IO – When people think of Raden Ajeng Kartini and her accomplishments something often over-looked is that Kartini not only inspired Indonesian women but also the Indonesian men of the pre-independence period for although more Indonesian men were able to obtain an education than women both during and after the Ethical Policy, nevertheless the number of men who were able to do so was still only a drop in the ocean compared to those who did not have that opportunity. The Indonesian men of that time understood and identified with Kartini’s deep thirst for education and knowledge for they not only understood that education would open the doors to better work and a more prestigious position in society but they also sensed that education would ultimately also free the Indonesian people.
Nearly all our Founding Fathers were among those men who had had what at that time would have been seen as the great privilege of receiving an education and some were even fortunate enough to go to some of the best academic institutions in the Netherlands. Even those who were educated at the Dutch schools in Indonesia received a very good quality education because it was a policy of the Dutch administration that the Dutch schools in the Netherlands Indies were of virtually the same standard and quality of education as those in Holland.
These men often felt that Kartini’s longing for education and her very intellectual writings reflected their own longings and thoughts and so many identified with her. In their eyes she became the modal for the ideal Indonesian woman and had the traits of the sort of wife they were subconsciously looking for. They wanted an educated, liberated woman with whom they could share their experiences, to whom they could speak and who would understand them; a woman who would reflect back their own determination to be educated and liberated.
Halida Hatta says that her father Mohammad Hatta was a great admirer of Kartini. It was under President Soekarno that Kartini was declared a national hero and Kartini day was established. Both Armijn Pane and Pramoedya Anantatoer wrote about Kartini with admiration. When Sutan Sjahrir fell in love with Gusti Raden Ayu Siti Nurul Kamaril Ngasarati Kusumawardhani, the daughter of Mangkunegara VII and Ratu Timoer, I suspect Kartini was the role modal at the back of his mind and which he eventually found in his wife Siti Wahyunah – namely, a well-educated, intellectual and liberated woman.
I think my own father, the writer, linguist and philosopher Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana was like many of the men at that time, a little in love with Kartini despite the fact that she had already passed away 4 years before my father was even born. It was not only the fact that she was educated, liberated and very intellectual – he referred to Kartini as modern Indonesia’s first true intellectual – but also that she was dipingit or isolated from the society outside the keraton for many years after primary school, as was the tradition at that time with women of her class. My father had a partially deformed hand right hand for which he was frequently, teased by the other school children and which left him rather isolated as a child so he identified with Kartini’s isolation and like her he was able to channel it by way of writing. Kartini did so via her many extraordinary letters and Alisjahbana through his novels and essays. I remember him telling me that he wrote what he considered his first good piece while still at school. It was about an old flower seller on a bicycle who had been hit by a car and how in death all his flowers where strewn around on the road. At the age of 20 Alisjahbana began a small journal called Semangat Muda or The Fire of Youth through which he tried to promote the ideals of the Sumpah Pemuda or Youth Pledge of 1928.
Another thing that probably influenced my father in identifying with Kartini was as a small child witnessing his father hit his mother. He used to tell me how she would simply stand with her head bowed saying nothing and the tears streaming down her face. “As a small child I could not stand seeing that. I swore to myself that as soon as I was grown up, as soon as I had the money I would take my mother away from this place where she was not valued or respected.”
Later after his father took another wife matters grew even worse for his mother who lost all respect within the family. My father was sent to boarding school at a young age and later he went to study at a teacher’s training college in Java, after which he became a teacher. When he received his first salary he immediately sent it to his mother in Sumatra with an accompanying letter asking her to use the money to move to Java and live with him. By return post he received a letter from Sumatra saying that his mother had just died and that the money had been used to bury her. The shock and pain were too much for him; to the point that it even affected his physical health. He developed a heart condition and had to stay for three months at a sanatorium in the Puncak area. It was there that he wrote his first novel Tak Putus Dirundung Malang or Unending Misfortune.
His experience with his mother gave Alisjahbana a very sympathetic outlook towards women and their struggle to be free and masters of their fate. Just like Kartini, he was completely convinced that the only way to protect women from a fate such as his mother’s and to allow them to develop to their full potential was by providing them with education. He supported the women’s movement and equal rights for women which he felt education would help them achieve. Later, I found leaflets and brochures in his library from Indonesian women’s organizations in whose struggles he took an interest. This sympathy and support for women is very much present in his most famous novel Layar Terkembang or With Sails Unfurled where one of the main protagonists, Tuti is a feminist who is very active in the women’s movement. This sympathy for women may also be why in many of his novels the main characters are frequently women who are also frequently the mouthpiece for his philosophy and ideas or the central message of his novel.
Alisjahbana first married a cousin who died not long after the birth of their third child. Again we see a similarity to Kartini who also died not long after the birth of her son. The death of his wife led him again to the depths of sorrow. Again he was a devastated witness to the pain and suffering of women. Again he was able to pull himself out of depression by writing. This time a book of poetry: Tebaran Mega or Scattered Clouds.
Alisjahbana’s second wife was Raden Roro Soegiarti binti Atmosoedirdjo and she was probably the closest modal to Kartini that he could find in a woman for Soegairti lived that all-consuming dream of Kartini’s, of going to Holland and studying at a teacher’s training college. Soegiarti went to Holland on a scholarship that she obtained with the help of Kartini’s brother Raden Mas Panji Sosrokartono to study at a teacher’s training college for headmasters and headmistresses. She was in the same batch of Indonesian women that studied in the Netherlands as Maria Ulfah who later became Indonesia’s first Minister for Social Affairs and remained a close friend till the end of Soegairti’s life.
