Blora – Soesilo Toer, brother of Bumi Manusia’s author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, shared his advice on the adaptation of Bumi Manusia to film with director Hanung Bramantyo.
Soesilo Toer wanted to remind the production team to really grasp the meaning of his brother’s work well. He said, “Bumi Manusia had a huge impact in relation to nationalism.”
“When you read the book, it’s not just a matter of the novel Bumi Manusia only, because it’s tied to our nation’s dignity, below the surface,” explained Soesilo Toer when news site Detik.com visited him at home.
Soesilo didn’t deny that for the majority of people who have only scratched the surface of the legendary novel ‘Bumi Manusia’, they’re going to praise the adaptation. But for those who have read the book and understood its deeper significance, they’re most probably going to be against its adaptation into a movie. (Read more from Falcon Pictures here.)
We relaxed in the front guestroom. My younger siblings who weren’t grown up yet, who still appeared so wild, now began to draw near and we talked a great deal, about Djakarta, about Semarang, and about cars. The conversation wasn’t boring, it made me happy and it usually carried on for a long time.
And at one point I asked, “How’s father’s health?”
Suddenly everyone went quiet; not one person was looking directly at me. Suddenly the animated joyful conversation was gone, replaced by an air of seriousness.
And I asked again, “How is father’s health?”
Carefully and slowly my sister answered, “We received the pills and the blanket you sent for father. I also received the money order and we used it to buy milk and eggs, just as you instructed.”
My wife and I listened silently. She continued, “I also collected the shirt for father from the post office. And I took the blanket, the shirt, and the pills to the hospital. But father said, ‘Just take them all back to the house.’ So I brought them home again.”
I was surprised and asked, “And the pills?”
“He has finished one container.”
I was pleased a little.
“And the milk and eggs?” I asked again.
“Father didn’t like them. ‘I’m bored with eggs and milk,’ he said.”
I was lost for words. I looked at my wife, but in her face, I did not find an answer. I glanced outside the house. I noticed the orange tree which father had long ago planted. It was dry now and almost dead.
“And father’s health?” I repeated my question.
My younger sister didn’t reply. Her eyes reddened with tears.
“Why don’t you answer me?” I asked fearfully.
“Yesterday and up to yesterday father just smiled, smiled a lot. But then, then…”
She was silent. I did not force her to continue what she was saying. I didn’t say anything either. Both of us sat for a time with our heads bowed. My youngest sister, who had just begun to speak to me, now wouldn’t say a word. The time was only just half-past twelve in the afternoon and the sound of frying could be heard clearly coming from the kitchen.
My younger sister continued, her voice still slow, foreboding and careful. “…and then this morning father wasn’t smiling anymore. His voice was weak and almost inaudible.” Her voice trailed away.
“And what did the doctor say?” I asked.
“The doctor has never said anything to us. There is just one doctor here. And there aren’t enough medicines.”
Then my younger brother, who by chance was home on leave with permission from his commander said, “I’ve discussed father’s illness with the doctor too. He said, ‘I already know about your father’s illness.’”
“Is that all he said?” I asked.
“Yes. That’s all. Then they told me to go home.”
The atmosphere turned serious once more. Everyone sat silently with their own feelings and their own thoughts. Then without realizing it, my younger sister changed the subject of the conversation to a new topic. She mentioned that my third younger sister, the one who was married, was currently in Blora too. Straight away I asked her where she was.
Her hand pointed to the door of one of the bedrooms. All eyes followed the direction she indicated. In my mind, I could see my sister’s face and I imagined she was thin. I knew it; she had to be sick. But I opened my mouth and said, “Tell her to come out.”
My younger sister went over to the door and opened it carefully. Every eye was on her. She disappeared into the room, then she emerged red-eyed and said, half crying, “She’s still asleep.”
We talked about other things. But the image of my sick younger sister filled my mind. It was because of her I wrote the letter to my father, the unpleasant letter, for allowing her to become sick. But at the time I was still in jail. My father had replied:
Yes, my child, throughout my life of fifty-six years I have realized that people’s efforts and means are very limited. For my part, I wouldn’t have allowed your sister to become ill if only I had some power over people’s fates. She became sick when she was detained by the red militia in an area that was swampy, an area rife with malaria. And maybe you can understand yourself the situation with medicines in a war zone, and especially if you yourself are not a soldier.
That reply melted my anger. The question had been clear in my heart, “Did I sin by writing that angry letter?” The answer had come back by itself, “Yes, you have sinned.” And it had been because of that answer I had felt up to this time that I had sinned. Before seeing father again. But that long wandering conversation had removed these terrible memories. I looked at my six younger siblings surrounding me, surrounding my wife and I, starting to be free of the atmosphere of seriousness, while I was still stuck with so many thoughts and memories pressing in.
I noticed my watch. We had been talking for an hour. Then looking at my smallest sister I said slowly, “Please look in on your big sister. Maybe she’s awake.”
