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

Wednesday, July 24, 2019


Never give up or go down                                              

“Women must empower themselves.  Whatever our age and status we need to work together and understand the feelings of others. Never be a burden on your children – they have their own lives. I don’t feel guilty about being alone and independent.”

A stirring statement, delivered with force, knuckles rapping the table, the coffee cups jumping as in an earthquake. 

Tati (Tatik) Soepijarniwati seems too small, too slight and too old to agitate – but doubters beware. This is no recent graduate from the Me Too movement asserting rights.  She started exercising these when aged about 11.

It happened in Singosari where her family has lived for generations. It was the capital of the 13th Century Tumapel Kingdom, which she admires and depicts on her batik.

Tatik’s test came in a sudden confrontation with a Japanese soldier during the occupation.

“He stopped me in the street and told me to salute his flag,” she recalled.  “I refused and he got angry.  I had no intention of obeying.  So I told him I had to get home to care for my dying mother and had no time to follow his orders.  Fortunately he let me go.”

Tatik, 86, has only strengthened her resolve since she was a wee pre-teen staring down raw power, an armed invader who could have slapped her around to make a point. 

Now she runs an angklung group of retirees making music from shaking bamboo tubes and giving public performances; when not on stage she designs batik to illustrate the rich history of Central East Java.  In between she does her darndest to keep her generation from slumping into misery.

Her quest includes visiting the psycho-geriatric ward in the nearby Lawang Mental Hospital where she talks to staff about the issues of growing old.  She was recently in Singapore to look at facilities for the aged (“we do things better here”) and gives pep talks to the depressed and distressed.

The ward is clean and bright, but it’s the raw end of the medical spectrum and not for the delicate. Rallying new Mums suffering the baby blues is a zephyr compared with encountering the maelstrom of shattered minds and hopes of the mentally sick, offering cheer to those discarded by their families and suffering from the ennui  psychologists label ‘resignation syndrome’.

To do this Tatik has assembled a long list of mnemonics, the easy-to-understand memory jerkers built around commonplace words.

A favorite is saiki, Javanese for ‘now.  In her system the letters stand for Sehat (health), Activitas, Inspirasi, Kreativitas and Innovasi: “Use these principles and all will be well.” Coming from a younger woman, however well qualified, the words would float away.  But her manner and age give them weight.

Tatik went to a Catholic school and learned Dutch which she still speaks despite getting little practice for that generation totters on the edge of extinction. She also has some English, garnered when her late husband  worked with foreign engineers in the oil industry.

She trained as a health professional and developed her ideas while working with a German doctor on the family-planning programme.

During the Soeharto New Order government an intense national campaign rammed down the brakes on runaway population growth.

In one of the world’s largest social engineering exercises, thousands of women community leaders were employed to advocate dua anak cukup (two kids is enough).

The two finger V-sign was plastered everywhere; it featured in garish statues showing the Ideal Family – with the eldest child usually a boy.

It worked.  Tatik’s mother had ten children, she had two daughters.  The old proverb banyak anak, banyak rejeki (many children many advantages) was given a twist with the last word replaced by  masalah (problems).  The message got through: Big families are poor.

Though not all.  Cynics noted that while the second president was urging contraception his wife Siti ‘Tien’ Hartinah had tripled the quota.

When the programme stabilized Tatik became a midwife, mainly working in the villages; here she used the moments of intimacy to urge women to space their pregnancies and insist their husbands use condoms.

Inevitably some guys grumbled that she was a trouble-maker by poking into their bedroom behavior. Which worried her about as much as the Japanese soldier’s bayonet.

“Women are so often the victims,” she said.  “Men need to have much greater respect. We get tired from raising children and doing housework and are often too exhausted to enjoy sex. 

“Husbands have to understand these facts.  Attitudes are improving but they are not yet good enough. Women should not wed before they’re 25; however I do not approve of the western ‘try before you buy’ culture of living together before marriage.

“Intercourse may satisfy physically, but marriage is about the joining of our souls.” 

Despite her frankness she retains some prudery, complaining about a huge statue on the road to Malang of Ken Dedes, the first queen of Singosari and mother of the Rajasa dynasty that later ruled all Java, because she’s portrayed topless.

Tatik’s husband, who worked for the State fuel company Pertamina, died last century but she refused to remarry, saying she was a “one-man woman”.

Physically agile she doesn’t use glasses and only has some slight problems with hearing.

Unlike many pensioners she has embraced modern technology.  She uses a cellphone and has a WhatsApp Messenger account.  A diary helps her track appointments.

But on some issues she remains implacably in the past, an ardent supporter of the ten-point Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga (family welfare programme) launched in the era of Soekarno, a man she admires:  “I went to every rally where he spoke.”

Criticised for ‘manipulating motherhood’, PKK  has since moved from health and hygiene towards education, a cause Tatik urges on all who come within earshot, though always politely.

“The elderly can get apathetic if they don’t get involved in society,” she said, dissociating herself from the stay-at-homes. “Don’t be jobless, or a floater. 

“Grab knowledge from the tree and reach as high as you can. Then when you’ve found education open your mind. Don’t be arrogant or lazy; mix with people who can inspire.  Eat meals together.  Read books – take an interest in everything.

“I have my cat and chickens.  I am never lonely.  I go to the mosque twice a day to pray and contemplate, to seek peace.

“I don’t care what religion you follow, you can still get guidance from God.”

First published in Inside Indonesia 136

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