The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, February 09, 2017


A novel bridge between us and them                                                           
Maturity at last.  A novel from Australia that treats Indonesia as a real place, not an Eat, Pray, Love fantasyland of frangipani maidens in sun-kissed ricefields.  This is how Troppo starts:
‘The first story I hear about my new boss is in a brothel in Bandar Lampung.  I don’t realise it’s a brothel at first.  From the outside it looks like a typical Indonesian beauty salon; pink curtains tacked up in a prayer arch over lace, a gritty Salon Kecantikan sign at the front and a becoming ladyboy at the door with toilet paper moulded into boobs’.
That’s an addictive intro.
Troppo is Australian slang derived from ‘tropical’.  To ‘go troppo’ is to abandon normal conventions, to ‘go native’. It also means turning crazy. 
In the hands of West Australian writer Madelaine Dickie, Troppo is a sinewy take on the people next door seeing Indonesians as humans with flaws and qualities, not economic units in a government statement.
The surfing, skateboarding knockabout’s literary talents won her a Prime Minister’s Australia-Asia Endeavour Award. She used this to live in West Java where she was mentored at Universitas Padjadjaran and Universitas Islam Bandung while writing her debut novel.  The result may not be what they expected.
Promoted as a book about ‘black magic, big waves and mad Aussie expats’ Troppo follows the life of Penelope, a name associated with steady faithfulness.  That’s not her bag, so she becomes Penny, as in dreadful.
Miss adventurous enjoys the Indonesian lifestyle, though her hosts have trouble slotting her into their mindsets.  And so will many readers who are not into the religion of surfing and the worship of waves, or too old to remember overwhelming lust and its aftermath.
It’s 2004, two years after the Bali bombing. Penny is 22 going on 16. She’s a part-time hangover artist and full-time risk-taker on a break in Indonesia from her older conservative boyfriend in Perth.  As she says, a bolter when things get too hard.
Soon this liberated lass is getting perved in the shower by masturbators, stalked in the bush by weirdoes and stoned by kids before making it into bed with a thigh-biting pilot who already has a pregnant girlfriend.
While her demure Sumatran sisters are treading an ancient path of service, mapless (but not hapless) Penny is desperately seeking self before her use-by date when tissues sag and a bikini is inadvisable.
The gap between Indonesians and Australians could hardly be wider despite Penny’s sympathies, empathies and occasional eruptions of guilt. She wants to find a bridge but doesn’t know how so turns to gin in a water bottle.
She’s set for a job at a resort where the arrogant and explosive bule boss Mister Shane, a former freedom fighter in Aceh, is in deep trouble with the citizenry.
Penny gets warnings aplenty but this surfing tragic is still in Pollyanna-land even when thugs hurl rocks through windows while a boozy party is underway.
Yet this libidinous lass is no naïf. She speaks Indonesian, likes street food and sleeps with a knife under her pillow ready to turn unwanted amorous advances into limp retreats.  She can even handle unflushed squat toilets.
The tension builds. Fundamentalists are talking bombs. The expats tell her to go.  So do local friends. But with only a third of the book gone and knowing Penny’s temperament we doubt she’ll be dozing on the next bus south.
Penny’s Indonesia doesn’t feature in airline mags. People are kind and cruel, honest and thieving, dirty and clean, treacherous and loyal – like anywhere.  Their cut-and-paste view of outsiders has been colored by brash, exploitative drunks with too much money and too little understanding.
Like Elizabeth Pisani, author of the essential Indonesia Etc, Dickie has insights to offer through her unstable heroine. ‘For Indonesian people Islam is a symbol, not an ideology’. Penny asks a mountain village woman why she has started wearing a jilbab, expecting a deep discourse on faith. The reply - to keep warm.
She ponders the treatment of the elderly: ‘Here the old people aren’t shut away. They continue to be part of the community … everyone has a place.’
The expat group is a handy literary device to explore attitudes:  Ageing academics in an ethnographic wonderland, balding failures seeking compliant brown virgins as the whitegoods market has closed, hucksters running businesses denied permits in their rule-bound homeland – and the drifters turned stayers.
One long-timer says; ‘The whole world speaks English.  Why would I bother learning Indo?’
On the other side are teens trapped by customs dictated by men, controlling clerics, venal cops, dutiful wives whose dreams of a liberated lifestyle are destined to be trashed by frustrated and jealous husbands.
They ask Penny about ‘free sex’ and boyfriends, questions as predictable as ‘where you from, Mister?’
Ponders Penny: ‘Sometimes there are things you can’t explain. Cultural difference so vast you don’t know where to start’.  She says she’s from New Zealand. Australia carries too much baggage in Indonesia.
What these generally unpleasant people share is a common hatred of Mister Shane so plot his downfall through black magic and violence which is bound to have collateral damage.  Enough said.
Less able writers would have resorted to clichés in exploring this swamp but Dickie doesn’t use a monochrome palate.  She has a fine sense of places ‘where the earth holds a memory’ but is more at home with the sea like compatriot writer Tim Winton.
What is it about these beach-crazed West Aussies? They’re always looking away, unlike Indonesians who know they’re at one with the land.
Troppo has already won a major award named after journalist and author Tom Hungerford, so Dickie, now 29, seems set to make a mark.  Hopefully through revealing another Indonesia:
‘There’s something intoxicating about living in extreme places, among extreme people. You never, for a moment, forget that you are alive’.

