Not all sweetness in the mill
Imagine a distant future when the only cultural artefacts left after the Great Tsunami and the Big Warm are sets of sinetron DVDs, circa early 21st century.
Anthropologists study the programs intensely seeking clues to times past. So this is how the people lived, residing in marvellous mansions wearing splendid clothes and startling make-up.
These white-skinned beauties never worked, yet never wanted. Their frantic days were full of intrigue; scheming mothers-in-law, schoolgirls planning liaisons, and everywhere maids eavesdropping, ready to pour on the gasoline of gossip should the flames of malice grow dim.
After thorough study cultural historians deduced these programs were true reflections of 2014. They wrote theses about the Age of Affluence concluding that Indonesians were wealthy, idle and evil.
Now look back 160 years. How did people live then? With no cinema, television or photography the only resource we have is the printed word. In the early 1900s this was largely controlled by the Dutch.
So till recently it’s been the colonial-eye versions of the olden days which have provided our knowledge. Now through the Jakarta publisher Lontar we’re getting the chance to see different versions of the times conceived by indigenous authors.
The Saga of Siti Mariah was written by Haji Mukti who was probably born in 1850 from a Dutch father and Javanese mother. His name may be a pseudonym and it seems he wrote himself into the novel as Sondari, the most decent man in the book and who’d made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
His work first appeared in a Bandung newspaper as a serial between 1910 and 1912. It was written in Malay, the lingua franca used by traders across the archipelago. Later this became the accepted tongue when the founders of independence realized that imposing the complex and hierarchical Javanese would alienate everyone outside the main island.
The story was reprinted again as a serial in Jakarta between 1962 and 1965, then 22 years later as a book edited by Indonesia’s foremost man of letters and President Soeharto’s most famous political prisoner, Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
So here’s one of the earliest known examples of fiction published in Indonesia, set locally and written in what was to become the national language. This makes it an important document, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it reflects the times.
The plot seems to have been drawn from European literature rather than Javanese. It starts in 1854 and runs for much of the century as children are born out of wedlock, abandoned, raised by strangers, overcome hazards, make good in the world and eventually find their rightful place. This being pre-DNA they need birthmarks to ensure later identification and alert the reader to take out tissues for the reunions to come.
The cast includes misused concubines, villains of boundless evil, well-meaning fumblers, honorable men led astray and good salt-of-the-earth types to keep our faith in human nature intact. Unfortunately most are cardboard cutouts rather than complex personalities.
There are empty graves, a tiger that declines to dine on a passerby, curious encounters everywhere and enough coincidences to get the characters out of one crisis and into the next episode.
Siti Mariah is a much misused but stoical beauty who knows her womanly duties. The main setting is a huge sugar mill owned by a rich and ruthless Dutch widow who manipulates her family and employees.
Translator Catherine Manning Muir claims the book is ‘a window into the workings of a brutal colonial state’ though it’s really more about the nastiness of evildoers, balanced by fine deeds of ordinary folk.
The system was feudal and easily condemned from the vantage of the present. But imposing today’s values on yesteryear’s political and economic systems is a useless exercise. We’d do everything differently with hindsight.
The Dutch-run sugar industry used a forced cultivation system called Cultuurstelsel which determined the crops grown by the peasants and the quantity to be exported. It restricted people’s choice and movements and was eventually scrapped in 1870 in favor of free trade.
This is the period covered by the book, yet little of the economic policy seeps into the plot, which remains people-centered. When officials do appear they’re part of the landscape, village heads and mill managers who sort out problems and dispense wisdom, rather than act unkindly.
In one brief section a wayward Islamic teacher tries to stir strife among the workers, but the dutiful employees reject the man’s teachings and are reunited with a benevolent boss.
If there is a political message it’s that some Dutch sugar tsars squandered their wealth and created hardships in the colonies by letting the mills run down. The author sets a few scenes in the Netherlands and reserves much of his bile for European opulence, but his real intention is to produce a moral tract.
Haji Mukti’s deity is a God of wrath and retribution. When the harridan tumbles into the mill machinery and gets dismembered in gory detail, the triumphant author adds in italics: ‘Praise the Lord God Almighty!’
Just in case the message gets missed the writer steps out of the text to offer asides: ‘Dear Reader, that was how things were in the old days when people resisted the devil’s lustful temptations, but now it has all changed. The old ways have been scuttled.’
A quaint device that doesn’t help the writer and reader bond. It may have worked a century ago when literacy levels were low, but today it smacks of religious propaganda. Read it nonetheless as another piece in the jigsaw of the Archipelago’s history.
The Saga of Siti Mariah by Haji Mukti (translated by Catherine Manning Muir) Published by Lontar
(First published in The Jakarta Post, 30 June 2014)