Indonesian Independence Day is observed on August 17. It is a celebration of their declaration of independence from Dutch colonizers in 1945. The country was finally granted independence by colonials in December 1949. Sukarno, the first President, opted to commemorate 17 th August 1945 as the independence day of Indonesia, though it wasn’t until 2005 that the Dutch finally accepted Sukarno’s declaration!
With Sukarno and Suharto, writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer also made a bid for independence as he felt, “Each injustice has to be fought against”. Toer also known as Pak Pram the freedom fighter and writer spent some years in jail and under house arrest for his outspoken writing, both under the Colonials and under Suharto in the island of Buru. He came up with the Buru Quartet and eventually was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1988. He died in 2006. A google doodle did mark his ninety second birthday in 2017. Read more
Amba, a novel from Indonesia, written by award winning writer Lakshmi Pamuntjak, was a modern take on the story of Amba and Bhisma from The Mahabharata, set against the backdrop of the violence of 1965 and the Buru penal colony set up during Suharto’s regime. Published in 2012, it became a national bestseller within Indonesia.
It was first translated to German in 2015 and sold 10,000 copies within three months of its launch. Later the English translation renamed it The Question of Red (2016). The novel did win some amount of international acclaim. Read more
In February last year, I was sitting in Cafe Batavia on Fatahillah Square in Jakarta, talking to an Indonesian friend. We were discussing how any novelist might describe a country to a readership who know nothing about it. We were surrounded by framed photos of Indonesian politicians and Hollywood stars, and the ceiling fans turned overhead. Outside, it was hot and overcast, and students milled around the front of the History Museum, built by the Dutch in 1710 and now housing objects from the founding of Jayakarta in 1527. How could any writer portray such a diverse culture?
My friend smiled wryly. “You only have the same problem as the rest of us,” he said. “Indonesia isn’t a nation. It’s an imagination.”
There are some countries so vast and diverse that any attempt to summarise them feels insulting: such is Indonesia. With a population of 258 million, it is the world’s fourth most populous nation and the largest formed by an archipelago. When it was guest of honour at the Frankfurt book fair last year, it appeared under the banner “17,000 islands of imagination”, a phrase describing its geography but also encapsulating the complexities of representation. Indonesia is home to hundreds of different ethnicities speaking as many languages, and, along with Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, has a majority Muslim population that is the largest in the world. But, as yet, little of its literature has been translated into English.
Elizabeth Pisani is a writer and epidemiologist who has lived in Indonesia for many years. She has a simple explanation for this: ignorance. “Indonesia has no place in the British imagination,” she says. “It wasn’t a British colony and there’s virtually no Indonesian diaspora here, which means Brits aren’t even introduced to the country through food or a cultural presence.” In the absence of such historical links, can literature fill that imaginative gap?
Pankaj Mishra reports from Indonesia: LRB
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. Read more