essay Biography

“He was a translator”

Letters from Benedict Anderson

THE SCHOLAR BENEDICT ANDERSON  died on 13 December 2015, in the Indonesian city of Malang, in eastern Java. Anderson lived a peripatetic existence. Born in 1936 in China, of Anglo-Irish parentage, he studied in the United Kingdom and the United States, and taught for much of his life at Cornell University, in the state of New York. But he was always drawn, by inclination, back to Asia—particularly to South East Asia. Over decades of studying the region, Anderson learnt Indonesian, Javanese, Tagalog and Thai, and authored numerous works of history, political science, and social and cultural analysis. Indonesia exerted the greatest pull on his interest and affection: Anderson devoted more scholarship to it than to any other country, and adopted two Indonesian sons. It was the closest thing he had to a home.


In Indonesia, Anderson is remembered primarily for his scholarship on the country, just as he is remembered in South East Asia for his work on the region. But elsewhere, his lifelong engagement with this part of the world remains largely unknown, and, perhaps understandably, is overshadowed by his scholarship in Imagined Communities, a pioneering examination of nationalism first published in 1983 and now counted among our era’s most influential texts of political thought.
Beginning in 2009, Anderson maintained an occasional correspondence with Naveen Kishore, the head of Seagull Books, a publishing house headquartered in Kolkata. Their exchanges—conducted, excepting a few handwritten letters, over email—quickly took on a spirit of warm familiarity and freewheeling exploration. They provided ideal opportunities for Anderson’s rich erudition and multifaceted personal history to shine through.
The selection here begins just before Anderson was due to visit Kolkata, with Kishore inviting the scholar to contribute a brief text for one of Seagull’s annual catalogues—which, alongside a listing of upcoming titles, feature reflections on a set theme by intellectuals and artists from across the world.

31 March 2010

Dear Ben,

Forgive this intrusion and feel free to dismiss it as drivel… working on trying to “provoke” a response for the new Seagull catalogue… just in case you are having a sympathetic day and feel like indulging us… Why do you write? Is it because you have something to say? Something that affirms or at least conforms in its own unique way to a universal truth? Are there “new” insights or merely old ones restored, refurbished albeit through a finely honed mind, humour, wit? Is it a “calling”? As a non-believer do you allow yourself “a calling”? Do you feel a sense of purpose when you write? Does it overwhelm you? Defeat you? Make you climb every mountain? Is it exhilarating? Heady? Satisfying? Does it make you sufficiently happy? Does it bring tears to your eyes? Do you pace the floorboards of your mind working the fat off each sentence before offering it for sacrifice? Do you question this aversion to weight? Or the need for slaughter? Do you sleep with one eye on the pendulum and the other racing against time to find the correct word, to express the exact meaning, to rescue form from the viles of content? Does your poetry cut through to the core time after time? Are you the secret elf that polishes the stale leftovers of your Cinderella-muse so as to save the morning’s face? Do you agonize enough when the two fingers you shove into your mouth fail to vomit the words stuck in your gullet?
I write because I need to talk to myself. This is a deeply felt need. I miss conversations with myself. Writing is the only way I can listen to all that I have to say. I long to converse.

31 March

Dear Kishore,

If I didn’t know it already from your own mouth, here I would feel certain that you are a theatre man, dramatist and probably poet. I am far beneath you, without artistic abilities of any kind. I have left instructions that after my death I bequeath only the true words: He was a translator. There is no intellectual work I enjoy more than translating from languages I know well enough to have the confidence. Prose—stories, strange historical documents, polemics, confessions. It must have come from the Latin exercises we had to do when I was an early teenager. We would be given a sonnet in English and told to put it into Latin verse. Results technically OK but otherwise ludicrous. I tried once to translate a long (and long-banned) Javanese poem, but it came out the same—metre and rhyming OK but still doggerel. Prose is easier. I did most of this from foreign languages to bring the originals to English speakers around the world, if interested. But in my old age I have been experimenting in the opposite direction, aimed at specific audiences, Indonesian, Filipino, Thai, writing the texts not in English but the local languages is a great deal of fun. Then the strange experience of translating, if requested, back into English (always worse than my own original). Two years ago, an old Japanese friend, colluding with a big Japanese publisher, asked me to write an intellectual autobiography. At first I refused, since autobiographies by scholars are rare and thought to be in bad taste. But suddenly, when thinking about a text which would be translated by my friend into Japanese, a language I don’t understand, and for a Japanese readership, the juices started to flow and I wrote the whole book in 2–3 months. My condition to the publisher was that no English version would be made. Enormous pleasure of a book of mine which I can’t read.

