Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Click here for the author's biography and a literary context.

Translated by John H. McGlynn (aka Willem Samuels)

When I was growing up, my family home was filled with young men – some of them my older foster brothers, the rest of them student boarders. One of my foster brothers was Hurip, who had recently graduated from the state junior high school in the provincial capital of Semarang. As is common with young men, one of the group’s favorite pastimes was gathering to shoot the breeze. Though I couldn’t understand much of what they talked about, I can recall some of what they said. Hurip, who was especially vocal, made the following comment one day: “What this country needs is dynamism. Our people are frozen in time. For once and for all, we need the courage to reject the idea that working for the government as a civil servant should be our ideal!”

Because I was an exceedingly curious boy, I harbored no aversion to rifling through my parent’s books or my father’s desk whenever I wanted to find answers to my questions. When I thought I had grasped the meaning of something I had heard, I would seek confirmation for my opinion from my mother. Thus it was, I came to ask her the meaning of what Hurip had said.

“You’ll understand when you’re older,” she said with a smile, which was no answer for me at all. I then asked my playmates what they thought, but they could supply no answer either. Even the family’s manservant, who was ancient in my estimation, could not give a satisfactory explanation.

Being a graduate of the Dutch-language junior high school, Hurip enjoyed a special position in the family home. Even my mother showed him deference. Not surprising, therefore, when Hurip raised his voice to speak, everyone listened. He was the unrivaled authority in every discussion. 

One day Mother told me that Hurip was a politician, which shocked and surprised me. I didn’t know what “politics” meant, of course, and had understood her to say that Hurip was a “policeman.” As young as I was, I was well aware of the family’s aversion towards anything having to do with the police. 

“But aren’t you mad at him for being a policeman?” I asked my mother.

Mother smiled and proceeded to explain the meaning of “politics,” adding afterwards that any Indonesian who was a member of a political party was an enemy of the police.

Pleased and relieved to hear this news, I ran off to tell my friends the meaning of “politics” but they just laughed when they heard my explanation. Even the manservant was skeptical.


I remember another time – one evening after we had taken our baths but before the older boys had begun to play chess or work on their school assignments – we were all seated in a circle around the low table where they did their homework. 

I was seated behind Hurip when he suddenly started to talk about working for the government. “A civil servant’s life is boring,” he announced. “A civil servant leaves for work at a certain time every morning, he sits behind his desk for a certain number of hours every day, and he goes home at a certain time every evening. There, he has a little fun with his wife, gets her pregnant and, lo and behold, brings yet another child into the world. Day in, day out, from year to year, this goes on – in short, a completely boring existence, no better than that of a draught horse who expects nothing more from life than a bit of hay, a bucket of water, and a place to rest. 

“A civil servant spends his days dreaming about better wages. When his boss tosses a compliment his way, like a bone to a dog, he jumps for joy, thinking a raise in position is nigh. But when the boss snarls at him, he runs off like a stray, tail between his legs, fearful of losing the position he has.”

I watched as the other boys focused their attention on Hurip. I listened too, even though I didn’t understand all of what he said. One thing that did stick out clearly in my mind, however, was my foster-brother’s comment that when a man has fun with his wife, she always ended up having a baby.

After we had eaten that night, I asked my mother if what Hurip said was true, that whenever a man had fun with his wife, she ended up having a baby. Mother didn’t respond immediately; the expression on her face didn’t even change when she asked me to call Hurip and then told me to do my homework. When I didn’t immediately oblige, when I remained standing there, expecting an answer, she told me again to do my homework.

Stubborn child that I was, I repeated my question again, and this time Mother became very angry. And so, in the face of her unwavering stance, I finally left to tackle my books. 

After I had left the room, I heard Mother call Hurip’s name herself. After that night, after Mother had spoken to Hurip, I noticed that he was much more reserved in conversation, at least when I was around. If he was in the middle of a serious discussion with the other boys and I made known my presence in the room, he’d suddenly switch to another subject or start telling jokes.

