Excerpt From Pulang, a Novel

Leila S.Chudori


On Sabang Street, Jakarta, April 1968

Night had fallen, without complaint, without pretext. Like a black net enclosing the city; like ink from a monster squid spreading across Jakarta’s entire landscape—the color of my uncertain future.

In the dark room, I knew not the sun, the moon, or even my wristwatch. But the darkness that enveloped this room was imbrued with the scent of chemicals and anxiety.

Three years ago, the Nusantara News Office where I worked, had been cleansed of lice and germs like myself. The army was the disinfectant. We, the lice and the germs, had been eradicated from the face of the earth, with no trace left. Yet, somehow, this particular louse was eking out a living at Tjahaya Photographic Studio  in central Jakarta on the corner of Jalan Sabang.

I switched on the red light to check the negatives hanging on the drying-line over my head.

It was just after 6 p.m. because I could hear the soft sound of the muezzin drifting in through the room through the door grate, summoning the faithful for evening prayer. I imagined the atmosphere on Jalan Sabang outside: the quarrelsome cackling of motorized pedicabs; the huffing and puffing of slow-moving opelets searching for passengers; the creaking of human-driven pedicabs in need of an oil job; the cring-cring sound of hand bells on bicycles as their riders wove their way through the busy intersection; and the cries of the bread seller.

I could even imagine the early evening wind wafting the smoke and the smell rising from skewers of goat satay now grilling on the brazier at Pak Heri’s itinerant but immensely popular food stall situated smack dab at the corner of Jalan Sabang and Asem Lama. I could see him using his well-worn pestle to grind peanuts and thinly sliced shallots on an oversized mortar and then drizzling sweet soy sauce over the mix. And then I thought of my good friend, Dimas Suryo, studiously observing Pak Heri and discussing with him his choice of peanuts with the same intensity that he might display when dissecting a poem by Rivai Apin.

Almost every evening, on a clock-work basis, all other sounds from the outside were drowned out by the intensely shrill whistle from the steamer on Soehardi’s food cart as our regular vendor of steamed putu, a favorite of mine with grated cocunit on the outside and melted brown sugar within, pulled up outside the photo studio. Other than the smell of Pak Heri’s goat satay, that was just about the only thing—that shrieking—that could make its way into the dark room. The deadly darkness of the developing room seemed able to block most every sound. But the shriek of the putu steamer and the smell of the cakes always served as a rap on the doors and windows of the photo studio. It was a sign the time had come for me to leave this room that knew no such a thing as time.

Today, I don’t know why, I felt reluctant to go outside. Perhaps because I could picture the world outside the room and how depressing it must be: neon lights casting their harsh glow on the white tiled floor and glass display cases; Suhardjo and Liang tending to customers who were there to pick up prints from rolls of films  they had left at the store a week previously or to sit and have their pictures taken for the more formal  photographs they needed for identification purposes.   For the past two years, income from the latter had been the greatest source of revenue for the store. Every day, at least ten to fifteen people came to have “passport” photographs taken to attach to government issued letters of certification  that they were not a communist, had never participated in any activity sponsored by the Indonesian Communist Parti, and had not been involved in the  attempt to overthrow government known as September 30 Movement.

The banshee-like shriek of the steam whistle from the putu cart resounded again and again, calling to me, it seemed. But I still didn’t move. Mixed with the whistling of the putu cart, I detected or thought I could hear the sound of a human whistle. Listening more carefully, I heard the sound of  the hanging bell on the door to the studio and then the tromp of heavy footsteps crossing the space between the doorway and the sales counter in the back of the store. Now I didn’t know which was louder: the whistling of the putu cart or the beating of my heart.

I heard a stranger growl: “Hello.”

“Evening. May I help you,” came the reply of a familiar voice, that of Adi Tjahjono, owner of Tjahaja Photographic Studio.

“I’m looking for Pak Hananto.”

I couldn’t hear Adi’s reply but I imagined him being suspicious. I guessed that in addition to the stranger whose voice I heard, there were two or three other men as well.

“May I ask who you are?”

A different voice answered—“I’m his cousin from Central Java.”—the tone of which was more educated and refined.

I waited for Adi to answer but heard no reply. Even if the man speaking was not my “cousin from Central Java”, because of the man’s politesse and refined tone of voice, Adi could do nothing but to demonstrate a similar level of refinement. Yet I heard him say nothing. I imagined him pondering how to respond.

Now I heard another voice, this one brisker and heavier in tone. “Ha-nan-to Pra-wi-ro, that would be his full name, sir,” the speaker stressed, as if to warn Adi that he was ready the throttle him if he persisted in stalling or pretending not to remember.

In the dark room, I stood, motionless, unable to think of what to do. I could still hear the song-like whistle of the putu cart which, for some odd reason, now reminded me of Ravel’s “Mirrors”. Why wasn’t I hearing “Bolero”, I oddly mused. Maybe because “Mirrors” helped to dampen my sense of sentimentality.

The dark room had no window to the outside, which meant that if I were to try to slip out and run away, I would still have to use the door,  which was located adjacent to the sales counter, which further meant that no matter how fast my feet might carry me, the visitors would be able to stop me in my tracks. But, that said, I had then and there made up my mind that I had no more desire to live on the run—not because of the discomfort and poverty such a life entailed, and not because I had lost the will to resist and to fight for my life, but, instead, because of the recent news that I had heard, that Surti and the children had been moved from the detention center on Guntur  to the one on Budi Kemuliaan. The point had been reached where I had to stop, not because I no longer believed in the struggle, but because I wanted Surti and our three kids to be able to live in safety. I owed them at least that much for the three years I had spent living on the run.

The door to the dark room creaked—Why was it I never remembered to oil the hinges?—and then I heard Adi calling to me, announcing the visit of my “cousin from Central Java” which was immediately drowned out by a long shriek from the putu cart. I couldn’t quite make myself hear what was said after that but I knew the intent: I had to surrender.

Opening the doorway to the darkroom, I saw my friend and protector standing before it.

We stared at each other. I could see tears welling in Adi’s eyes. I knew he was powerless. I just nodded and then took my jacket from the hook on the back door. It was April 6, 1968.


Translated by John H.McGlynn

(Early draft of translation of Pulang, a Novel, Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, 2012, 459 pages)