Actually, writing comes easily most of the time. A lifetime of being a crossword addict, a morbid reader of dictionaries, and love of literature means that I have a wide vocabulary available. If you are brought up on the great English stylists—Swift, Johnson, Gibbon, Austen, Bronte, Browne, Wilde etc., they are always lurking at the back of one’s mind. Typically, I get started by having a whisky or two, and do a crazy first draft pretty fast. Sometimes I have the strange feeling that what I see on the computer screen isn’t by me at all, as if something was using me as a stenographer. This impression stays when I start the hard work of the second draft, endless deleting, rewriting, revising, puzzling. But in the dross there are always a few sentences that really surprise me, especially if they are good. There is also a funny intertwining of crossword-ism with an early training in the study of Greco-Roman rhetorical forms: litotes, chiasmus, etc.

Chiasmus is really the hardest and most artificial, and often doesn’t come off. The one that I remember liking most is a sentence about Dutch colonialism’s endless chatter about the moral (sexual) abyss in which the natives lived. Especially what they described as paedophilia (affairs with teenage boys in this case). Then it was possible to do a near perfect chiasmus: they treated these horrible practices with practised horror. Alas, this antique flourish is lost on young readers today. I used, once in a while, to teach an undergrad class on Politics and Literature designed to improve their writings skills and get them to read some first-class prose, as well as a lot of comparative politics. What they hated most were exercises like composing a single paragraph in the style of Swift after they read one of Gulliver’s Travels. The results were always terrible, but they made me realise that the students learn from early on that writing is simply self-expression. So they write pretty close to the banal way they speak. Skillful imitation of a great writer is something that befuddles them completely. You try to explain to them the art of word order in sentences, and they just can’t “see it” at all. The nice case is the most famous opening to any masterpiece novel, by the greatest writer produced by the USA: only three words: Call me Ishmael. It can just as well be: My name is Ishmael. People call me Ishmael, Ishmael is my name. I’m Ishmael. All the same! Laugh or cry?

All the best, dear Kishore,
Ben

31 March
Dear Ben,

Amazing. Not what you write. That goes without saying. But the fact that you responded. Took the time. Wrote this personal text. I must confess I was somewhat nervous… writing to you the way I did…

Naveen

31 March

Dear Naveen,

As the Yanks say, “Thanks a lot” and “no sweat.” I was a bit anxious myself, since you are an artist while I am anything but—I realised I couldn’t even write a bad novel, at the age of about 19. Last poem I wrote at 15. I am looking forward to Calcutta.

About the autobiography, there are two reasons I don’t want to do it. First is practical. It was carefully aimed at a Japanese readership and would have to be heavily redone for the English version. Also my translator put in a lot of stuff of his own to guide the Japanese readers. The second is deeper. There are many basic ways in which my scholarly and intellectual life is entwined with my private or personal life—decisions, interests, cowardices, relations with colleagues and students, research locations, language choices and so on. I don’t like lies, evasions, omissions etc. and I know any English version would make me feel fraudulent—all brain and zero else! I don’t feel so bad about a Japanese version because I can’t read it and so am not pained by it. Also, my “translator” shares the burden up to a point. There is one final minor aspect.