Soegiarti was one of Sosrokartono’s protégé’s. They appear to have had an extremely close and special relationship and her daughter, Mirta Kartohadiprodjo says, “Soegiarti was like his anak angkat or adopted daughter. They had a telepathic communication they were so close. My mother told me that when she was studying in Holland that is how they communicated: telepathically. I remember sometimes when we were in the mountains she would say that Sosrokartono wanted her to come to Bandung and then off she would go. She knew this without a phone call or a letter. She had a large photograph of him hanging in our dining room and she always went to him for counsel. They understood each other very well.”
This was of course, not very pleasing for my father. What man is pleased that there is a man who has such a strong influence on his wife and that his wife always goes to him whenever she has problems and follows his advice. But perhaps it went even further than that for the Sosrokartono who returned from Europe was very much into mysticism, religion and the old Javanese traditions.
Sosrokartono once said, “I absolutely declare myself the enemy of anyone who tries to turn us into Europeans or semi-Europeans and tramples upon the ancient customs and traditions of our ancestors. For as long as the sun and moon continue to shine forth I shall challenge them!”
Imagine how Alisjahbana who triggered the cultural polemics of the 1930s by calling upon his countrymen to create an Indonesian culture set to absorb the value system of the West which promoted reason, analysis, and a strong economic sense – must have felt when he discovered who the most important figure in his wife’s life was. Alisjahbana had no time for mysticism and was impatient of the adat traditions which he said had been unable to help Indonesians prevent the Dutch from colonizing Indonesia for more than 350 years. It must have been like meeting his nemesis through the woman he loved.
In the years that followed there was an incident that later Alisjahbana put into his best novel, Defeat and Victory. During the Second World War Soegiarti gave birth to a son. Shortly, after the child’s birth the couple were trying to decide on a name for the baby when they recalled a visit they had made to Bandung to Sosrokartono’s house. Daroesalam, the clinic where he healed people and helped them with their problems was in the same compound as his wooden platform house. There they had seen the words Panta Rei which Sosrokartono had written in bold letters across the blackboard where he liked to teach his students. Panta rei is a concept from the 6th century Greek Philosopher Heraclitus meaning “everything flows” or “all things are in transition”. Heraclitus words were, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is no longer the same river and he is no longer the same man.”
The words were especially apt at that moment because the Japanese had just invaded and occupied Indonesia, bringing the Dutch occupation to an end. At the time Joyoboyo’s prophecies were making the rounds in Jakarta. Joyoboyo was a 2nd century East Javanese king from Kediri who predicted many things in the Pralembang Joyoboyo or Book of Joyoboyo including that the islands of the Indonesian Archipelago would be ruled by a white race for centuries and then a yellow skinned race but that the yellow skinned race would only remain for the period of one corn harvest – after which Indonesia would be free. In this atmosphere the word Panta rei written across the blackboard seemed very appropriate, almost prescient. They thought the word had an attractive ring to it and decided to name their boy Pantareidi. Soegiarti wrote to Sosrokartono about the name they had chosen for their son. A few days later she received a letter from Sosrokartono urging her to change the baby’s name as it would be too heavy a name for their child.
Alisjahbana writes that he was deeply offended at Sosrokartono’s interference in the naming of his child and absolutely refused to do so. In the coming months the baby was continually sick and eventually died. Many years later during a stay at the family house in the mountains where he is now buried when he was writing Defeat and Victory, my father told me “At our son’s funeral I regretted my stubbornness. Why did I not do as my wife asked? I was so stubborn in my rationality but when I saw how much she grieved I thought, ‘what does it matter if I was right or not? It would have comforted her and given her peace to know that she had done everything she possibly could to keep our boy safe. Why could I not have been big enough to give her that peace of mind?”
Later my father put this story into his novel Defeat and Victory. In the novel Hidayat is his alter ego and Soegiarti is Kartini. He identified her so much with Kartini that in the novel that is in fact the name that he gave her and he gives Sosrokartono the name Dr Mangunharsono whom he describes as being regarded as a holy man with access to the world of spirits.
Soegiarti’s other daughter also accompanied her mother on visits to Sosrokartono. Ria Alisjahbana says, “Sosrokartono used to drive around in a horse carriage at night visiting people who needed his help. Later some people called his teachings Aliran Alif and called him a dukun but I do not think that he was because his father, Mudirono was a kyai and often quoted Sunan Kali Jaga.
He died in 1952 and despite being so much younger my mother died that same year of heart failure.”
In marrying Soegiarti and meeting Sosrokartono fate placed my father in a position where he was confronted by the very things he was trying to change. So, who was right? Sosrokartono or Alisjahbana? I think they were both right. My father was right that in order to free itself from the shackles of Dutch colonialism Indonesia needed a new modern culture attuned and open to the Western culture for science and technology. In Defeat and Victory, he describes Indonesia’s defeat by the Dutch and Japanese as a cultural defeat. However, Sosrokartono was also right in the sense that there are some very precious and beautiful things worth keeping in the adat and also that a people must understand their roots in creating a new identity and future. In the end my father’s story about his experience with Sosrokartono was not about who was right but rather about compassion something both men clearly possessed. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)
If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy Part I of the article by the same writer: