(Bahasa Indonesia version: https://amellina.me/?p=286)
It was around 2001. I was about 13 years old, an 8th grader. I went into our family library at home, trying to find something new to read after I had finished reading a book. My eyes caught a vintage-looking book. It was a paperback with white cover; the title looked like it had been written with the help of a ruler or a set of handzet (a set of iron-cast used for producing text on paper by publishers in the past time). Its title printed in blue with green shadow and the author’s name in red with orange shadow, lining unpretentiously neat.
The book’s title read: “BUMI MANUSIA” (“THIS EARTH OF MANKIND”).
The writer’s name followed: “PRAMOEDYA ANANTA TOER”.
It was published in 1980. A first edition.
I took the book out of the shelf and it never returned. I started reading, and soon I got so consumed I couldn’t stop myself.
“This Earth of Mankind” was the first part of “The Buru Island Tetralogy”, the most widely-acclaimed work of Mr. Toer. The tetralogy as a whole told a story around the world of socio-political life in the then-Dutch Indies (now Indonesia) from the end of 19th century to early 20th century. The story was built around the struggle of native people against Dutch colonialism, told from the point of view of a native young man (Javanese – from Java Island) in the first three books and then another native (a Manado – from Sulawesi Island) working for the Dutch in the last book. The story was set in the period when native young people were starting to build resistance against the occupation through establishment of formal organizations.
The main character of “This Earth of Mankind” was called Minke. In the beginning of the story, Minke was just a student at H.B.S, a public middle school in the Dutch Indies. The school was open only for the Dutch, the Dutch-descendants, the Europeans, and the native elites. The school used Dutch as teaching language.
Born as the son of a regent of a “B.” regency, the highest socio-political level a native person can reach at the time of occupation, Minke was born as a native elite. But the golden throne was thorny for him. He hated colonialism. He hated the tradition that made him have to squat while keeping his head down when approaching his own father. He disliked the fact that native people were not allowed to wear any sort of footwear. He was a man coming of age at a loss in cultural humility, in search of identity.
“This Earth of Mankind” portrayed Minke as a rebellious and stubborn man (he was only 18 years old, but he grew up overnight into a fully self-conscious man). He was different. One can instantly see it from his outlook; Minke never wore traditional Javanese attire as he should (the custom was for people to dress according to their blood heritage). Instead, he always wore ‘European’ clothing; suit, shoes, and a hat. He asked people not to call him by his Javanese aristocracy title but “Tuan” (“Mister”) instead, suggesting equality. He had youthful temper, that was more often than not inappropriate. He had the courage to speak up to his Dutch or European teachers and to express his mind in school forums. He spoke and wrote impeccable Dutch. Above all, he had one feature rarely found among people at the time, not to mention among natives. It was his most important quality: he wrote. And he wrote well.
Minke’s extraordinary life story started when he met an extraordinary family; a native woman who had been taken away from her home to become a mistress of a powerful Dutch man. The woman taught him things he had never heard or imagined; she took Minke beyond school teaching. He learned about ethics, justice, freedom, and most of all, the importance to fight against injustice in any form. His awareness about ‘intellectualism’ and the responsibilities naturally borne by the educated started to arise.
Following “This Earth of Mankind”, the second “Anak Semua Bangsa” (“Child of All Nations”), the third “Jejak Langkah” (“Footsteps”), and the last book “Rumah Kaca” (“House of Glass”) continue to tell Minke’s life and his legacy. His personality evolved as he went through various life experiences, his maturity grew as he learned from hard events throughout his life and his ego shrunk as he knew other people better and better. He had always been a different man. As time passed his differences started to bring goodness for his people, fueled his fight against colonialism, and aided his struggle to build national unity.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer spoke through Minke’s character. He brought me to live in the period, he taught me about my nation and the world development, thousands of criticism and philosophies on humanity, the gruesomeness of colonialism, social interactions during colonial era (between Javanese, between different tribes, between Dutch or Dutch-descendant and natives). I read and finished it in awe. How little that I had known about my nation’s history prior to reading this book. Amazing was the story and details that ‘Pak Pram’ (Ananta Toer’s nickname) served in this book, none of which I had had learned from history lessons at school.
Pak Pram taught me through the ups and downs of Minke’s life story. Later I found out, that the character of Minke was not entirely fictional (“Minke” was a nickname given by his Dutch school teacher, who was strongly seemed to have intended to curse him with “Monkey”, but at the height of rage successfully slipped it to “Minke“). Minke’s story was inspired by the life of real person called R.M. Tirto Adhi Soerjo. He was one of the most important (though forgotten) persons in Indonesia’s Period of National Awakening who fought through his writing. He contributed through establishing the first native-led newspaper in Malay language, the achievement of which Minke also made in the tetralogy. Put simply, Minke’s story was a half-biography of Tirto Adhi Soerjo, the Indonesian Father of Press.
