Taufiq Ismail: A constant
battle against ignorance

TAUFIK ISMAIL: (JP/Ricky Yudhistira)
TAUFIK ISMAIL: (JP/Ricky Yudhistira)

There were times in the country's literary history when men and women of letters had done everything, except come up with a solution on how to overcome the under-development of a reading culture and the lack of appreciation for literary works, veteran poet Taufiq Ismail reminisced recently.

"We were furious whenever we talked about the poor reading culture of the public and how this had come about. Angry, angry and angry," he recalled with lively laughter.

To Taufiq, who this year marks a literary career spanning 55 years, works of literature are a source of mankind's enlightenment. They sharpen the senses, bring people to explore their inner selves, and most of all, celebrate the essential humanity of human beings, he said.

His upbringing landed him where he is now. "My father took me on his bicycle every month to a bookstore where I was free to pick any book I wanted to read," he said.

"I did not necessarily read literary works at that tender age. My parents instilled in me the reading habit so that when I grew older reading became an addiction."

Taufiq was also fortunate to be included in the first batch of student exchange programs when he was in high school. He went to Milwaukee, in the United States, where he got a taste of Western education and could enjoy the works of great writers like Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Edgar Alan Poe, Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway. From then on, he was convinced that school provided a perfect framework for instilling the reading habit.

Thus, he said, it was essential to first foster a reading habit among the younger generation. "And literary appreciation can come later," said Taufiq, who was himself a veterinarian and studied literature at the University of Iowa in the early 1970s.

THE POET: (JP/Ricky Yudhistira)

THE POET: (JP/Ricky Yudhistira)

For years in Indonesia, he said, writers communicated their concerns over literary under-development to every new education minister but to no avail.

"From time to time, ministers welcomed us and listened sympathetically to our complaints. But afterward nothing happened. It was always like that. Partly I thought it was also our own fault because we always complained without offering solutions."

It was only in the mid-1990s when Wardiman Djojonegoro was education and culture minister that writers were challenged to redirect their anger about the lack of a reading culture and the low appreciation for literary works. The minister asked them what solutions they could offer.

"At first, it was aggravating to hear this; because wasn't it his job to understand and resolve such problems? But we looked on the bright side, since he was open to further discussion and did not immediately respond negatively, without giving himself the chance to devise a way forward."

Then began grueling research and more discussions.

The conclusions were heart-rending:

For 60 years (from 1943-2003) there was no mandatory reading of literary works by all high school students across the country, with the exception a few schools. During the Dutch colonial era between 1939-1942, students at Algemeene Middlebare School (AMS), a high school in Malang, East Java, were obliged to read 15 literary titles during their course. In Yogyakarta, in the earlier period of 1929-1932, AMS obliged its students to read 25 titles.

By comparison, high school students in Pontoise, France, had to read 30 titles in the late 1960s, and students in Wanne-Eickel, West Germany, read 22.

"We thought it was high time to bring literature to school and our first target was the teachers. We toured cities and talked to language teachers," Taufiq said.

Language teaching had been strictly focused on grammar or linguistic aspects without further exploration of the use of language, with many failing to comprehend the beauty of words.

A support program, called Sastrawan Berbicara, Siswa Bertanya (Artists Talk, Students Ask) was funded by the Ford Foundation before being taken over by the government.



"It brought together artists from various genres and generations in schools across the country where they talked about their works.

"I believe for these students, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that widens their horizons. Imagine, for a student of today in a small town school, it's a rare chance to hear (poet W.S.) Rendra recite his famous poems."

The outcome of the program over the past few years, says Taufiq, is self-evident, as many students have become eager to write poetry or prose.

"They can send their works to our magazine, but ... we could not accommodate them all, even after we published a supplement for the students called Kakilangit."

Still fresh and in high spirits whenever speaking about his passions, we met Taufiq earlier this month at his homey office at the monthly literary magazine Horison in East Jakarta.

Taufiq cofounded the magazine in 1966 with Mochtar Lubis, P.K. Oyong, Zaini and Arief Budiman. Until now he remains active writing for the magazine as a senior editor.

The mid-1960s were the years when literary artists were divided by political orientation. Ideological war between left and right took a toll on writers.

"It went from a mere war of words to a war of works. Artists became too engaged in political practices when the so-called leftist group Lekra sent messages through the media, attacking their opponents, while nationalist artists tried to consolidate their view of art for the sake of art with the famous moral movement called Manifesto Kebudaayan (cultural manifesto)."

"Those from Lekra called us Manikebu which could mean sperm of a water buffalo. They looked down at us by which it called us although it sounded like the right acronym for the Manifest," Taufiq said with a laugh.

Artists who supported the manifesto then fell out of favor with then president Sukarno, whom many took as siding with the leftists.

The president even issued a decree banning the manifesto. Taufiq, who was then an assistant lecturer at the University of Indonesia's Veterinary School (now the Bogor Institute of Agriculture), was dismissed as a civil servant for signing the manifesto.

Also because of his signing, Taufiq missed an opportunity to continue his studies at Kentucky University in the United States.

Taufiq, who was born in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, in 1935, wrote one of his most renowned works, Tirani (Tyrant), in 1966. The work centers around the devastating political upheavals of that time.

Not for the first time Taufiq carefully recalled the memory of a discussion in 2000 when he was a speaker along with the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who had spent decades in prison for allegedly associating with communist movements.

"In the forum, I found that Pram never conceded his being leftist, instead calling himself a Pramist. It was obvious that he had been used by people from Lekra to attract wider support and for that Pram had to endure prolonged punishment."

"But what's done is done. I felt very fortunate at having had the chance to reconcile with him. We shook hands and left hostility behind," Taufiq said.

"It is my sunset. I am able to get rid of the hatred and anger in me. The ideology has long been dead anyway."

With the rise of the New Order in 1966, Taufiq too was attacked by his critics for being a safe player and too close to power, which explained how he could survive Soeharto's despotic rule.

However, a poem he wrote at the end of the New Order in 1998, Malu Aku Jadi Orang Indonesia (I am ashamed to be Indonesian), tells a different version of the story, describing the country's military repression and widespread corruption.

"The New Order was not all bad, but it did leave a mess behind and the ensuing economic crisis handicapped people's lives at that time," he said, leaving his sentence unfinished.

Taufiq nevertheless seems to refuse to stop. He is still tackling issues like drug abuse, moral decadence and many others in his writing. Some of his works have been adapted into songs, including Ketika Tangan dan Kaki Berdoa (When hands and feet pray) by rock band GIGI.

Through the long march of time he has brought literature to schools and a maintained a consistent sense of purpose. Taufiq manages to keep his name on the radar screen so that even the younger generation, born in the 1980s, still recognize him as a poet.

He also has earned a reputation as a Sufi-influenced writer whose literary works resonate with religious messages.

"As a literary artist, the road is not always easy and smooth for me. As a husband, a father, a grandfather and as a citizen and taxpayer of this country, I have to earn a living, while it is well-known that a literary career is not a cushy profession financially. Especially nowadays with the all the focus on instant entertainment via the black box culture called television, there are more tears than laughter for writers," he said.

"In this universe, I am a diminutive dot, almost like dust among other living creatures and nonliving things -- all God's creation.

"The metaphor for this dust is a farmer who plants a seed and then faithfully tends it until it grows to become a tree with strong roots penetrating the soil, with branches and leaves aiming high to the sky.

"The leafy tree provides shelter for people from the sun. Its fruits, if any, hopefully can be enjoyed to quench our thirst. Thus, I see myself as the farmer and the tree as my literary path."

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