*     *     *

Life was simple in my small hometown, but even in Blora there came a time of change. Not that I actually understood what was happening at the time, but I could detect the change. I picked up some information from the bits of conversation that reached my ears about the activities of civil servants, businessmen, farmers, laborers, and so on. And I heard from Hurip, primarily, a number of strange new terms and concepts: swadesi, for example, the self-subsistence movement that had begun in India, and about how Japan and Asia were on the rise.

When Hurip talked of such things, he always used the same fiery tone of voice that my father used when speaking in public: “Ever since the rise of feudalism in this country, the ruling class has enjoyed undue and undeserved authority,” Hurip declared. “They defend this as their right, even though, mind you, no one from outside their class has ever recognized or ratified this so-called right. They accept it as natural that people from outside their class must defer to them. They spend their time untroubled and at ease because anything that happens outside their class is not their concern. Their attention is focused solely on their own rise in position, power, and wealth. At times, they might worry that their own superiors will turn on them and cut their salaries and benefits, but in the past, this worry was usually baseless. But now, because the country is on the rise, if they don’t join the movement, they are going to see their class dissolved.”

*     *     *

I also noticed at that time that a kind of frenetic energy had begun to influence the daily life of my small home town: people began to establish soccer teams, for instance, and in no time at all there were no less than three soccer teams in each part of the city, even some especially for children. Among the upper class, arts-related clubs began to thrive – from traditional theater to puppet theater, from Javanese dance to Javanese vocals and orchestra. Among young people, Western drama and orchestra suddenly found a large following. My father gave his support to a number of such organizations. Mother, too, was active in many women’s groups.

Quite a number of the young men from my part of town were recruited to join the police force. From them we learned that the government was actively trying to increase the size of the force. Even so, that didn’t prevent masses of people from turning out to see Sukarno, the rising young nationalist, when he came to Blora to speak. 

In the early mornings, one could see on the town roads, virtual troops of people running in file. Children’s choirs sang, in regimental fashion, “In the East the sun now shines. Awaken and we shall all rise together...”

My father ordered all of the children in the house to join the scouts and one night, at a bonfire, I watched as many of the parents of scouts, my father included, were sworn in as honorary scouts. A four-fold growth in the Indonesian Scouts provided impetus for the establishment of two more scouting organizations, one with a religious affiliation and another in which Dutch was the official language of communication.

During this time, contempt towards the Dutch also grew. Slowly but surely, this feeling took root until the entire population, it seems, shared a dislike of the Dutch. I was just seven at the time, but I remember my father saying to my mother one day, “Don’t bet on the westerners here keeping their superior positions forever.”

I looked at my mother, who was sitting reading a book and, from the glow in her eyes, I could see that she derived a certain amount of satisfaction from my father’s words. Looking more closely, I then noticed that her stomach was distended. She was going to have a baby!

After glancing towards my father, my mother then said to me, “You know that working in an office isn’t the only way to make a living. What do you think you’d like to be when you grow up?”

“A farmer!” I said immediately.

“A farmer?” my father asked.

When I reaffirmed my answer, Mother told me, “If you really do want to be a farmer, you can’t loaf around like you do now.” Her response bolstered my spirit and gave me the will to try my hand at cultivating a small plot of land that my parents had set aside for me out in front of the house. Sometimes Mother would come out to the plot to help me and once, when we were planting sweet potatoes, she remarked, with hope in her voice: “The fruits of one’s own labor are extra sweet. Just look at you; you’re sweating! That’s good for your blood and for your health.” She also told me that some day our country would be ruled by native Indonesians, and not by the Dutch anymore. “You’re just a boy,” she said, “but after you have finished school and are able to read the books your father now reads, you will know a great deal more and the sweet potatoes that you plant will grow and reproduce... I know, you’re still too young to understand such things but you will in time. Your father is a teacher,” she said, “but do you know what he’s really doing?”

I shook my head. “All I know is he’s almost never at home.” 

“That’s because he’s out there planting sweet potatoes for you so that someday, in the years to come, you’ll have a never-ending supply of potatoes for your own.”

I had no idea what she was saying.

