Mon, 22 Mar 1999

V.S. Naipaul and Indonesia

The following passages are quoted from V.S. Naipaul's Among the Believers from 1979 and Beyond Belief published in 1995. The extracts concern the author's observations of Indonesia.

In his first book, Naipaul writes: "The Borobudur offered cut- price deals for local people... a recognized way of spending holidays... simple pleasures; but they were feeding resentment.

"Resentment of Chinese; of foreigners; of people with skills Indonesia didn't have... he was full of rage against the Chinese... the successful, the ignorant men... rage seemingly political... and racial rage.

Most of the PhD are Chinese. They are like cancer cells, ever growing and powerful. These people are actually like electric currents with 220 volts. However the existing wiring of the society is capable only for 110 volts... thus you need a transformer... supposed to be the government sector and young intellectuals. One day... will come to Jakarta and burn down this nice hotel. "

In Beyond Belief, he writes: "In Jakarta the new wealth could at times feel oppressive... rich people, rich Chinese looked to get away for rest, cleanliness, cool air, order to the new five star hotels... now the city's weekend sanctuaries... and on Sunday mornings, in the Borobudur hotel, the rich folk, Chinese and others from the Bethany successful families, one of the new American evangelical faiths, met and sang hymns and clapped hands... praying for the luck to last. It felt like luck, this wealth that could bless even the uneducated, because the technologies and the factories that produced it had been imported whole. For that reason too, it felt like plunder, something that had to end.

"In the authoritarian state, where luck and licenses came only to the obedient, every idea of development -- including technology -- went with that idea of plunder. Even the rich could be made anxious. So on Sunday mornings they met in the sanctuary of the hotel and sang hymns and clapped hands with sabbath abandon; on the rear window of their cars there were stickers, Bethany Successful Families, like a fixed prayer to ward off the evil eye. I often felt in Jakarta that it was a version, less elegant perhaps, of what Iran might have been like before the revolution: so grand and overwhelming that it seemed wrong to see the sham or to imagine the great city collapsed or decayed.

"There are stretches and stretches of gutted ghetto like sweatshops-shop-houses where once three generations would cram in to work and to live and yet there are parties -- wedding parties -- not solemnization ceremonies and birthday parties -- in those five-star hotels in total amnesia of the recent past, oblivious of the surrounding, ignorant of presence and indifferent to the future; wherefore rich Chinese would become the idea that all Chinese are rich and guilty."

Following are lines from Naipaul's A Bend in the River: "It is not that there is no right and wrong here. There is no right... There may be some parts of the world where men can cherish the past and think of passing furniture and chinaware to their heirs... perhaps in Sweden or Canada... It is not easy to turn your back on the past... It is something you have to arm yourself for, or grief will ambush and destroy you. The thought of two generations going to wastes -- it was very painful. The thought of losing that house built by my grandfather, the thought of risks he and my father had taken to build up a business from nothing, the bravery, the sleepless nights... very painful. In another country such effort... talent, would have made us millionaires, aristocrats... there all going into smoke... the rage was also with my community and our civilization, which gave us energy but... left us at the mercy of others but I had not understood to what extent our civilization had also been our prison... either to what extent we had been made by the place where we had grown up... and how incapable we had become of understanding the outside world... The world is what it is; men who are nothing, and who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."