Fiction · 12/02/2015

Excerpt from Home

Translated by John H. McGlynn

We drank our coffee on the back terrace of the house. Tante Surti now seemed to be ready to give her testimony. She positioned herself on a chair facing the camera, a sign that we could begin.

Before starting, I told Tante Surti that if at any point she began to feel uncomfortable, she was to tell me so, and I would stop the camera. But with only one question from me to start, she began speaking to the camera as if it were a long lost friend, someone she had waited for years to meet again. . .

“I decided to marry Hananto Prawiro in Jakarta in 1953 for reasons of love and conviction. Hananto was a responsible man and I knew that he would love and take care of his family. I knew little about his political aspirations or activities. He worked as a journalist at the Nusantara News Agency where he ran the foreign desk. I knew that, of course, but I knew little of his activities outside office hours. In the numerous times that I was interrogated during the three years that Hananto was on the run, it was always that information my interrogators wanted: what it is that Mas Hananto did, whether he was a member of LEKRA, what meetings he had ever attended, who was present at the meetings, and so on and so forth. These questions were asked repeatedly by different interrogators, and with different tones of voice. . . ”

Tante Surti paused for a moment to take a breath and a sip of coffee.

“Perhaps you could tell me why they detained the entire family. . . ” I said to her.

“It’s not true that they detained our entire family — or at least

that hadn’t been their original intent. It was my fault that happened. It was just that, with Mas Hananto gone, the kids and I were all so afraid of being separated from each other. But let me go back a bit. . .

“It all began on the morning of October 2 when Mas Hananto left to go to the office. He said the situation there was very uncertain. He told me not to leave the house unless it was absolutely necessary. Or, if I didn’t feel safe, then I was to go to my parents’ home in Bogor. But because I had just been at my parents’ house for an extended period of time for an entirely different reason — ehem, let’s just say that we were having marital problems — I declined his suggestion. I had no inkling of how bad things were to come.

“When Mas Hananto left, he looked worried but he tried to act normal. He reminded me not to be late in feeding Alam. Alam was a fussy child, you see. I reassured him that I would continue breastfeeding Alam as long as possible. Obviously, we didn’t know that this would be our last meeting before the day Mas Han was executed a few years later.

“When Mas Han didn’t come home that night, I wasn’t overly worried and was quite sure that the next morning he would show up at the house complaining about all the unfinished work he had to do. But this time, the situation was different. This wasn’t a problem of meeting a deadline, that became clear. When the next day Mas Han still didn’t come home, I began to make calls. First I called his office, but no one picked up the line, then the homes of colleagues and friends. I decided I had to go to see for myself. I left Bulan and Alam with neighbors, a kind old couple who lived next door, and then went with Kenanga to the Nusantara News office. Mas Han wasn’t there. I wasn’t able to meet the editor-in-chief either, who I was told also had stopped coming in to the office.

“The following days, I was tense with worry and paranoia. I tried to be calm so that Kenanga and Bulan could continue to go to school — even though, more often than not, they came home early because they said that class had been ‘let out. ’ My mother called and begged me to bring the children to Bogor, all the while cursing Mas Hananto for being a man who thought nothing of his family’s safety. Hearing my mother criticize Mas Han like that, I became defensive and decided to remain at home in Jakarta.

“One night, about three weeks later, I received a visit from Kusno, a journalist who worked with Mas Hananto at Nusantara News. . . . I suppose your father must have known him as well. Anyway, he told me that the editor-in-chief and a number of other agency employees had been detained. Others had been called in for interrogation, but then allowed to go home. Kusno was one of the latter.

“Kusno told me that coming to my home was risky for him. He quickly conveyed that Mas Han was being pursued by the military and that he was in hiding and could not be contacted but that he wanted me to know that it was urgent I take the children and go to my parents’ home. After telling me this, he immediately left, leaving me to wonder whether his message was real or not — which has been a source of anxiety in my life from then on. Where was Mas Han? Where could he hiding? And what was he running from? And why hadn’t he called or tried to get in contact with me, if only for a moment?