“Not the kind of sweet potatoes you eat,” she said in explanation. “I’m talking about the kind of potatoes that you’ll be able to eat when you’re older – a situation that is better for you and your friends than it is today.”

I stopped working and looked at her, not quite knowing what to say.

 *     *     *

The frenzied atmosphere of my hometown affected a change in the life of Hurip, my foster brother, especially after Father put him to work at the school where he was principal. He had very little free time any more. His days were spent at school; in the evenings he corrected students’ homework; and at night he studied. What conversations he had now were always serious in tone. One in particular I remember was in regard to the subject of taxes. “Government taxes are killing us,” he announced to the other boys one night. “There are taxes on everything these days, and we have to bear their burden. We pay taxes on every meter of cloth we buy and on every step we take on the asphalt road.”

Though I didn’t understand what he was saying, I could certainly imagine how much happier people would be if they didn’t have to pay taxes.

“The Dutch didn’t come here to make us all high-government officials,” he continued. “They came here for our money, which they get in the form of taxes. If we object to paying, they try to get them from us by force; and if we resist, they send us to a forced-labor camp. Have you ever heard of the Samin people? They are a tribe in far western Java that refuses to have anything to do with the outside world, including payment of taxes. I say cheers to them!”

Because Hurip always spoke in such a serious tone, it wasn’t surprising all the other boys believed everything he said.

 *     *     *

Another change I noticed was that more people, even people of the upper class, were wearing clothes made out of lurik, the coarse homespun cloth that was so common among villagers but rarely used by those who could afford better material. I might not have been heir to a fortune, but I had no interest in wearing lurik. It was scratchy and the colors faded quickly, after only one or two washings. Even so, my father purchased himself a pair of lurik pajamas to wear around the house and a set of lurik daily wear as well, including a sarong and vest. And then, one day, much to my surprise, he gave everyone else in the household a set as well.

It was Hurip who tried to explain the phenomenon: “It’s like in India,” he said. “There the people are wearing homespun cloth and burning imported cloth.”

Spontaneously, I quipped, “Gosh, I wish I could get some of that foreign cloth!” To my astonishment, my comment caused everyone to laugh which, in turn, made me uncomfortably aware that my role in discussions was to listen, not to express an opinion.

Hurip lifted me onto his knee and continued his instruction: “It’s things like wearing locally-made cloth that give meaning to swadesi, the whole point of which is self-subsistence and to provide jobs for our people. Our people need work to live, which means that if you’re wearing imported clothing you’re depriving them of both jobs and income. In the end it’s foreigners who are making all the profits.”

It was around that same time I recall a village woman, a weaver, calling on my mother, who immediately ordered twelve sets of lurik outfits, one for each child in the household. I noted, however, that she didn’t order a set for herself. Apparently she shared my opinion of the cloth.

Naturally, the weaver was delighted to receive the order: “There are so many people ordering lurik these days,” she informed us.

“Well, it’s the age of swadesi!” my mother remarked.

The woman nodded. “Yes, swadesi – that’s what everyone in my village is saying, too. My neighbors are working day and night just to keep up with the orders. It’s just like when I was a girl,” she said with a laugh. “People are planting their own cotton. Even the local sandal maker, who makes sandals from used car tires, has more orders than he can fill. He has fifteen people working for him now.” 

Mother beamed at this news, and after the old weaver had gone launched into a monologue, though her eyes were fixed on me: “Swadesi is giving new life to handicraft production, making it possible for the villagers to live.”  She pointed toward the home of a neighbor, Pak Kromo, who made bamboo craft ware for a living. “If we can keep the movement going for a couple decades or so, maybe Pak Kromo will have a life that’s better than the miserable one he has today. Eight children, and what does he get for a basket? Two and a half cents, even though it takes a day and half to produce just one!”

*     *     * 

Meanwhile, as the weeks went by, my mother’s pregnancy advanced and prevented her from strenuous labor. Three months earlier she had purchased a loom and hired a weaver to teach her how to use it. But now, because of the size of her stomach, she couldn’t work for more than three hours at a time. It made her whole body shake, she said. And so the loom was placed in the godown and she spent most of her time seated in a chair on the terrace of the pendopo, reading and looking at the garden beyond.

