Crushed by colonialism – or just hapless?
I once berated Australian newspaper colleagues for using the words ‘Indo’ and ‘Indons’. They countered that the terms were legitimate because ‘Indonesian’ was too long for a snappy headline, and everyone understood the meaning.
Not everyone. In Indonesia it refers to mixed race people, usually the offspring of European fathers and Indonesian mothers. These are the creamy-hued but black-haired beauties often seen promoting skin whiteners, vitamin supplements and Jakarta condos on television.
Do they feel insulted by the term ‘Indo’, like African - Americans bristle and call their lawyers when referred to as ‘negroes’? Many Australian Aborigines dislike ‘blacks’, a prejudicial word Down Under, though not in the US.
Early last century when the Dutch still ruled the archipelago, it was certainly derogatory in the mind of a fictional unmarried mother of two ‘Indos’; the slur was one of the many burdens born by the principal character in Jakarta journalist and historian Hanna Rambe’s novel Mirah of Banda.
This was first published in Indonesia in 1986 during Soeharto’s repressive Orde Baru (New Order) government that saw books as subversive, so don’t expect an allegory. It’s now available in English thanks to a translation by Toni Pollard, who has been teaching Indonesian in Australia for four decades, and Jakarta publisher Lontar as a volume in its Modern Library of Indonesia series.
This is not a literary work, which is obvious from the hackneyed opening: ‘As soon as the taxi had screeched to a halt at Ambon’s Pattimura Airport the driver jumped from the car to open the trunk.” Fortunately the prose improves later, enough to justify turning the pages.
The book’s value is more as historical drama, the life story of a much put-upon Javanese woman kidnapped as a child to work on a Dutch nutmeg plantation in the Malukus (also known as the Moluccas), the islands sprinkled between Sulawesi and West Papua.
When Mirah matures she becomes the plantation owner’s concubine after his wife has an affair with a European and quits the estate. Mirah bears her lover two children (‘Indos’) that carry his name.
He wants her to convert to Christianity and marry, but she refuses; Mirah fears being humiliated by the Dutch wives as a nyai, a kept native woman with no rights, but she also wants to die a Muslim.
Here was a chance to explain why holding her faith was so important because there are no other revelations about Mirah’s beliefs. Instead we read that this was the religion of her parents – ‘I’m afraid of the angels at the graveside. I’m afraid of God’s Judgement Day.’
When the Japanese invade her de-facto husband is arrested and later dies in internment. Her children are also seized and her daughter Lili conscripted and sent to Papua as a ‘comfort woman’, the vile euphemism for forced prostitution. Here she becomes pregnant to a caring Japanese officer.
Back in Banda, her Dutchman gone, Mirah weds a childhood sweetheart but the marriage is barren and turns bad. The couple split.
If the reader is supposed to have sympathy for the lady’s problems then the author fails, for Mirah is no national heroine like Kartini, challenging the system and arguing for women’s rights.
Instead she takes the victim position, constantly telling herself and others that she is ‘just an ignorant servant’ … ‘a contract worker’ … ‘a coolie’, even when opportunities are available to escape her plight. In the jargon of modern psychology Mirah would be a good candidate for a course in empowerment.
Yet earlier in the book she proves she has teeth, literally; while still young she preserves her virginity by savagely biting the genitals of a plantation overseer who tries to rape her.
Mistress of the plantation homestead, loved by her kind Dutchman (she only bites his tongue), surrounded by local friends and given every freedom except to linger with men, she instead pines for the squalor of the plantation laborers’ barracks, where she can be with the people she knew as a child.
Some readers may see Mirah’s meek acceptance of her fate and reluctance to buck the ugly system she encounters as proof that generations of colonization can numb an individual’s spirit.
Others may read this as a story of Javanese fatalism and proof that Indonesians rank the company of their friends and relatives above all else, including comfort and relative security.
More practically Mirah was unschooled, far from her hometown, and ignorant of the war and the struggle for Independence. She remains a bewildered onlooker. Yet with a little tweaking by her creator Mirah could have been a keen observer, giving the 21st century reader insights into those dramatic times.
Instead we get little more than brief mentions of the momentous events that are known to every schoolchild who’s done basic history. Sadly there’s no sign of deeper research that could have given the book more substance.
There are also errors: The Battle of Hollandia (now Jayapura) when Allied forces routed the Japanese occurred in March 1944. The book says that ‘lasting peace was still more than two more (sic) years away.’ The Japanese surrendered to the Allies on 15 August, 1945.
The device of Mirah telling her story to glamorous Wendy Morgan fails in the chapters on Lilli’s fate, when the author has to step in with a third-person account to fill in the gaps.
Despite these issues the book is an easy read, although the ending is unsatisfying because it stops short of revelation and reconciliation, surely the just dues of someone whose life seems to have been little more than a leaf in the winds of history.
Mirah of Banda by Hanna Rambe (translated by Toni Pollard) Lontar, Jakarta 2010,
(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 December 2014)