“These were my questions, those of a wife, a woman, who had no idea how what had happened would affect the fate of the Indonesian people — not only members of the Communist Party and their friends or colleagues, but anyone who sympathized with the goals of the Party or were involved in its affiliated organizations.

“A few days later, after Kusno’s visit, a number of men in civilian clothes came to the house to search through my husband’s belongings. They searched our bedroom and then went into the children’s room, which made Alam scream. They turned everything upside down, but wouldn’t say what they were looking for. They asked the same questions, again and again. Where is Hananto Prawiro? When did he disappear? What did he take with him? Where did he usually hide? Did I know that he had a mistress? Did I know where she lived?”

At this point Tante Surti stopped speaking. Her eyes glistened and her lips trembled with anger. I asked her if she would like to stop and take a break, but she insisted on finishing what she had to say, then and there.

“They didn’t take us in that night. That happened a few days later, when a couple of them returned to the house and asked me to come to Guntur — the military detention center on Jalan Guntur — for interrogation. It was difficult for me to leave the children at home because my parents didn’t live in Jakarta. Naïve as I was, I took the children with me, assuming that they would let me go home after I answered their questions. And so it was that all of us went to Guntur. ”

The story Tante Surti then went on to tell about the family’s experience at Guntur was the same as the reports in the letters from her and Kenanga that I had found in my father’s apartment. She said that they had been allowed to go home, but then had been called in again for interrogation, this time at the detention center on Jalan Budi Kemuliaan. The difference in experience of reading those letters and this interview was that I was now hearing her speak, firsthand and in her own voice, one that had been suppressed for thirty-two years.

Throughout the course of the interview,Tante Surti was able to maintain a calm and even tone of voice, but when she started talking about Kenanga, who first witnessed torture at such a young age, her voice grew raw with emotion. She said, “I could face anything but that: the shouting at me, the lack of food, sleeping on a mat, and being interrogated day after day, but not that. I could not bear the thought of what they might do to my daughter. ”

Despite the discomfort it might cause, I decided to pursue this avenue of conversation and asked Tante Surti about it indirectly: “During this time of unknowing, the three years in which you didn’t know what had happened to your husband, what would you say was the most difficult time for you?”

“The worst time for me was in the last year, before they captured Mas Hananto, when we were transferred to Budi Kemuliaan. I repeat again, I could endure whatever treatment they dished out to me. I did what they asked: I cooked, cleaned the latrines, ironed their clothing, even after being interrogated for hours on end. But the most fearful thing for me as a mother, something that made my soul want to jump out of my body, was a threat to my children’s safety.

“One morning, when we were still at the Budi Kemuliaan detention center, I found Kenanga in the hall, massaging the shoulders of one of the interrogators. It was a sight that made my heart shrink. She had such an innocent look on her face, not understanding the evil ways of the world.

“It was one thing if they asked Kenanga to clean up the blood in their torture chamber; but when they brought themselves into bodily contact with her — even if it was ‘only’ a shoulder massage — the blood rushed to my brain. Kenanga was fourteen years old: a girl on the brink of womanhood, entering puberty in a detention center.

“I looked at her, studying her features more carefully. After all this time at the detention center, her skin no longer had a healthy glow. Her eyes were red and she was thin as a rail. Even so, I could also see that she was an attractive young girl whose breasts were beginning to develop. I wanted to scream at the man and scratch his face. I don’t know how but I did somehow restrain myself — even as he and the others undressed Kenanga with their wicked stares.

“Seeing what was happening, I immediately called out for Kenanga to help me with the cooking. The officer nodded his consent and Kenanga went with me back to the kitchen; but then, not more than a few minutes later, one of the man’s lackeys came to tell me that I was wanted ‘in the middle room. ’That was the term they used for the interrogation room.