For a Japanese audience, my concentration on “Asia” goes without saying, since they are Asians, and almost all my books have been translated and published in Japanese. In an English version I would probably have to deal with how and why I turned my back on “my” Europe. I rarely go there and never for more than a week or so. I don’t keep up on it and it doesn’t stimulate me. Maybe overdoses from my childhood, teen and university years. The same goes for the US. I am attached to Ithaca where I have my home, and my university because of its great library. But otherwise it leaves me cold, though sometimes enraged. Oddly enough, the exception is literature. My favorites are Melville and Benjamin, followed by Musil, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Proust, Gogol, Brecht, Austen, Joyce, Wilde, etc. Michael Maar has a lovely piece on “rereading.”

He says the first reading is always hampered by suspense—what next, how will it end. Maybe a bit like sex. With the second (third, fourth etc.) suspense is no longer distracting, and one starts to notice and treasure style, arrangement, rhythm, language codes, assumptions, silences and so on. Maybe you know the wonderful short poem by Donne in which he asks the people who will bury him not to remove a bracelet made of his girlfriend’s hair around his wrist (even though she has completely rejected him). Imagine, a witty poet. The last lines are so funny and powerful: “As ‘twas humility/ T’ afford to it [the bracelet] all that a soul can do,/ So ‘tis some bravery/ That, since you would have none of me, I bury some of you.” Pushkin would have loved this.

Take care!
Ben

••

30 October 2010

Dear Naveen,

Just to say that yesterday evening, on the way to a children’s birthday party, I finally got the book. Your catalogue! So many thanks! It looks wonderful—flipping through the illustrations is nice and dizzying—but I haven’t managed to start reading except for the first two pages, where I found myself very embarrassed by the facile email I sent in March. As well as the fact that I addressed you as Kishore, slipping back unconsciously into the old British public school custom of addressing even good friends by their last names. Reminded me of the rigour of the ban on first names—“only girls do that”—so that often you could know someone fairly well and still not know their personal names. And the shock of a different rigorous ban in America, “only first names please, no family ones.” You could get to know people quite well but only as Bob, Nancy etc. I prefer Thai custom, where you get three names, a family one which no one really remembers, a pretentious personal name given by upwardly mobile parents, and a nickname which you can change if you want, it often refers to your body in admiration or mild mockery—Fattie, Blackie, Giant, Little, Sweet, Paleface, etc. I also like two other aspects of Southeast Asian social practice with names. If you are married and have kids by the time you are 40, you lose your name and are called after your favourite child. Say the child is called Krishna, then you will be called “Father (of) Krishna.” Also the general habit of referring to oneself in the third person not the first. Mr Krishna calls himself not “I” but “Mr Krishna” or just “Krishna.” Anyway, I will take the book in my briefcase and enjoy it on the interminable flight from NY to Osaka. Many, many thanks.

Hugs too.
Ben

30 October

Dear Ben,

You may call me anything you wish! The thing is that both my names are first names! Naveen which means “new,” “evergreen” i.e. “young”… and Kishore which strangely enough means “Youth”… My father was named Kanwal Kishore and his father was called Sir Labhu Ram (he was a librarian at the Punjab University Library before Partition in the days when it meant something! Did not have a formal degree. So when he lectured the more “degreed” English Professors would hide behind doors to listen to him! Or so goes the lore.)

My father must have dropped the Ram bit (also a first name!). In school my announcing myself for the first time, in every new class, was followed by an expectant pause“Naveen Kishore… ?”
Now anxiously awaiting your reading of the catalogue and your response!!

