fiction, review

Teh dan Pengkhianat

2020-05-29_10-38-57Never or rarely do we have histories written by the opposite side of a war or, to be precise, by the enemies. There might be some, but they do not see the entire event from the opposite point of view. Historians tend to write them from their own. But that’s not what Iksaka Banu dares to do. He writes short stories about the hundreds of years of Dutch colonization of Indonesia entirely from the viewpoint of the Dutch themselves. Teh dan Pengkhianat is one of his collections that gives affirmation to this. First published in 2019, it has thirteen short pieces on what the Dutch might have thought about the colonization, the land they had been occupying, the people they had been living with, and should they have just gone away when the time had finally come.

Among those thirteen short stories, some seem to have similar specific themes. Tegak Dunia and Variola are the first pair to talk about the same thing: science versus religion. For those who endlessly witness the tiring debates about whether the earth is a globe or flat, Tegak Dunia might be an interesting narrative piece. Jan van de Vlek is an orphan of Dutch origin raised in an orphanage in the East Indies. His late father wanted him to be a sailor and his uncle spares no effort to realize it. But Jan is reluctant, being told by his priest that sailors are liars, that it is impossible for people to sail because the world is, according to the Bible, flat, not a globe as they confidently state. Meanwhile, Variola is a story very relevant to today’s society everywhere which is mostly skeptical about vaccines. To stop the spread of smallpox in Bali, Dr. Jan Veldart suggests doing vaccination as quick as possible. But it is 1871 and vaccination is not a process as easy as clicking one’s fingers. He needs ten healthy children (with willing parents) to become the media, and Mr. Adriaan Geest tries his best to acquire them, difficult as it might be. He manages to obtain six, and goes to an orphanage to see if he can get another four. But here lies the obstacle: a priest named Van Kijkscharp, who condemns vaccination like it is a grave sin. To him, vaccination means stopping the destiny from actually happen, namely the death determined by God. In short, doing vaccination is against God’s will.

The second to deliver a common idea are Di Atas Kereta Angin and Belenggu Emas. Both imply the unavoidable, unbearable white supremacy in the time of colonization, where the Dutch really think that they are way superior to the natives and therefore not to be “too kind” to or get in touch “too much” with them. But Belenggu Emas generally talks more about women’s emancipation, in which Cornelia, our protagonist, is put in a “cage” by her husband Theo, not only because she is a woman, but also because she is a European, someone who’s supposed to give examples to the “uneducated” natives, and not imitate them instead.

The third and the last pair, Tawanan and Indonesia Memanggil, show the reader what it is like when the Dutch is on the opposite end in this entire colonization. The narrative doesn’t tell readers about what they had been through in the second World War, but it points out blatantly that what they’ve been doing to Indonesian people is nothing different, if not worse. The Dutch protagonists in both stories seem to try to make their fellows see that if they do not like what the Germans did to them, they should’ve not done the same to Indonesians.

Those pairs of common-themed pieces might appear pretty engrossing, but the titular story is not less appealing. Teh dan Pengkhianat (or, in English it would be Tea and the Traitor) will grab the reader’s attention not only for its interesting premise, but also its thought-provoking quality. Back then, there were a lot of Chinese labor from Macau working in tea plantations of Wanayasa and Sindangkasih. They were going out on a rebellion for the unfair payment they got from the Dutch. Captain Simon Vastebonden was being tasked with quelling them, something that he found very hard not for the task itself, but for the partner chosen to work with him. Alibasah Sentot Prawirodirjo was a native who had once fought against the Dutch alongside Diponegoro, but then he had switched side and was now working for the colonists. This had made Vastebonden raise a doubt in himself: could he trust him? The man who betrayed his own motherland for money? And now given a chance to prove his loyalty to the Dutch by quelling the Chinese labor rebellion? What kind of man doing that?

But basically this short story collection in its entirety is talking about traitors, if we see the native-supporting Dutch people as traitors to their own nation. Except that from the native point of view, they are the kind-hearted, considerate persons who take pity on the people of East Indies and disagree with their own. In fact, the way we see it, the traitorous Dutch in each of the story does not agree with colonization and does not see Indonesians as inferior to them. This quality is, of course, considered good in the eyes of the colonized, but what about their fellowmen?

Every piece in Teh dan Pengkhianat is an insight into what colonization is, what it means to the land and the nation being colonized. But they mainly, as I have mentioned above, try to depict what the colonists think or feel about what they have been doing for hundreds of years. Some might say this is too ambitious, because, as part of the nation being colonized back then by the Dutch, how could Iksaka Banu be sure that what he describes here is exactly what some of the Dutch did think and feel about their nation occupying the East Indies? What right does he have?

It’s not that the entire collection is a bad idea, it’s merely highly questionable. And what becomes more of a problem is actually how Mr. Banu tells the stories. His writing style is, sadly, not engaging enough to make the reader stay awake till midnight and stomach what he’s trying to say. All the premises are pretty interesting, but how they are executed is quite far away from impressive. It lacks the soul, the grippingness of a powerful narrative. It’s as if it’s merely telling you something, and not exactly describing to you something.

Overall, Teh dan Pengkhianat by Iksaka Banu is a pretty good collection. It tries to push the “national” boundary and depict the run of the history from the “enemy’s” point of view. Whether it fails or succeeds, it’s up to the reader. Whether he’s right or wrong to do so, it’s also up to the reader.

Rating: 3.5/5

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