“In this ‘middle room’ there was just a table and two chairs. And there was a long neon light overhead that kept flickering.

“When I went into the room I saw two officers there. The one was ‘R’ — I won’t say his real name — but he was the interrogator I hated the most. The other was ‘A,’ whose skin was as dark as his black eyes.

“Officer R was a man who never shouted. He never beat people, never ripped out fingernails or smashed toes with chair legs, never used electricity to extract information. At first, all of us women who were being held there in ‘temporary’ detention — that is what they called it — thought that R was more civilized, more humane, especially when compared to Officers A and T, and even more so Officer M, who rarely spoke but had a penchant for cracking the skulls of the male prisoners. It was later we discovered just how wrong we were. Officer R was a different breed of evil altogether. . . ”

At this point I pressed the pause button on my camera. I didn’t know if I could bear to record what Tante Surti was about to reveal. I recalled the letter she had sent to my father, the one I read in his apartment. That night in Paris I couldn’t sleep. I stayed awake all night, staring at the ceiling and cursing my naïveté. I was foolish to think that I could ever be a documentary filmmaker: I couldn’t stand to see a broken heart.

Tante Surti looked at me and nodded. The focused glow of her eyes told me that she needed to continue to tell her dark tale. “Officer M signaled for me to sit on the chair. So I did sit down, but he remained standing and then began shouting his questions.

I tried to answer him,but I could hardly hear my own voice — which made him shout even louder and stick his big, dark, square-featured face into mine. He kept saying,‘What? What? I can’t hear you!’ He shouted so loud his spittle covered my face. All I could say was I didn’t know. It was then that Officer R came up and pushed Officer M aside. He took out a white handkerchief and gave it to me so that I could wipe the spit off my face. As I was doing this, I saw him signal with his eyes for Officer M to leave the room. Maybe he was going to protect me, I thought for a moment. But that was not the case. This was just an introduction to the actual evil. ”

I grew tense. My heart withered and I had a strong desire to stop the interview, then and there. Suddenly the cell phone I’d borrowed from Andini began to ring. It was Alam calling.

I immediately pushed the off button, because Tante Surti was still telling her story.

“Officer R sat down in front of me. He asked me to unbutton the first two buttons of my blouse. Completely shocked, I had no intention of doing what he asked; but then he smiled, calmly stood, and came over to where I was sitting. When he began to fondle my breasts, I used my feet to push back my chair away from him. It made an awful shrieking sound. Officer R shook his head slowly, waved his index finger at me, and then undid the buttons of my blouse. After that, he went back to his chair. I felt so naked and so exposed, I couldn’t regain my composure.

“At first his questions were the same, the ones I’d never been able to answer. . . . I tell you, there were times when I was tempted to make up a story about where Mas Hananto was hiding, just to make them stop asking those same questions. But with them holding the three children as a weapon, I didn’t dare to act foolishly. So, as usual, I answered that I didn’t know.

“But then he asked me, ‘What is Hananto like in bed?’ and ‘What do you like to do?’ I was astonished. The man’s questions caught me off guard, and my mouth dropped opened in surprise. He repeated his question, all the while staring at my open blouse. He then unfastened his belt and unzipped his trousers. I was silent, despairing. Then he asked in a firmer voice — not shouting or swearing, but more firmly — ‘What do you two do in bed?’ — with a smile on his lips.

“When I still said nothing, Office R began to talk about Kenanga, how pretty and innocent she was; how kind she was to massage his shoulders; how she readily obeyed when he asked her to massage his shoulders; and how, with her now beginning to menstruate, she would very soon be a woman. Horrified to hear him speak of these things, I immediately began to answer his questions. I began to speak, making up things, telling him whatever he wanted to hear, just to have this hell end.

