battles we face in our families, relationships and careers as adults, knowing we can count on other members for social support.

Political about-face

Beginning in late 2016, there was an escalation in the use of religious and ethnic identities for political gain, and a rise in Islamic radicalism in our country. It was at this time too that the book club’s discussions began to turn more political in nature.

The 2016/2017 political upheaval awakened the socio-political consciousness of the privileged urban ‘floating masses’. We saw this level of awareness and concern peak again with the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020.

The book club participants became hardcore current affairs aficionados. In every session, they would dissect the social, political, historical, scientific, environmental and economic facets related to the outbreak (and, on 6 June 2020, a discussion in solidarity with the #blacklivesmatter global movement).

No matter what book happens to be under discussion - even if members are talking about historical fiction such as Annemarie Selinko’s Désirée, or Patrick White’s erotic and sensual The Twyborn Affair –the group manages to connect the stories back to ideas of privilege and power.

Ultimately this leads us to talk about the many layers of structural and systematic political and economic violence in the world; about how female subjugation has made women sell themselves out to wealthy men; how classism can also lead men to abandon their lovers for wealthier and socially respected partners; the economic inequality which has resulted in environmental destruction and marginalisation of the indigenous communities and the urban poor; and so on and so forth.

The face-to-face book club meeting is typically joined by about 20 people / Baca Rasa Dengar

On April the discussion became eerily real in mirroring the grim realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the book club invited Indonesian-born Singaporean author Michelle Tanmizi to discuss dystopian visions.

Tanmizi’s novel Late Dawn, published in 2019 by Hasmark Publishing in Canada, raises the possibilities of animals turning into giants and later attacking humans as a consequence of environmental destruction.

The participants in that Zoom meeting/book club explored the possibility of authoritarian governments using the shock and awe brought by the coronavirus outbreak to enforce totalitarian regimes across the world.

Some participants nervously looked at the camera before criticising the current government, prefacing their comments with a disclaimer: ‘God forbid the authorities are watching us right now’; for fear that Big Brother is listening in on their conversations and they would suddenly disappear tomorrow.

Coming of age in the Reform era, as most of the group have, means that stories from the Suharto era told to us by our elders and family members about people vanishing into thin air upon criticising the government, remain fresh in our minds. Apparently, someone commented, it is easier to kidnap people now we are all staying in our homes and can be tracked down using GPS. Talk about dystopian fantasies ala George Orwell’s 1984 or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

With the New Order oligarchs still in power, their militarism and free-market economy paradigm which privileges investments over the human cost, remains intact. Some people cynically describe this as ‘Jokowinomics’. Others have gone so far as to award the president the title Bapak Pembangunan (the father of development), the same one bestowed to the despot Suharto.

Since the activist Ravio Patra was detained by the police in April, following his criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, we have become more paranoid. Who knows, maybe some ‘intel’ are lurking amid all the faces popping up in the boxes on our computer screen?

Yet we carried on our discussion anyway.

We exchanged various news stories from around the world about the coronavirus outbreak, frequently peppering our discussions of the grim reality with a touch of dark humor while of course exchanging book recommendations with one another, resulting in bitter laughter and occasional guffaws.

Week after week, the book club never ceases to motivate us to read more titles to deepen our knowledge about the social, political and economic issues raised in the forum.

Our reading, intellectual pursuit and social connection, which we foster via the book club, helps us fill the void in our social lives during the pandemic as we are deprived of face-to-face social connection amid a time of profound fear and anxiety.

Struggle and resilience in creative expression

Intellectual and creative communities are not backing down in the midst of all the sorrows brought by the pandemic. This includes artists who cannot perform onstage, cultural centres that are shut for the foreseeable future and filmmakers who have lost their commissioned projects since they can no longer film on location due to physical distancing measures: the list goes on.

Knowing our predecessors have paid a huge price to bring about democracy to our country, we cannot take our freedoms for granted.

The InterSastra community founded by writer and activist Eliza Vitri Handayani, is one such group that has tried to continue its activities during the pandemic, but as the crisis grew more serious the mood among the members of this community became gloomier and they had a hard time carrying on activities.

Maybe this is in part due to compassion fatigue. InterSastra members include grassroots activists engaging with highly traumatic issues like sexual violence, forced eviction, the oppression of laborers, religious fundamentalism and environmental destruction.

The pandemic has seen an escalation of suffering: women being trapped for a prolonged period with their abusers; laborers’ lives compromised as their employers still need to meet production targets; the pandemic has unleashed a stronger brand of religious fundamentalism among Muslims in Indonesia. These things are overwhelming. Can you imagine being a social activist at this time?

Some of the creative workers in this community, including fashion designers and coffee sellers, have been hit hard financially by the crisis, and others are grieving for family members lost to COVID-19.

The InterSastra example goes to show that even if you belong to the so-called privileged segment of society, when you are faced with financial and social crisis, it can be difficult to gather even a tiny fraction of the energy required to engage in discussion and exchange.

Thankfully, social engagements need not always be intellectual, let alone political, else your brain will start burning. And there are many examples too, where creative endeavours have been thriving.

Filmmakers, for instance, acted to pull people out of their emotional paralysis by conducting various Instagram live, Zoom discussions and Spotify podcast sessions encouraging film appreciation and creative expression. Filmmaker Paul Agusta, who lost five commissioned filmmaking projects this year due to the pandemic, has accelerated his online activities instead. Paul’s main concern was about providing for the film crews who were financially hardest hit when on-location filming activities ground to a halt.

True to the Malay nongkrong culture, Paul told me that these online discussions often last three hours, well exceeding the advertised one hour. He added that these sessions had inspired so many people to create their own Instagram livestream, filming themselves playing music, reciting poetry and dancing whilst in lockdown. Indie acts like Bonita and the Hus Band streamed online live concerts from their homes.

Another filmmaker Joko Anwar, who was similarly unable to shoot on location, occupied his time by starting a podcast called JOKAN, available on Spotify. And following in the footsteps of similar filmmaking-at-home challenges around the world, filmmaker Jason Iskandar released a new short film called Cerita tentang Jendela (Stories about Windows) on the @studioantelope Instagram account. The film is comprised of more than 200 clips sent to him, of what people could see from their front windows during the country’s April-June soft lockdown.

By reaching out to others through creative and intellectual clubs many are striving to maintain their sanity while surviving the pandemic. It is almost as if no matter what happens, as long as we can reach out to our support system to keep educating ourselves intellectually and creatively, we Indonesian urbanites will probably be alright.

Sebastian Partogi (sebastianpartogi@gmail.com) has been a journalist and copywriter for The Jakarta Post since January 2013; he has also translated novels and short stories by Djenar Maesa Ayu, Ratih Kumala, Sindhunata, Angelina Enny and Feby Indirani into English.

Inside Indonesia 141: Jul-Sep 2020

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