My father was rarely at home. He was off planting sweet potatoes for the future, Mother always said if I asked about him. When he did come home, it was usually with three or four people in tow, most of them dressed in lurik and either barefoot or wearing sandals made from used car tires. Their conversations – which covered a wide range of subjects and were interspersed with raucous laughter and hushed whispers – were largely unintelligible to me, but it was from them I learned such terms as “cooperatives,” “people’s banks,” “teachers’ colleges,” “mass reading materials,” and “grass-roots movement.”

Over time, we had more and more people coming to the house. Neighbors whom I knew to be unable to read or write came to talk to my father about signing up for literacy courses. Other people came to enroll in courses on politics, economics, and other subjects – all these, on top of the students from both private and public schools in the area who came to the house, professing to want to be teachers or to learn a trade. My older foster brothers were assigned to run the courses that my father established even as he oversaw their growing rolls with a gleam of victory in his eyes. He had three hundred people enrolled in literacy classes, forty prospective teachers, thirty vocational students, fifty people taking general studies courses, fifteen kindergarteners, and twenty English-language students. For the Dutch language course that he established, only eleven people signed up.

Soon thereafter two duplicating machines, five typewriters, and a large crate of paper appeared at the doorway. Our home suddenly resembled an office. Throughout the day, all you could hear was the tapping of typewriters and the whirling of duplicators, shooting out lesson plans.

My father and his work became the focus of attention in our small town. He seemed to be always busy, but his absences from home were frequent too. As the piles of homework for him to correct mounted, the various foster children were delegated to assist. Mother seemed to be heartened by the increasing number of women coming to the house to ask her for advice. She could never say no to their requests. Even though her pregnancy was a difficult one, she always managed to attend their meetings.

Often, when Father was at home, policemen would ride by the house on their bicycles, casting suspicious looks in our direction. When I asked my mother the reason for their surveillance, all she would say is, “they’d like it a whole lot if your father did nothing at all.”

“But he’s a teacher,” I protested, not comprehending the situation.

“That may be,” Mother answered, “but the government would prefer to keep our people ignorant and illiterate.”

Several years were to pass before I came to understood what was happening at that time in my hometown, but I was frequently made aware of my father’s increased stature. Often, passersby would point me out to their companions. “That’s his son,” I’d hear them say. Virtual strangers would stop me and ask me about my father. Some even gave me spending money, which made me very happy indeed. From all this attention, I knew that my father was an important man in our town and that made me very proud.

But one day, when Father came home from school, he wasn’t his ebullient self. When he sat down at the table for his afternoon meal, I noticed a cold and angry look on his face. I lingered in the room to see what was the matter.

“You’re working too hard,” Mother told him when she came out to serve his meal. “Are you feeling alright?”

“It’s not because of work, I’m feeling this way,” he replied. “The thing is, and this is what I didn’t see before, a person has to be the master of his own house before he can do what he wants in it.”

My mother looked perplexed. “What are you talking about?”

“I got a letter,” my father quipped.

“What are you telling me?” she asked, with growing alarm.

“It was from the government,” my father answered with greater force.

“What kind of letter?”

“A threat, or call it a ‘reminder,’ if you will.” He paused. “I’ve been ordered to close down the school.”

My mother stared at my father in disbelief.

Not waiting to hear more, I ran to Hurip’s room to tell him what my father had said. To my astonishment, he didn’t seem at all surprised; he too looked tired and troubled.

I then went to the kitchen to tell the cook what Father had said.

“What do you mean?” she asked with indignation. “Who could stop your father from teaching? Who would even dare? Even the district officer doesn’t mess with your father.”

I tried to memorize what the cook had said so that I could repeat her words to others, but the cold look I had seen on my father’s face overshadowed my thoughts. I scurried off to find another of my foster brothers to tell him what I had heard.

“I already know,” he informed me. “They came when your father was teaching in my civics class. Five police and an inspector! They packed up all the reading books for the first and second levels and took them away. There were at least seven thousand copies of them. Your father put a lot of time and money in into preparing them! After that,” my foster brother continued, “all the teachers were called together and classes were called off. Before they left, the police also cut the electricity to the school, so there won’t be any more evening classes either.”