“It didn’t stop there or on that day. Thereafter, almost every other day, Officer M would call me into the middle room. Sometimes he just stood there, pointing down at the floor in front of his feet; but more often he sat, leaning back against his chair with his trousers undone, gesturing to tell me what to do. The man had made Kenanga a weapon. . . Please don’t ever ask me how much I regret ever having brought my children to that awful place. ”

Tante Surti stopped speaking but remained sitting, perfectly erect and glaring at the camera, her eyes shining with anger and tears rolling from them down her cheeks. She was like a woman in a nineteenth-century painting, a woman of almost perfect beauty but whose eyes betrayed sadness and suffering.

I pushed the off button on my camera, then went to the table to get the container with the jasmine flowers I had brought for her. I opened the container and removed from it several strings of flower buds. Kneeling before Tante Surti, I slipped the strands into her hand. She leaned towards me, put her arms around me, and hugged me gently. I returned her embrace.

After some time, with neither of us saying a word, Tante Surti released me and sat back up. Obviously not wanting to dwell on the awful experiences of the past for too long, she took a tissue from the box on the end table and quickly wiped her face. The way she rubbed her eyes, she seemed to want to leave no sign of having cried.

“When I die, I do not want to cry,” she said. “I want to die calmly and happily, with my loved ones around me. ”

For the rest of the afternoon, my conversation with Tante Surti was more about ordinary, everyday concerns: Bulan was a finicky eater and wouldn’t eat anything fatty or that had a fishy smell whereas Alam devoured anything and everything set before him, and Kenanga acted more like a mother than a sister towards her younger siblings. Kenanga, she said, had become an adult long before her time. It was she who always reminded her siblings to write to my father and to their other “uncles” in Paris who were so kind to them. It was she who also reminded them to show Om Aji the proper level of thanks and respect for being like a father to the three of them.

Tante Surti laughed when she told me how often Kenanga and Bulan would tease Alam, not for the lack of girls who liked him but for his inability to stick to just one. She spoke more slowly when she told me that what made her most upset when Alam was growing up was the number of times she was forced to go to his school — primary, junior high, and high school — because of his fights with other boys. It was not that Alam couldn’t defend himself, especially one on one, she told me, but that they always ganged up on him when he stood up for Bimo, who was a softer target for taunts and harassment.

Alam’s name popped up constantly in our conversation, and I became so intrigued to know more that when he suddenly appeared in the house, standing before us drenched with sweat, it was only then I realized that it was growing dark and almost time for the evening call to prayer.

He looked happy to see me sitting on the sofa with his mother. “Give me a minute; I have to shower,” he said. “Then I can take you home. ”

I nodded as he went into the bathroom. When I looked back at Tante Surti, she took my hands in her own. “Thank you for coming and for bringing me these strands of jasmine flowers,” she said. “This is one thing that has always helped me to get by: my children, the scent of jasmine, and pindang serani. I know this sounds melancholic, but I see nothing wrong in leaning on something in the past if that is what makes you stronger. ”

I thanked Tante Surti for her willingness to speak to me and apologized for having had her reveal for me the sad times of her past. I hugged her close and long.


Leila S. Chudori is Indonesia’s most prominent and outspoken female author & journalist. She has worked at the renowned Indonesian newsmagazine TEMPO since 1989, where she is now Senior Editor. A scholarship recipient, she completed university studies at Trent University in Canada and returned to Indonesia in 1988. Chudori started publishing as a child at the age of 12 in children’s magazines, and she is the author of several anthologies of short stories, novels, TV & film scripts, Chudori is considered one of Indonesia’s boldest storytellers.


John H. McGlynn, a Wisconsin native, has lived in Jakarta since 1976. He received a masters degree in Indonesian language & literature from Michigan & he has translated or edited over 100 works. Through the Lontar Foundation, which he established with four Indonesian authors in 1987 to promote Indonesian culture internationally through literature, he has edited, translated, and published close to one hundred titles of and on Indonesian literature and culture.