Is there a single Jakartan who hasn’t been complaining about the unending rain that has plagued us for weeks? Our city is besieged by floods that have left more than 18,000 people homeless. Over a quarter of a million have been affected in other ways, many trapped for hours in the traffic or even in their offices.
Hadi, my cousin, who works in an office building near the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle, was one of them. He called me, saying he might be stuck overnight at the office, as the water outside was 50 centimeters high. Later that evening he somehow managed to hire a truck to escape the flooded area and, upon reaching high ground, rented an ojek (motorcycle taxi) to get to his house in North Jakarta. Although I think that he secretly enjoyed his adventure, he certainly seemed very relieved to make it home at last!
I can understand that most people consider home to be the safest place on earth — and it’s more than just physical safety. Coming home fulfills a deep emotional and spiritual sense of security — returning to your roots. It’s a place where you “belong”, and people will go to great lengths to get there. Just look at the Idul Fitri mudik exodus each year!
I, for one, have been very lucky to be able to enjoy the benefits of the rainy season: Watching my garden becoming lush, and enjoying the cooler temperatures — perfect for curling up in bed with a big, fat novel.
And that’s exactly what I did, accompanied by a new novel entitled Pulang (Coming Home — see “Leila’s saga for the lonely dancers”, The Jakarta Post, Jan. 6), by Leila Chudori, senior journalist at Tempo newsmagazine and author of a number of collections of short stories, as well as two film scripts.
Pulang is her first “adult” novel. No, no, she hasn’t written a pornographic book! I just mean it’s the first novel she wrote as an adult!
Imagine going away for a seminar in a foreign country, and suddenly not being able to return home, ever — because it would mean jail, or worse. Believe me, it’s a gazillion times worse than being unable to go home because of a seasonal flood!
In Pulang, that is exactly what happens to Dimas Suryo and three journalist mates, Nugroho, Risjaf and Tjai. They are attending events in Santiago, Havana and Beijing respectively when the Sept. 30, 1965 coup attempt (known by the acronym G30S) breaks out.
Blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), these events, as everyone knows, resulted in the PKI being outlawed. Suspected communists were detained without trial, tortured or massacred, causing an estimated one million deaths. Since the four journalists in Leila’s story are linked to PKI-affiliated organizations, their passports are revoked, preventing them from returning to Indonesia. They hop from one country to another before eventually settling in Paris.
To the chagrin of the New Order authorities, the four political exiles then open Tanah Air, a successful Indonesian restaurant, rebuilding their lives in a strange, new country. But despite marrying Vivienne Deveraux, a French student activist, a deep yearning for pulang continues to gnaw at Dimas Suryo’s heart. His last wish is to be buried in Karet cemetery, Central Jakarta — Dimas’ desire to go home is implacable. For him, home is where the heart is, even if it is in a lifeless body.
The fictional characters in Pulang were inspired by the real-life stories of Umar Said, a journalist, and other journalists and artists, who experienced a similar fate to Dimas in the novel: First reduced to statelessness, then reemerging as political exiles.
The Tanah Air restaurant in the novel was based on the real Restaurant Indonesia that Umar and his friends opened on Paris’ Rue de Vaugirard.
I found Pulang an unputdownable page-turner. In it Leila skillfully intertwines fact and fiction, including elements with universal appeal: Complicated family relations, enduring friendships, painful betrayals and romantic love stories.
She uses three main historical events as pegs: The 1965 tragedy, the 1968 student movement in Paris and the 1998 Reform Movement in Indonesia. She creates Lintang Utara, Dimas and Vivienne’s daughter, as a link between France and Indonesia, and between past and present.
A film student at the Sorbonne, Lintang eventually travels to Indonesia to make a documentary film about the victims of 1965, arriving at the beginning of 1998 — just in time to witness the May riots and the resignation of Soeharto after 32 years of authoritarian rule.
There have been many excellent works presenting alternative versions of 1965. But there’s nothing like a good, easy-to-read novel that appeals to the general public — especially the younger generation, who are sometimes unaware of Indonesia’s bloody past and don’t always understand the suffering of the victims of 1965, whose wounds are lifelong.
For 32 years we were brainwashed to believe in the New Order version of 1965, so books like Pulang are needed not just to instill an understanding, but also to put the brainwash in reverse cycle — not an easy task!
As cruel as the floods of Jakarta may be, even crueler is a regime that denies the basic right of its citizens to return home, and have their reputations rehabilitated. Leila’s novel is a homecoming for all of us — coming home to the truth.
The writer (juliasuryakusuma.com) is the author of State Ibuism