I was stunned by this news. By the time I returned to the dining room, my parents had finished their meal but were now talking about a lending bank my father had also established. 

“And what about the five thousand rupiah you put into the bank?” my mother was asking. 

My father just shook his head. “It’s gone...” He then spoke slowly, enunciating his words carefully: “The only thing we can do now is work harder. If the situation isn’t always what one hopes for, we should not be surprised.”

My mother stifled a sigh. “I always pray for your safety and the success of your work. But, I suppose, if misfortune comes, there is nothing we can do about it.” Her voice trembled with a tone of uncertainty I had never heard before. 

 *     *     *

From that day on we had few visitors at the house; even my playmates began to stay away. Our home, formerly an oasis, was now a small and far-away island. Mother spoke rarely. Hurip sat around the house, lost in thought, always with a book in his hand but never reading it. 

The number of students at my father’s school dropped from four hundred to just twenty-eight in a matter of days. His school, once alive with activity, now looked empty and cold. A classmate, whose father was a civil servant, informed me that government employees who enrolled their children at my father’s school would have their living stipends cut off.

One night I was roused from my sleep by the sound of raised voices in the next room. It was Hurip speaking and I could tell from the sound of his voice that he was angry. The next morning I watched him as he packed his bag and then went to ask my father permission to leave. “They’ve got us in a stranglehold,” he said. “I can’t live in this town anymore.” 

After taking his leave, Hurip was gone and our family was never to hear from him again.

I didn’t quite know what was happening, but I guessed that it was the same reason Father spent more and more time away from home. Sometimes he’d disappear for three or four days on end, not even bothering to come to his school. And when he was at home, he wasn’t reading or looking over students’ homework; he never went out to my garden anymore to look at the plants; he stopped asking me to go for walks with him in the morning. He rarely smiled; he hardly even talked, unless it was absolutely necessary.

Meanwhile, Mother was more often to be found lying in bed than cooking in the kitchen or tending to the garden. With my parents’ sudden reversal of fortune, I could not help but sense, even in my naive and unformed mind, that something was happening completely outside my parents’ control.

One day, Mother, took me aside to give me some words of advice: “You must learn your lessons well. Hurip was a clever lad but was unable to cope with the current situation. That why he went away. Your father is also smart, but even he doesn’t have the power to change the way things are. That’s why you must study. You must become smarter than both of them. And you will be! I know you will be. You will be far more clever and will not fail in what you do.”

I truly did not understand what Mother was saying, but the softness of her voice helped to calm my fears. When she hugged me and kissed my neck, I felt the warmth of her tears on my skin – yet another phenomenon I could not understand.

“Maybe Father can’t work, but why is he always gone?” I managed to ask.

Mother held my face in her hands and looked into my eyes. “Your father is very disappointed right now. I’m sure you don’t understand what I mean; you’re just a boy and haven’t ever felt the disappointment that an adult can feel. But your father goes out because he needs to take his mind off things.”

As a boy, I’d often disappear from the house to explore the neighborhood. One of my favorite haunts was the local market and sometimes, during my trips there and back, I’d catch sight of my father and his friends playing cards or engaging in some other form of gambling on the verandah of one of the men’s homes. I now guessed that this is what Mother meant by my father’s need to “take his mind off things.” 

After the near-failure of my father’s school, I would sometimes overhear people talking about him and about how he had forsaken the nationalist movement in order to spend his time gambling. I might have been young but I was able to sense the negative connotation of the word. I suppose that’s why I didn’t ask my mother if my assumption about Father’s whereabouts was correct. I also suppose that’s why when she then asked me if I knew where my father might be, I could not pretend otherwise.

“Then I want you to find him,” she told me, “and I want you to tell him to come home.”

Leaving the house, I set out to find my father and, indeed, I did find him at one of his regular haunts. When he saw me, he gave me an angry look, but that didn’t prevent me from conveying Mother’s message.