She got up, went to the door and called out in her childish voice, “Sister, sister. Big brother’s here.”
She vanished into the bedroom.
No-one was paying much attention to her and the conversation broke out again. But when my smallest sister emerged, the conversation halted. She approached me and whispered, “Sister’s crying.”
I took a deep breath.
Slowly I stood up and went over to the bedroom. And there sprawled on the iron bed devoid of mosquito netting, half blanketed by a light cotton sheet, was my little sister, covering her eyes with her arm. I lifted her arm and I beheld two eyes looking up at me, red and moist. I hugged her. She started to cry and I too wept, and among the sobs, I could hear my own voice ask, “Why are you so thin?”
Her crying subsided and she composed herself, so she was calmer. And I did the same.
“I’ve been sick for a long time, brother,” I listened to her broken voice.
“Have you been to the doctor?” I asked, my voice cracking too.
“I’ve seen the doctor, but my condition just stays like this,” her voice still breaking.
“Maybe it would be better if you went to a large city. There are a lot of specialists there,” my voice still breaking.
There was just sobbing.
“Do you have any children, sister?”
“Where are they?”
Our crying had subsided, but my sister now broke out in tears again. She answered without emotion, “He passed away, brother. He’s not here anymore.”
She snatched back the arm I was holding and covered her eyes again. I took out my handkerchief and wiped the tears running down her face.
“What do you mean not here,” I asked.
“I gave birth at six months. He cried a lot. I could hear him crying. Then God took him back again.”
Once more I started to weep openly and she too sobbed uncontrollably. All I could hear now was the storm heaving in my chest. And all I could see was her thin body, the single cloth sheet, the small mattress covering only half the bed frame, and the iron and the bamboo slats protruding next to the mattress.
“You’re still young, little sister, you still have the chance to have another child,” I said to comfort her.
“Where’s your husband?”
“He’s doing training in Semarang, brother.”
Our crying, which had filled that room, now subsided and eventually died.
I straightened the blanket, kissed my younger sister on her cheek and I said, “Go to sleep.”
She took her arm away from her eyes. She was calm now. Slowly she closed her eyelids. Once more I kissed her on the cheeks, cheeks that had once been so full and which were now so drawn. Then I left the room.
We left before dawn to make our way to the station. We queued to buy tickets. The train traveled along the coast, skirting the Java Sea. Sometimes the train would race cars and we watched the sight anxiously. The dust thrown up by cars – dust mixed with every kind of horse dung, human excrement, human snot, and spit – billowed up and came to rest on our skin. Sometimes we caught sight of children cheering as they held out hats begging. And this situation had persisted from the time the railway line was opened and trains raged along its rails. Whenever anyone threw food scraps, the children would scramble against each other. But it isn’t so important for me to relate this.
The train went on and on, and when it reached the town of Rembang began to turn southward traveling through teak forests and rice fields. The closer we got to the town of my birth, the more vivid became the images in my mind of its narrow lanes, of its people living in poverty and, of my father. From time to time deer could be seen darting frightened by the hiss of the train, running into the undergrowth, forelegs and hind legs almost crossing over and stomachs tight. They seemed to almost float.
The conductor checking our tickets was still the same conductor who had been there when I was young and often traveled to Rembang to visit the beach after the holidays had finally arrived. But the conductor was old now and no longer recognized me. He paid no attention to the people on the train, interested only in their tickets.
I glanced over at my wife and said, “Look, the forest is so beautiful.”
Quietly my wife popped her head out the window, then pulled it in again and nestled into the corner of the carriage seat.
I gazed at the beauty of the forest. I had gone into that forest once long ago, before at a time when as a scout we had visited the grave of Raden Ajeng Kartini. Her grave was not far from our train then. Suddenly a canyon unfurled before my eyes and I called spontaneously.
“Look at the canyon! It’s so deep!”
I looked at my wife. She lifted her eyelids, and then lowering them again slowly she closed her eyes once more.
I wanted to show off the beauty of my own area, with its canyons and forests, deer and monkeys. Yes, I wanted to do that so much.
Our train passed through stations and stops which were now no more than solitary platforms, passed lime kilns and piles of teak logs, and it all brought memories back to me of my childhood when we would often go on trips by bicycle in and out of the forest. Yes, what a wonderful childhood it had been, which was now past. Now my memories sang sweetly of its beauty.
As the train entered the outskirts of the town of Blora, I noticed open blocks of land, land where buildings had once stood. And suddenly it dawned on me. These buildings had been flattened by the war. Desperate to know what had happened, I put my head out the window.
Then all at once I said, “I hope the telegram did get there. And hopefully someone will be there to meet us at the station.”
My wife opened her eyes, and as our eyes met I said, “We’re here at Blora now.”
She tidied herself, and I did likewise, then the train came to a halt at Blora station. Once more I poked my head out the window, but my eyes were not able to catch sight of the person I had hoped would come to meet us. So it was true, the telegram hadn’t made it.
We carried our things. Then, traveling gently just as it had once before long ago, the horse and buggy carried us to the house I had left all this time. The driver constantly nudged his horse with whip and commands only out of habit. Many of the buildings along the road were destroyed. The Post and Telegraph office which had been the pride of the residents of the small town of Blora was now no more than a crumpled stack of concrete pillars. I drew in a long breath. The statue celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the reign of Queen Wilhelmina was still standing, though its former glory was gone and it was now painted a pale red.
And I did not understand why. Maybe a red militia had painted it when they occupied our town.
Thus when our buggy drew up in front of the house I had left behind so long ago, my young brothers and sisters yelled excitedly, “Big brother’s here! Big brother’s here!”
But they did not want to approach. In fact, those who weren’t adults distanced themselves. Possibly their shyness was due to the fact I was now married, and that my wife was now standing beside me. I didn’t really know. Only the brothers and sisters who were now grown up came to help us carry our bags.
When I went into the house, I bumped my head on the roof beam, and it made me think. I had grown taller now. When I had left this house, the roof beams had still been far above my head.
Suddenly those thoughts died as my eyes fell on one small hamlet in the middle of rice fields surrounded by bamboo thickets and trees. I knew the conditions in this hamlet only too well. At that time, the hamlet had been under the control of a gang of outlaws. Once with my platoon, I was on patrol there and made a detailed report. The report would now be lying buried in some cupboard. I had become acquainted with one particular very attractive woman. As the hamlet was owned by a large landowner, the thought occurred to me that the woman would have to have been mixed race. But that didn’t matter and her father had made me an offer. “If you marry my daughter, I won’t have to work anymore. There’s a sizeable amount of land here and you can take half of my fields.” As I listened, I was completely intoxicated by the offer. At the time, poverty always circled overhead in the sky ready to swoop down on your head. Yes, at the time, the thought of the offer had made me smile. But the patrol was to last no more than a day and a night, and before long our platoon was on its way returning to base.
I did return to the place later though, but the beautiful woman had been kidnapped by the gang of bandits. I would return home again filled with regret, but happy also that I had not sold myself out. Nevertheless, the beauty of the woman and her fate would continue to haunt my thoughts.
Then in my heart, I told myself a story that went like this.
“The woman was now living contentedly with the bandits who had kidnapped her. She would by now have given birth to two young children and her body was adorned with silk and gold and diamond-studded jewelry.”
The train thundered on at high speed. The hamlet too vanished, from my view, and from my memory.
“You are too close to the window,” said my wife.
We changed places. I drew the collar of my coat up tightly around my neck then I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes. I dropped off to sleep, but my sleep was not to be secure as the train was beginning to fill with new passengers. Then I drifted back to sleep once more. Arriving in the district that had only recently been cleared of the threat and terror presented by the Darul Islam movement, we could see damaged telegraph wires, tangled and twisted around their poles which were lying bent, strewn on the ground.
“Well, not a chance the telegram has arrived there,” I said.
“No, the telegram couldn’t possibly have arrived,” my wife echoed. The train roared on, and on. And on, all the way to Semarang.
We slept the night at a hotel and although the hotel was grubby, we were nevertheless able to sleep soundly.
I swung my head, and my eyes too, from her stare and gazed out through the train window again.
We were at Lemah Abang now.
All at once an old memory shimmered into my mind. Before, four years ago. Completely out of the blue, the Dutch had rained shells on our defenses from three directions using between eight and ten Howitzers. The number could be worked out by the fighters who had previously been soldiers in the Netherlands East Indies artillery. The people had panicked and run out in the direction of the rice fields. I still remember the time. I cupped my two hands and shouted, “Don’t run! Get on the ground!” But there were too many of them, and they were too confused, too frightened, and they were incapable of hearing my voice. And when I fell to the ground behind a large tree I was able to see one, then two, three, four, five artillery shells explode among the mass of scattering people. Bodies. Corpses. And my mind ran through the blood, injuries, bodies, to the letter, my uncle, and finally, to my father.
I sighed. My heart ached. I was indeed sensitive. And my family was full of sensitive creatures.
I closed my eyes tightly so I couldn’t see the scene around Lemah Abang. But the remnants of those memories would not leave my mind. The extraordinary achievement of the Dutch shooting, four sheep killed in front of their pen. And this is what was so upsetting: one old sheep, pregnant, eyes gazing into the sky, head resting on the rail of a pen post, with its two hind legs kneeling and its forelegs standing up straight. And the sheep was dead. I rocked the body of the sheep slightly and it tottered to the ground. It didn’t move. Really, it was dead. A friend suggested, “Let’s just cut it up.” I stared at its open, pallid eyes. I could feel a shiver run down my spine, and I ran all the way home. It was three days before I could get the vision of the sheep gazing into the sky out of my head. The sheep! My memory circled back again, the sheep transformed into a person, and that person was, my father.