Nov 15, 2018 Last Updated 4:26 AM, Nov 15, 2018

Teacher and Friend


Putu Oka Sukanta

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who I later called Bung Pram, gave me my first lesson on how to be a writer when I was just a junior high school student in Singaraja, North Bali. I had borrowed his collection of short stories, Cerita dari Blora (Stories from Blora) from a classmate, and after reading the opening story, with its description of the River Lusi, I found myself deep in thought. I could feel the river, and the bamboo growing on its banks, all around me. I thought to myself, ‘This is a story about everyday life.’

Something drove me to head off out of my village, along the track that passed the graveyard and went in the direction of the Tukad Banyumala, the river that flowed through our village of Banjar Tegal on its way to the sea at Lingga Beach. When I got there, I just sat down on a rock and looked. I could see the things Bung Pram had described in his story, and I noticed other things as well: women fording the narrow stream, one hand lifting the hem of their kain while the other steadied a basket on their heads; the farmers, and the people who came to the river to bathe. I studied everything they did, and a feeling of determination arose within me: ‘I’m going to write about the Tukad Banyumala!’ It took another four years, but in the end I did, in a story about some guerilla fighters who were almost captured by Dutch soldiers in a cave upstream from where I sat and watched the river that day.

It was that book of Bung Pram’s, Cerita dari Blora, that taught me to write poems and stories about the everyday lives of the people around me, the people and things that tugged away at my thoughts and feelings.

First meeting

Later, in 1963, after I’d moved to Yogyakarta, I received an invitation to attend a national conference of writers that was being organised in Medan, North Sumatra by the Literature Section of LEKRA, the People’s Cultural Institute. I was one of a group of young writers from Yogya who were invited, and we all travelled to Medan together. From Tanjung Priok, the port of Jakarta, we sailed to Belawan in North Sumatra on the Kuan Maru, and it was on this voyage that I got to know Bung Pram personally. We became friends very easily and quickly, and before we reached Belawan we were all laughing and joking on a regular basis.

Once, I asked him about the technique of writing novels and stories. He turned to me and said, ‘Look at the tiles on the roof of a house. If you can trace the journey of the clay, beginning in the rice fields and ending up as roof tiles, and the people who make that happen, you’ve got a novel.’ I knew what he meant, and even though I’ve never written a novel about roof tiles, I did go on to write about the people who turn raw materials into useful commodities without ever receiving proper recognition for their labours.

So I went to work for him, and this gave me the chance to find out more about his writing

When I moved to Jakarta in April 1964, I immediately became friendly with Bung Pram’s family. I joined in some of their family outings, and one day he asked me if I would like a job as his assistant at Res Publika University. So I went to work for him, and this gave me the chance to find out more about his writing. One day, I was reading one of his manuscripts, when he came up and said, ‘Sentences must be solid. Get rid of all the conjunctions and the extra words that don’t serve any useful purpose. Make your sentences short and concise.’

Political prisoners

At the beginning of 1966, after Bung Pram had been arrested and sent to Salemba Prison, I used to visit him there with Zus, as I called his wife – that was, until one of the prisoners on visitor duty warned me to stay away, because it wasn’t safe. A year later I too was in Salemba, so we met up again. I came upon him one morning in the early light of dawn, as he ran around the sports field. ‘So they did catch up with you!’ he said, keeping on running and forcing me to fall in with him. ‘Who got you? One of your own friends?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered, as I kept pace with him. ‘In here you have to know who’s your friend and who’s your enemy.’

Bung Pram was a teacher of few words he never talked much, but he taught by example.

That meeting was significant for me. It formed my approach to people during my years in prison.

Bung Pram was a teacher of few words. During the time we were in the same cell block, he never talked much, but he taught by example. He kept up a daily exercise routine, filling the prisoners’ bathwater tub with water he drew from the well, as well as walking every day, round and round the volleyball court in the prison yard. I took note of his disciplined approach to life, and applied it myself to life in prison. It meant that we both made enemies among the other prisoners, each in our different ways.

As a friend whose release from prison came earlier than his, I often visited Bung Pram’s family while he was in Buru. Once, I met the literary critic HB Jassin there. Jassin had been part of the opposing camp before 1965, but he had come to pass something on to Bung Pram’s wife, and knowing that I too had been in prison, he told me he too had been detained by the New Order government. This was because he had published a story by Kipanjikusmin in 1968 that was considered insulting to Islam. That didn’t concern me, but what struck me about the meeting was the friendship that existed between Bung Pram and Jassin, even though they had been bitter enemies in the struggles before 1965.

Post release

After his release, Bung Pram caused an uproar among the authorities when, in the 1990s, he refused to report each month to the local military command. I came to see him, to hear what had been going on. ‘What are we doing, still following their orders?’ he said, drawing calmly on his cigarette. ‘I’ve closed the book on that one.’ Later, when I was detained again in the 1990s and told to report to the local government office every month after my release, I followed his example. But I wasn’t as brave as he had been, because in the end I did report, even though not every month.

There is one thing I failed to do for him before he died, and that was to take him to Purwakarta, to see the pioneering woman writer, S Rukiah Kertapati, who was in declining health. I knew vaguely about their friendship that went back to the time before the 1965 tragedy, but she died before him. Maybe now they are meeting in a new and different world.

Respect and appreciation

I’m not one of those people who used to spend many hours in conversation with Bung Pram. However we did have one chance for a long talk that I exploited to the full. It was back in 2001, when I interviewed him for Latitudes magazine. I made use of that occasion to show him my respect and appreciation, as a teacher and a friend. In the interview, I asked him about his dreams for our nation. In reply, he said that his dreams now were the same as those his mother had taught him as a child: the ideal was to be free, democratic and modern. But he went on to express his disappointment that things had turned out so differently for Indonesia. ‘All we have now is a herd mentality, not the individualism that’s needed for democracy. And modern? When problems are solved by murdering other people, that’s not modern, it’s barbarism. But that’s what happens now.’

‘How bitter it feels,’ he said. ‘But it isn’t my problem any more. It’s a problem for the young generation. That’s why they need to make themselves aware of what is going on around them. Once some kids came and asked me, "So what do your think of the situation these days?" I told them, "Don’t be so stupid. That’s your job. Work it out for yourselves."’

For myself, Bung Pram lives on, in every word that gives meaning to the struggle for liberation.

Putu Oka Sukanta (poskanta@indosat.net.id) is a writer, HIV/AIDS activist and advocate of traditional healing methods, based in Jakarta


Inside Indonesia 88: Oct-Dec 2006

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