“Tell your mother I’ll be home in a minute,” was all he had to say.

Not long after my return home, Father appeared at the door. Mother said very little to him. He, too, was taciturn, but that night, after I had gone into my room, I heard Mother say to him, “I think you’ve had enough time to cure your disappointment.”

For the next two days and nights the situation at home appeared to have reverted to normal, with Father coming straight home from his work at school and not going out in the evening. By the third day, however, he had become fidgety and nervous and that night he suddenly left the house, without saying where he was going. Mother made no move to stop him from going and in the days that followed, whenever he left the house, she never said anything either. But then one day, after he had not come home four straight days, she called me into her bedroom and asked me to fetch her a pencil and paper. After I had brought them to her, she proceeded to write a letter.

As she wrote I noticed how difficult it seemed for her to put her words on paper. After folding the note, she handed it to me and, without comment, returned to her bed.

“Do you want me to give this to Father?” I stuttered.

Instead of answering, she stared into my eyes and silently nodded. 

Unlike the previous time when I was sent to find Father, this time, no matter where I looked, I could not find him. He was at none of the houses he normally frequented. Four or five hours passed as I traversed the town without success but, remembering the look in my mother’s eye, I couldn’t make myself go home, not without first finding Father. Finally, tired and completely discouraged, I sat beneath a tamarind tree at the side of the road to rest. 

Sad thoughts rose and fell in my mind: the confiscation of my father’s books by the police, the failed bank in which my father had invested, the bankrupt cooperatives, the falling number of students at Father’s school, the silent duplicator machine, the mute typewriters... The litany of images went on and on. Suddenly an overpowering feeling of misfortune overtook me and I pushed my body back against the trunk of the tree as if hoping to absorb some of its solidity. 

Groping inside my trouser pocket, I took out the note my mother had written. I was almost too afraid to read it, but I couldn’t make myself stop: 

Have you no concern at all for the child I am carrying? Please come home!

Honor your unborn child by bowing to the Most High and praying that he becomes a person of honor and intelligence.

If, after receiving this letter you are still not willing to come home, then pray for me to die and take this unborn child with me to the grave.

I began to cry but then, suddenly, I quickly refolded the note and put it back in my pocket, determined once more to find my father. In the end, I did find him, in the back of the house of a Chinese man where he was gambling.

As before, Father looked displeased to see me but he accepted the letter that I held out to him. 

When Father returned home that night, he didn’t go directly to my mother’s room. Instead, he stayed in the front room to speak to the children. To my ears, his voice sounded forced and unnaturally loud, as if he were speaking not for us but for Mother to hear. 

A week then passed without Father venturing out at night. During that week he was home every night, helping the children do their homework. But then, the following week, three men who were friends of my father showed up at the house. I remember the time well: it was two o’clock in the afternoon and Father asked me to serve his guests refreshments. Naturally, I lingered in the room after bringing them something to drink.

After talking to the men for about a quarter of an hour, Father excused himself and went to find my mother. I didn’t hear what he said to her, but from where I loitered in the hallway, I heard her say in an angry tone, “This home is where my children were born and I will not allow you to turn it into a gambling den!”

After returning to the front room, where his guests were seated, Father invited them to follow him to another dwelling, an empty house our family owned about four hundred meters from our home.  

To my recollection, that was the only time in her life that my mother refused to receive guests of my father. But what I found even more surprising that day was that after Father and his guests had removed themselves to the other house, Mother quickly rose from her bed and whisked herself off to the kitchen to make bread pudding, my father’s favorite dessert. She mixed lots of cheese into the batter to make it taste extra rich. Towards evening, when the pudding came out of the oven, she then ordered me and four of my foster brothers to take the pudding to the house where father and his guests were gambling. 

Father seemed especially surprised to see us appear with the pudding and other treats Mother had added to the tray. Immediately after serving the treats, we returned home but for some reason, not a single word passed between us as we made our way back to the house that evening. 

 *     *     *

One day, out of the blue, the old lurik weaver from the village came to our house to see my mother. I tagged along behind Mother when she went to greet her guest at the door. 