Troppo by Madelaine Dickie                                                                                           
Fremantle Press, 2016      

(First published in The Jakarta Post 6 February 2017)                                                                                                        

Wednesday, February 01, 2017


The village that knows its limits          

Some societies have giant boots; they stamp and shuffle, trampling shoots, raising choking dust.  Other cultures are more delicate:  They tiptoe, taking care not to disturb the sacred soil.
When academic Dr Grace Pamungkas was growing up in Bandung last century national development under President Soeharto was being thrust ahead with missionary zeal.  GDP rises were proof of prosperity – then a synonym for happiness and wellbeing.
Neither she nor anyone else had heard of ‘ecological footprints’ a metaphor that would have aroused mirth, not concern. Green was for grass, not an ideology.
But the little girl did know that leaving just one grain of rice on her plate was naughty.  Waste not, want not, scowled Mom. The daughter is less pernickety now but the message hasn’t been deleted.
Instead it has been expanded, given academic credibility and published for the world to consider – and maybe a plan for others to follow.
“Throwing something away means we don’t know our limits - which is a most difficult thing to understand,” Pamungkas said. “We’ve become a growth-focused economy.  We buy what we’ve been told we want by advertisers, but don’t necessarily need.
“That may be good for business though not for the environment. We can run our lives differently. The problem is defining the question: What is enough?”
One secluded West Java village has known the answer for decades – maybe centuries.  Kampong Naga, 30 kilometers from Tasikmalaya, is a living museum in a hidden valley which has avoided consumerism. 

It has done this partly through location – it’s even unreachable by motorbike, which makes it rare indeed.  Access is only down more than 300 steps. The other factor is residents maintaining rituals which emphasize the sacredness of frugal living.
The 500 Sundanese on the Ciwulan River valley floor call themselves Sanaga, which is also the name of their religion.  Though technically Muslims they follow the teachings of Sembah Dalam Singaparna, a real of maybe mythological being who passed down eight codes of living to his followers.
Some commandments appear joyless but overall are egalitarian - no-one lives better than anyone else.
Pamungkas, 45, now a leading expert on Kampong Naga, is an architect. Other scholars have focused on the cluster of 110 furniture-free thatched homes built from local materials, but the University of Indonesia architecture graduate took a different approach.
For her doctorate at the Victoria University of Wellington Pamungkas studied the ecology of the mysterious village and the way spiritual beliefs can underpin sustainable development.
Through four years research she’s discovered that the Sanaga’s light tread on the land offers a lesson on living without plundering resources.
This is despite the villagers having limited education and contact with the outside world.  They have a battery-powered television but use it only to watch football.  No smartphones. No trash in the river, though the men smoke factory-made cigarettes.
Pamungkas’ road to Kampong Naga meandered. She was recording colonial- era buildings in Jakarta when offered a scholarship to study art history in the Netherlands.
Completion of a course in academic English was a pre-requisite. A colleague recommended   NZ.  While learning how to fill pages with italicized references she met two Kiwi academics keen to know Kampong Naga’s use and re-use secrets.

As an Indonesian who also understood Dutch (the few records were mainly written by the colonialists) Pamungkas was the ideal candidate for a scholarship. She graduated just before Christmas and is now working as a university tutor.
“My supervisor Professor Barbara Vale commented that Western science thinks it’s smart but in some ways the Sanaga are smarter,” said Pamungkas. “Few books, but inherited knowledge. There’s no clinic but they are clearly healthy and fast regularly.
“Kampong Naga applies the principles of sustainable living, something few other societies have achieved. They use ancient beliefs to determine limits – not just through consumption of outside goods - but also by restricting growth and marking areas with a bamboo fence. It’s applied mythology. Taboo breakers could bring curses on all.
“No more houses will be built because they’ve reached the sacred boundary with forest, fields and river.  Families wanting to grow move out.  But they always return for the six annual pilgrimages to the Great Ancestor’s forest grave so I’m confident the culture will survive.”  The tomb has not been seen by outsiders.
Frustrating for any scholar is the dearth of records.  Much was lost in 1956 when the village was torched by Islamic extremists.  A 13th century engraved copper plate, which has since disappeared, is the only known reference to Sembah Dalam Singaparna.
He is supposed to have been one of seven brothers.  Six were capable and smart, while the village founder’s only attribute was leading a humble life.
Most of the limited information is stored not in Indonesia or Holland but the National Library in Australia.
Pamungkas’ mother insisting on a clean plate echoed an ancient Sanaga proverb directed at kids: ‘If you don’t finish your rice you’ll make Dwi Sri cry’.  The rice goddess is a powerful figure in the mythology and at the center of many “heartfelt rituals” apparently related to Hinduism which pre-dated Islam in Java.
“It’s all fascinating and I want to learn more on how religious beliefs can have practical applications,” said Pamungkas who is considering rewriting her 383-page thesis into a more accessible book.
“The only things I couldn’t stand in the village were the smells of decaying bamboo and feces from toilets above fish ponds designed to handle waste and grow food.
“The people are not closed to new ideas – I noticed a solar panel on one visit – so they may build compost toilets or methane gas generators in the future.  But they do consider every step most carefully, measuring changes against the founder’s instructions.
“The message for all is this: Materialism can be checked by traditional beliefs so all have a fair share.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 31 January 2017