Pankaj Mishra reports from Indonesia: LRB

Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Mishra

I first visited Indonesia in 1995. For someone from India, as I was, to arrive in a country that was once part of the Hindu-Buddhist ecumene was to drift into a pleasurable dream where minor figures familiar from childhood readings of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata loomed over city squares. The Dutch, unlike the British in India, had inflicted few obviously self-aggrandising monuments on the country they exploited. Squatters now lived in the decaying colonial district of Kota in Jakarta where the Dutch had once created a replica of home, complete with mansions, canals and cobbled squares. By the time I visited, the language of the colonial power had been discarded and a new national language, Bahasa Indonesia, had helped pull together an extensive archipelago comprising more than 17,500 islands and including hundreds of ethnic groups.