In Twilight Born

by 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.