Pak Pram taught his story through the flow, characters and examples as broad as Indonesia’s land, as deep as its oceans. I still fail to imagine how he did his research to write this tetralogy, not to mention his other 50 books. Moreover, he spoke so loudly and courageously. It seems like he knew no metaphors, he did not care about how people would think of his works politically. He spoke from the head, heart, and body at the same time. He himself had always been a fighter. He had always spoken so bravely and openly.
Courage and boldness are his ammunition. Words are his weapons. He fought not only through his writings, but also through his speeches, speaking lines sharper than a sword. He did not care who were listening and who were not. But he had no power to resist when the then-authorities took him away from his home, put him in-and-out of jails without any reasonable explanation. His wife could not do anything when she saw his unfinished manuscripts were burnt down to ash. His fights could not stop the authority from putting him into exile in Buru Island. He could not break the court decision who, for political reason, declared his novels ‘restricted’ and banned from publication and circulation from the 1960s to end of 1990s. His messages and personality were conveyed as promoting communism, a restricted political view at the time.
But this amazing man never stopped creating. Instead, he wrote his masterpiece “The Buru Island” tetralogy during his exile, starting from verbally telling the story to his fellow prisoners. Verbally! He told a story with such complexity without writing, because he was restricted from writing at the beginning of his exile.
It was Pak Pram who brought a change to a significant part of my mind and personality; the humanity and literacy sides of me. It was that year, the 13th year of my life, when my appreciation for literature was born. I started reading more from Indonesian writers, particularly those who wrote during the 1945s (the year of Indonesia’s independence); Chairil Anwar, Idrus, Armijn Pane, then the younger generation; Remy Sylado, Dee, Ayu Utami, Sekar Ayu Asmara. I became hungry and thirsty for Indonesian literature. I chose to do a research on teenager’s interest in Indonesian literature for my final-year research assignment at junior high school.
Inevitably, he inspired me to be a writer. A minuscule version of himself of course. Encouraged by his character and works, I started to write. I keep in my mind a quote from his book about struggle through writing:
“(if you write,) your voice will not fade away as the wind blows, it will be heard eternally, it will live on for many, many days to come.”
– Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Child of All Nations
The humanity side of me was introduced to the story of struggle of our ancestors, the history of oppression to the native people both from the colonizers as well as from the Indonesian elites themselves, about the fight against colonialism, about pluralism, nationalism and multiculturalism, about chauvinism, about freedom. After went for a study in economics and politics, I could relate more to his writings about economic theories, capitalism and socialism, the fundamentals of colonialism. Consciously or unconsciously, I learned very, very much from Pak Pram.
Two important lessons that I learned from his books are about freedom and freedom of speech. I learned that there is no such thing as freedom without responsibility. That freedom should not be used as base of actions that may violate universal justice or other people’s rights.
The meaning of ‘being a free man’ is not being free to do whatever one wants without any act of obligations; instead it is to be a man of full consciousness about his responsibilities and roles as part of the society, but not to be afraid and submissive to other people, to unethical decisions, moreover to oppression. One should be very careful; otherwise his act of own freedom could turn into oppression itself.
Through Minke’s publishing firm and newspaper Pak Pram taught me about the importance of being aware of the law, about securing verifiable evidence, about integrity and full awareness of responsibility in being a press reporter or a public speaker, something that sometimes seems to be forgotten by today’s press and politicians.
Pak Pram, for me, is still and may forever be Indonesia’s best writer. His works are highly important for social development and humanity. They have been translated into 33 languages including English, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish, and Chinese. He received countless praise and awards from both national and international literature communities and academics, even numerous times considered for the Nobel nominations, although of course people (national, that I know of) who feel that they stand at an opposite political polar from his spoke against him from time to time.
His own life was a continuous struggle for responsible freedom of speech, for equality of rights, anti-colonialism, human rights, courage, and for keeping the fighting spirit flame itself alight. Not through loud speeches, not through conventional political actions, not through violence, not even by intellectual pretenses, but through the scratch of a pen on a paper. Well maybe he was promoting ‘viciousness’, but it is the viciousness of idealism, one of his qualities that I respect highly.
It is very sad that I never had the chance to meet him in person. But if I had been given a chance, I’m guessing that he wouldn’t have approved my calling him “Pak” (“Sir”), and would’ve had me call him only “Pram” like everyone else. And I would’ve had to apologize for not accepting his request because I wouldn’t have had the heart to call him only by nickname. But maybe I would’ve had asked him jokingly, “can I maybe call you ‘Mister’ instead?” (like how Minke preferred to be called)
Until the end of his life in 2006, Pak Pram had written more than 50 works; essays, roman, semi-biography, autobiography, short and long works. During his last years he had been working on an encyclopedia about Indonesia, a massive project. Determination had never gone away from his mind and soul, criticisms and a cigarette had always hung on his lips. He left for world his magnificent works which “will not fade away as the wind blows, will be heard eternally, and will live on for many, many days to come.” For us, readers of his works and the next generation, to continue his fight.
(Written in memoriam of the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer on his birthday, February 6, 1925)