Sun, 18 Jun 2000

Modern Indonesia as seen by Watson

Of Self and Nation -- Autobiography and the Representation of Modern Indonesia; By C.W. Watson; University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2000; 257 pp

JAKARTA (JP): Autobiographies are a reflection not only of the lives of their authors, but also of the unique circumstances which mold and shape their society.

Anthropologist C.W. Watson argues that in a country like Indonesia, the reminiscences of different figures can provide valuable insight into the construction of the nation, from its colonial past to independence.

He takes a diverse cross section of figures, some of them famous among students of Indonesian history and others less well- known, to illustrate the point. They range from the luminous Kartini, long championed as the catalyst for women's emancipation in the country, to nationalist figure Tan Malaka, through to a younger generation of Indonesians with a distinctly modernist Islamic perspective.

Watson's view is that the individuals, separated in many cases not only by history but by class and education, nevertheless share a common bond in showing how Indonesia was formed from a diverse multiethnic society. Of particular interest to him is how they place themselves within the context of their immediate society as well as the world.

The figures are put in chronological order to form a chain from the feudalistic sphere of 19th century Javanese life (Kartini), the growing nationalist sentiment of the 1900s and its realization in an independent Indonesia (Achmad Djajadiningrat and Tan Malaka), the developments in Islam and the role of religion in Indonesian society (Hamka and Saifuddin Zuhri) and gender in Javanese society (author Nh Dini, the only woman apart from Kartini represented).

Watson notes that similar experiences and forms of expression may be found in many developing countries in their emergence from the shackles of colonialism to the tumult of independence. He recognizes the question of whether postcolonial voices were inevitably "contaminated by the hegemony of Western discourse, Western ways of thinking, categorizing and evaluation?" However, he believes there is a unique quality in the form that autobiographies take in each country and how they are constructed by the overriding events.

Although Watson acknowledges there is no history of an autobiographical tradition in Indonesian (Malay-Javanese) culture, he contends the sense of self -- recognition of one's identity within and separate from the surrounding community -- is evident. Defining it, he writes, is a "relatively straightforward matter, beginning with the centrality of concepts such as malu (embarrassment) and nama (reputation) within Indonesian societies and tracing the evolution of key words up to the present usage of concepts such as harga diri (self-respect) and jati diri (sense of self)."

The most compelling individuals for this reviewer were Kartini, with her imposing figure towering over modern Indonesian womanhood, the Javanese aristocrat Djajadiningrat and Nh Dini.

Much has been written about Kartini, whose letters to Dutch pen pals were posthumously compiled into best-selling Dutch and English-language editions (the latter was erroneously titled Letters of a Javanese Princess, a romantic elevation in status for this daughter of a regent).

Of course, letters are not a conventional form of autobiography in which one is writing for a general reader; in a letter, views are expressed with a specific individual in mind. Watson also notes that Kartini wrote in Dutch, not her native Javanese, which was of a remarkable proficiency but marked in many of the letters by a melodramatic, "sentimental" style. As for the view of Kartini blazing the trail for women's emancipation, Watson says that while Kartini expressed dissatisfaction with the inequality between the sexes, particularly in her lower status than her younger brother, she was content in her arranged marriage.

Djajadiningrat, who lived at the end of the 19th century through to World War II, represents the metamorphosis of the Javanese aristocracy from being a pliant party to colonialism to gradually comprehending the inequity of the system. It was not an easy transition to make; Djajadiningrat was himself placed in a Dutch family and educated at Dutch schools. However, in adolescence, he quickly learned the great divide between "us" of the native community and "them" of the ruling Dutch.

In a particularly telling passage, he recounted attending a masked ball during his teens. With his identity hidden, Dutch girls were willing to dance with him, but everything changed once his mask was removed. In his later years, he rose high within the native ranks of the Dutch colonial system, eventually bridling at the rigidly defined codes of conduct, which extended to how the head of a native civil servant should be positioned when addressing a Dutchman.

Watson considers Nh Diah's five volumes of memoirs to be an indictment of patriarchal Javanese culture. She conveys her indignation at the restrictions imposed on her because of her sex. While men undergo public rites of passage, such as circumcision, Nh Diah reveals how women must mark their entry into adulthood through menstruation in a silence of shame.

Watson, a professor at the University of Kent, England, has produced a fascinating, well-researched and thought-provoking work. Written with a scholar's eye for detail, it is a must read for Indonesianists and those with a strong interest in the development of the modern Indonesia and her people.

-- Bruce Emond