Soul of a nation Indonesia

A captivating and insightful account of a fascinating country, Indonesia
Soul of a nation Indonesia
Soul of a nation Indonesia

The title of this warm, gener&shyous and always unsentimental book illustrates both theme and conceit. It references the original declaration of independence of Indonesia, that archipelagic behemoth of a nation &ldquo... Mat&shyters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as pos&shysible.&rdquo Those words were com&shymitted to paper in 1945 those &ldquomatters&rdquo remain contentious and contested today. A glance at the map should illustrate one of the &ldquobig&rdquo reasons why. Aceh, on Sumatra&rsquos western tip, is equidistant from Chen&shynai and Jakarta. Once you&rsquore in Indonesia&rsquos capital, you&rsquoll find that West Papua is 3,000 kilometres further east.

Then, there is the rich con&shyfusion of ethnicity, language and religion that such a geo&shygraphical scattering inevitably comes with. Add its oceanic setting &mdash even today, the only way between many islands is by boat &mdash and the freight of in&shyequitable trade and colonial&shyism, and you have a recipe for modern nation-state disaster. And yet, somehow, it endures. Elizabeth Pisani set out on an epic year-long journey to see why. She travelled by boat and road and plane, frequently relying on the generosity of strangers for room and board. She attended sacrifices, marriages and the occasional funeral endured cross-ques&shytioning about her age, marital status, children and sexual availability was proposi&shytioned, ignored, cheered and chastised all so she could see where the &lsquoetc.&rsquo led.

She isn&rsquot shy of tackling the big questions. The issue the other islanders have with what they perceive to be Java&shynese dominance runs through the book, because she reaches Java, the most populous of Indonesia&rsquos islands, last.

She takes on the burning de&shybate between &ldquodevelopment&rdquo and the rights of people on the ground. Forthrightly &mdash and interestingly, since she earned her spurs in public health policy &mdash she makes it clear that it isn&rsquot quite as easy as small tribals/indigenous/disadvan&shytaged versus big business. The nuances she isolates in that particular instance point to her great strength, which is that she is that rare &lsquoforeign&rsquo traveller who collects insights and not just impressions. Her insights illumine this book, not least in the section where she takes on the role of the religious parties in what is currently the very tangled web of Indonesian democracy.

She is also an astute ob&shyserver of how patronage in the Indonesian context mirrors the clan or familial structure that country&rsquos citizens are already familiar with. That mirroring enables the distinc&shytion the recipients of patron&shyage can make between what they&rsquore receiving, and outright corruption. Indians will recognise the &lsquodistinction&rsquo, of course. It made me wince.

For the most part, she answers her own questions, though I find her analysis of the new Islamic revivalism in Indonesia a little waffle-y. Perhaps she feels she isn&rsquot in a position to judge at any rate, it doesn&rsquot detract at all from what is a marvellously observed, warmly reported, and frequently genuinely funny book. Her interest in and love of her subject is clear. As with the best books about distant places, she makes you want to go.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller