IO – The Indonesian novelist N.H. Dini passed away in a traffic accident on the 4th of December in Semarang at the age of 82. A remembrance gathering was held for her at the Kartika Plaza Hotel in Kuta, Bali on what would have been celebrated as her birthday, the 28th of February 2018. Dini’s remains were cremated in Semarang before the remembrance gathering.
Dini’s parents were Saljowidjojo and Kusaminah. They had five children and Dini was the youngest. Dini also inherited some Buginese, South Sulawesi blood and whenever Dini lost her temper her mother would say, “There’s the Buginese blood rearing its head.”
There came a time when Dini’s father lost his job which was very stressful for him and also the family. Her father died not much later. Dini’s mother produced batik to to earn a living which must have been very difficult with five children to feed and care for. Her mother had a great influence on Dini’s character and how she came to look upon her environment. It was as a child that Dini’s imagination was nurtured through the many stories repeated to her by her mother. These stories ranged from the 19th century Sundanese tales of Prince Panji Wulung, the many stories taken from old Javanese poetry to the stories in Panjbar Semangat or “Spreading the Spirit” the magazine of the Boedi Oetomo movement founded by Dr Soetomo, which tried to spread the spirit of nationalism and independence. They all fascinated and interested her and some may also have influenced Dini in becoming a follower of Kejawen which is a Javanese religious belief based on concepts from Hinduism, Buddhism, animism and Sufism.
Later Dini married a French diplomat named Yves Coffin and lived for many years abroad with him. They had two children with, Padang and Lintang. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last. After her divorce Dini left her two young children with her husband who was living in Detroit at the time. Padang who was eleven years old lived with his father whereas Padang’s older sister Lintang who had just entered university was living very close to them across the border in Canada. On weekends she would come home to look after and mother Padang a little. It must have been difficult for both Dini’s children to be separated from their mother but they seem to have understood and supported her choice and they continued to maintain a close relationship with her, coming on holidays to Indonesia to be with their mother. Marie Claire Lintang Simonetti as she is now called married and remained in Canada. Recently however, she came to live for two years in Indonesia to be closer to her mother and is currently lecturing in Bandung. Meanwhile, Dini’s son Pierre-Louis Padang Coffin was the animator and film director for all four films in the “Despicable Me” franchise as well as in the “Minions”. Padang reminisced how when he was young he admired Dini’s paintings and his mother pushed him to draw and how it was in this way that he discovered his passion for drawing and later for animation. He said, “She allowed us to watch television which my father forbade and the moment we heard his car we would all rush to turn off the television. My mother liked to take us to see old films like the Marx brothers and Charlie Chaplin and this had a strong influence on me as a filmmaker. She also taught me to cook Indonesian food – another passion I shall in turn transmit to my children. Indonesian food is the best food in the world! She took us on trips around Indonesia whenever we came to visit. She brought me to beaches where turtles were nesting and we met nice people: family and friends.”
So, would he ever consider doing an animation film with Indonesia as the background in the style of Moana, perhaps?
“I would be afraid of offending people as I do not know enough of Indonesian culture.” He paused for a moment in thought. “Not for the next two years anyway. After that who knows? Anything may happen…”
Padang only discovered how famous she was and how many books his mother had written after she passed away and people at his office began to google her and remark on her to him and he admits to being interested in learning more about what she wrote. “My mother had a strong character but she was also the kindest and most generous person. Her generosity to everyone around her, taking care of friends who needed help especially single mothers. This is how I will always remember her,” he said.
Sulis Bambang, Dini’s close friend and neighbor in Semarang agrees. “Dini was so clever at repaying any kindness that she received. She always had small oleh-olehs (gifts) whenever she appeared for her friends, her nieces, her dentist, her Chinese doctor..” Sulis said with a small sigh.
Sulis was with Dini at the hospital after her car accident and she has put together a book about Dini with articles written by her friends entitled Seribu Sisi Dini or “A Thousand Sides to Dini” which she will pass out to those attending the prayer gathering for Dini in Semarang on the 29th of March.
N.H. Dini was a member of the prestigious Dewan Jakarta or Jakarta Council of the Taman Ismail Marzuki or Taman Ismail Marzuki Park which is known as a centre for arts, culture and science. Prof Taufik Abdullah who heads the Jakarta Council said that she was invited to join because of her influential and prolific work. Philosopher and patron of the arts Toeti Heraty Noerhadi-Rooseno who is also a member of the Jakarta Council commented, “Dini was a tough person during meetings but a very gentle one in friendship.”
Prof Taufik Abdullah , the head of the Jakarta Council then explained that N. H Dini lived in Semarang and was often unwell but she was nevertheless the most diligent in attending the meetings of the Jakarta Council. “Things were also always interesting when Dini was the moderator of a discussion. She only spoke where necessary – and she always brought her own home-baked cakes for meetings. How we enjoyed those cakes! They were such a treat and now we have not only lost Dini but also her wonderful cakes.”
Janet de Neefe, founder of the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival was in attendance that evening and confided, “We awarded Dini the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to Indonesian literature. Dini had an extraordinary mind, an interesting life and was very articulate. I could sense her cheeky and determined outspokenness.”
Padang who flew all the way from Paris enjoyed attending the award ceremony. He had not realized how famous his mother was. At the end of Dini’s life she lived in a cottage in the grounds of an old peoples’ home in Semarang. He bought her the piece of land next to it so she could have a garden and people say that it was a wonderful garden for Dini had a green thumb and loved plants. One of Indonesia’s most famous newspaper editors, Aristides Katoppo who also loves plants says that he used to speak to Dini about them, “We both loved plants and I told Dini how my mother used to sing to her plants. My mother would tell me that if I sang to them, they would sing back to me. I have sung to plants in the forest but what is more important is that a person listens to what a tree sings back. It’s a different way of communicating – Dini and I talked about this.”
It appears that Dini took this advice to heart for others remember her singing to her plants and advising them to also do so. Both Aristides and his wife Mimis felt that behind Dini’s screen of confidence there was also a certain vulnerability and at times even insecurity in her. It could perhaps become a little lonely in Semarang by herself. “She liked us to take care of her and at times to spoil her a little,” said Mimis Katoppo with an understanding smile.
“Dini was close to Mochtar Lubis, (the editor of Indonesia Raya of perhaps the finest newspaper in Indonesia until Suharto shut it down permanently) but we were also good friends. Sometimes we would just communicate in silence. I think Dini felt secure with us,” commented Aristides thoughtfully.
Dini must have felt grateful for Padang’s help in her life and also very proud of the international success of his animation films “Despicable Me” and “Minions”. “No, she never mentioned it to me,” disclosed Padang a little sadly.”
“But my mother was terribly proud of him!” declared Lintang. “She went to the cinema and watched every animation he created and she would come back and tell everyone how much she had laughed and how clever and creative Padang was.”
Dini just never mentioned it to Padang. The Javanese culture values modesty. “But did you tell your mother how proud you were of her when she received her award Lifetime Achievement Award in Ubud?”
“No,” admitted Padang. It seems that mother and son were both proud of each other’s achievements and both also shared a certain reticence about expressing it. Dini was already in her eighties when she passed away but still her death came as a shock to many people. “My mother spoke to me about not wanting a lingering death of illness or dementia. She was in a car accident on the outskirts of Semarang and by the time they finally were able to reach me in Bandung my mother had already passed away. I telephoned Padang in Paris and we thought my mother must have had a tremendous car crash and that her body was probably crushed but that is not at all what happened,” disclosed Lintang.
Dini’s car was hit by a truck but other than hitting her head Dini was uninjured. She was able to open the door and leave the car. An ambulance brought her to the hospital and she waited two hours for an MRI scan. “In the middle of the scan Dini suddenly said, ‘That’s enough I am going home now” and despite the doctor and my trying to convince her to continue the scan which was almost finished she insisted on getting up. She died not much later,” explained Sulis who had rushed down to the hospital as soon as she heard about the accident.
“My strong mother arranged the death she wanted,” sighed Lintang.
Towards the end of the evening the band and its singer softly played that most romantic of French songs once sung so seductively by Edith Piaf: La Vie en Rose. It fitted perfectly N.H Dini’s life in which love played a large yet sad role but a life which she nevertheless turned into a happy one immersing herself in her beautiful garden, her dancing and painting, her embroidery and writing, cooking and friends. It was indeed a life seen through pink tinted glasses.
“Hold me close and hold me fast
This magic spell you cast
This … vie en rose…”