“Lurik isn’t selling well now,” the old woman immediately told her. “We’re not getting any orders. Even the stock we have on hand isn’t selling. The only people buying are people from the village, the same ones without any money to spend. Wouldn’t you like to order some more?” she asked in a pleading voice.

My mother said no to the woman, as gently as she could, explaining that she had a pile of unused lurik in the armoire. 

“I guess the days of swadesi are over,” my mother said hollowly, tears brimming in her eyes. My mother, who usually had no shortage of time for conversation with the villagers who came to see her, now appeared to have nothing to say at all.

The weaver nodded. With bowed head and stooped shoulders, she turned and left the house. 

And Mother was right – or so it seemed, the days of swadesi and of helping one another were over. A sense of malaise now pervaded our small town. People no longer delved in fantasies about the greatness of our yet unborn nation. Word had it that the government was recruiting fifty more police officers. Gambling, theft, and murder were on the rise.

At home, the duplicating machines and typewriters were put back inside their shipping crates. A few days later some people came to take away some of our household effects as well. When I asked Mother what was happening to our things, she could only shake her head. Only at a later date did I learn our belongings had been confiscated to pay off my father’s debts. Meanwhile, he had disappeared once again.  

That very same night, Mother’s water broke. When that happened, she gathered the children together and told one of my foster brothers to find my father. She told another to call the midwife. She asked me to help the servant boil water.

Two hours later, only two of us had succeeded in carrying out Mother’s orders. The foster brother who had been told to find my father had come back home alone. But the baby was ready to be born and so, without my father present, my new brother was born. When he screamed, we all breathed a sigh of relief. His was a healthy cry.

The next morning, when I tiptoed into Mother’s room to see my baby brother, she welcomed me with a smile. My brother was sleeping peacefully beside her. All suffering and pain seemed to have disappeared from Mother’s face. 

Just as I leaned down to give my brother a kiss, my father suddenly burst into the room. 

“A boy!” he cried, with obvious pleasure, “a boy, who’s going to grow up to be bigger and better than both his parents.”

My mother stared at him coldly. She then spoke in a voice that at once seemed to be lacking in strength but strangely full of pride: “Yes, you have a boy, a son who will get nothing from you and nothing from either this time or place, a boy who will grow up by himself...”

I didn’t hear what else she said. I silently snuck out of the room.

 *     *     *

And so it was that at the same time my parents’ fourth child was born, the country’s dream of self sufficiency was dying. In the end, everything returned to the way it had been before and it was calm and peaceful in my small hometown of Blora once more. A time of twilight had come and we knew that before the sun would rise darkness would first descend. 


For a detailed literary context and biography of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, click here.

John H. McGlynn, originally from Wisconsin, U.S.A., is a long-term resident of Indonesia, having lived in Jakarta almost continually since 1976. A graduate of the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, with a Masters degree in Indonesian language and literature, he is the translator of several dozen publications. Through the Lontar Foundation, which he established with four Indonesian authors in 1987, he has edited, overseen the translation of, and published more than 100 titles containing literary work by more than 300 Indonesian authors. Also through the Lontar Foundation, he initiated the “On the Record” film documentation program which has thus far produced 24 films on Indonesian writers and close to 40 films on Indonesian performance traditions. As a subtitler, he has subtitled more than 100 Indonesian feature films. McGlynn is the Indonesian country editor for Manoa, a literary journal published by the University of Hawaii; the senior editor for I-Lit, an on-line journal focusing on Indonesian literature in translation; a contributing editor to Words Without Borders; and an editorial advisor for Jurnal Sastra, an Indonesian-language literary journal. He is a member of the International Commission of the Indonesian Publishers Association (IKAPI), PEN International-New York, and the Association of Asian Studies.

Excerpted from the book ALL THAT IS GONE: Stories by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.  Copyright (c) 2004 Pramoedya Ananta Toer.  Copyright (c) 2004 English translation copyright Willem Samuels. Published by Hyperion.  All Rights Reserved.

The Indonesia Retrospective is made possible with the help of the Lontar Foundation, Jakarta.