Undercurrent Murmurings in Indonesia’s Colonial Past
i Bumi manusia depicts Indies society of East Java starting in 1898 with the coronation of the Dutch queen Wilhelmina. Throughout the four volumes of the narrative the reader follows the trials and tribulations of the protagonist Minke, who is modeled after the historical figure of Tirto Adhisoerjo, a Javanese writer, journalist and nationalist. When I read Bumi manusia for the first time, I was captivated by the figure of Nyai Ontosoroh, the Javanese nyai (housekeeper/concubine) of the Dutch plantation manager and later dairy farmer Herman Mellema. The novel presents Nyai Ontosoroh as a strong, resilient and powerful woman, and the book was an eye-opener for me, a woman of Indonesian-Dutch descent, who had grown up with fiction of the Dutch literary canon. Pramoedya’s portrayal of Nyai Ontosoroh deconstructed the image of nyais that had lodged itself in my mind, unconsciously but firmly. Dutch fiction describing the Indies with a male European bias had accustomed me to seeing nyais as immoral and inferior figures. Authors such as P.A. Daum, Thérèse Hoven and Annie Foore characterize nyais as jealous, resentful and destructive. In their prose a nyai has no qualms about resorting to black magic (guna-guna) to murder her master and his European bride, and her Eurasian children born out of wedlock (voorkinderen) are always depicted as a source of trouble. In contrast, Bumi manusia exposed me to a nyai with individual agency, an autonomous and empowered woman. This novel speaks out against the privileged European colonizers in favor...
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