N

30 October

Dear “New,”

What fun! I’m sorry about the endless bouncebacks but it must be your end, because no other emailer has complained to me about this kind of infuriating block. I see your Grandpa’s name starts with Sir. Is this a misprint for Sri or is it a George VI-era knighthood?? Names are funny. My Dad was already 43 when he finally got a first child (me), and he was so happy that he called the infant Benedict, which in those days was a rarity. Means “He is blessed by God” i.e. the tot. A few years later, if either of my parents called out (yelled) “Be-ne-dict!” there was trouble ahead, they were angry about something silly I had done. So I forbade any friend or student calling me by my full name. But I was OK with it, since dear old Saint Benedict founded the first Christian library in his pioneering monastery, and his acolytes gave the world the delicious liqueur Benedictine!! Until… the fellow whom the Yellow Press in England liked to call Cardinal Nazinger (he had briefly been an SS-kid) became Pope Benedict the umpteenth. Horrors! Time to change my name.

What’s the Bengali opposite to Naveen??

The first snow of the year fell last night, not heavy, but it suddenly has become very cold, so it is time I get out of here. I am off to Japan on Friday and a week later to Bangkok.

I am a little puzzled by your reference to a catalogue. What I received and am enjoying is a kind of Thoughts-Book, short beloved passages from various very fine writers with terrific designs, great paper, and easy-to-read print. All visitors to my home immediately grab it, flip through the pages, oohing and ahhing… How can it be a catalogue if there are no prices easily visible! It goes with me in the plane to Japan.

I am rather panicky from all the things I have to fix up before leaving. No time to relax and enjoy anything let alone the book. Every day I obsessively check whether I have my tickets, my Green card, my passport, my credit card, my address book, etc. Somewhere they are together and in my briefcase. I am terribly forgetful and feel that senility is just a mile or two down the road.

Hugs,
Ben

30 October

Dear Ben

… No it isn’t a misprint! I think the “Sir” (not knighthood either) is an “add-on” or a respectful prefix for a teacher! So someone could well have added a “Sir” to his Labhu Ram as a mark of respect for his “learnednesses”!… Not sure and never did ask my father for some reason… my younger and definitely more brilliant young colleagues often call me Probeen, which, since you asked, is the opposite of Naveen!! In

Bengali! It means old! Or if you wish to be sympathetic, and I certainly do, it stands in fairly easily for “Mature”! Which I am not by a long shot!

Love,
Naveen

30 October

Dear Naveen,

Now I wish I hadn’t asked you that question. Probeen, so spelled, looks like a type of hi-tech medicine and/or perhaps a new explosive, or an Anglo-Irish dialect word rhyming with shebeen (shack) poteen (lethal potato whisky) Maureen and so on. Hmmm, how to spell it differently? In this lamentable country, “sir” survives as the male equivalent of “ma’am,” to be used by anyone selling something to a gullible customer.

Hugs,
Ben

3 November 2010

Dear Naveen,

Yes, early morning walks, when the sky is starting to lighten, but sun still snoring. The people who are up and busy at that hour are usually interesting, the dead-tired and the just-up. Long before traffic jams start, great smells of food being cooked, dogs chirpy, songbirds at full blast. The light is perfect for photography. In a strange town you have to remember every landmark to find your way back, unless you happen to understand the local language. In Indonesia, if you have lost your way, they say, not “Go on till the second red light, then turn left,” but rather, “Head south till you reach a huge pothole, then turn east.” The sun might be better than GPS. I have hundreds and hundreds of photos starting from when I went to Indonesia for the first time in 1962. Black-and-whites mostly. The earlier ones. And some coloured slides. These pictures are being digitised by my assistant, and will go to the Cornell library after my death. All the photos have details on the back, dates, names, places. But they also want me to record a running commentary. I want to do this only after everything is ready, so I can natter on chronologically from ’62 to the fleeting present. I hate digital cameras, because they remove the delicious excitement of going to the photo shop and being annoyed, elated, surprised by the envelope of 36 prints. I used to take rather solemn pictures of monuments, friends, landscapes etc. in an early romantic spirit. But as I got older I liked looking for oddities, especially strange combinations. My all-time favorite photo is the one I captured three years ago, while walking down one of the main streets of Ubon, a largish town near the Thai-Lao border. At one point, half blocking the pavement, there was a three-foot-high statue of a zebra, stuck on an iron stanchion. But someone, some time, had neatly cut off the back half of the zebra, so all that was left was the touching striped head, chest and forequarters. Utterly mysterious. I spent 15 minutes that morning watching people walk by, no one paid any attention, just stepped off the pavement for a few seconds, circumvented the half-zebra and then strolled forward on the pavement again.

••

ON 1 OCTOBER 1965, in Jakarta, a small group of insurgents calling themselves the 30 September Movement killed six army generals and occupied key sites in the Indonesian capital in an attempt to oust Sukarno, who had been the president of the country since it declared independence, in 1945. Forces under Major General Suharto moved against the rebels, and crushed the uprising. The provenance of the 30 September Movement was never proven, and is fiercely disputed to this day. The Indonesian government blamed it on the PKI, the country’s massive and growing communist party, and, with help from the army, set off a vicious anti-communist purge that, by some estimates, saw half a million people killed and over a million imprisoned. In March 1967, Suharto took over Sukarno’s presidential powers.

At the time, Anderson was a graduate student at Cornell University. Working with two fellow students, and using Indonesian news sources, he anonymously co-authored what became known as the “Cornell Paper”—an account of the doomed coup that defied the official narrative, and challenged the notion of there having been a communist plot. The paper created much controversy, and came to be widely shared among Indonesian dissidents. In 1971, Anderson was one of the only two foreign witnesses at a show trial for the PKI’s general secretary, Sudisman, who was subsequently executed. Anderson recorded, translated and published Sudisman’s testimony. The following year, he was expelled and barred from Indonesia. He was only able to return in 1999, a year after the end of Suharto’s dictatorship.

19 December 2010

Dear Naveen,

So nice to learn you have been enjoying careening around the book world to such good effect. You deserve it all.
I just got back from two weeks in Indonesia, and am now in Bangkok again facing piles of overdue work. Jakarta is a hellhole, garish, corrupt, uncreative, petty, etc. But the beautiful interior of the country is still great. Emotionally, the best moment was the launching of a huge book by a man I first admired in 1967, and still do. In July ’67, the Suharto regime put the highest surviving member of the Communist Party, Sudisman, on military trial, with a sentence of death plain from the first moment. I attended the trial religiously from beginning to end. A long line of witnesses, mostly middle-level officials of the Party, all of them broken by torture, betrayals, etc. Sudisman himself was fine and dignified. Only two witnesses rejected their “pretrial confessions” as the products of torture, and told their stories honestly and proudly. One was an elderly woman, half deaf, who had been a leader of the Party’s women’s organisation. The other was a skinny-looking Chinese boy who looked about 19, though he was the person who hid Sudisman for months. He was the only Chinese.

A year or so later, I translated Sudisman’s final address to the court, very moving, and wrote a short introduction describing the trial and especially the calm bravery of the woman and the boy. I was allowed back into Indonesia in ’99, 32 years later, and one day I found myself attending a sad reunion of Communist ex-political prisoners. The only “white guy” there. After some old-fashioned speeches, the chairman asked me to come to the podium to say a few encouraging words. As I sat down, a tall burly dark-skinned Chinese man came up to me and asked me if I remembered him. No, I didn’t. He then said, I remember you, and my name is Tan Swie Ling. At once I knew who he was, and we threw ourselves into each other’s arms, tears in our eyes. I had no idea he was even alive. After that I always went to see him when I went to Jakarta. He told me that in the panzer that took him to testify, his military guards told him they would finish him off if he rejected his “confession,” obtained by excruciating torture with the poisonous tail of a Giant Sting Ray. He meditated, and in the meditation he saw the figure of a mythological ancient Chinese hero who told him to be brave and honest. The amazing thing that happened when he entered the panzer to be taken back to prison, his guards took off their hats to him for his courage, and didn’t hurt him anymore.

Still very active, an active proponent of human rights and above all the struggle (finally successful two years ago) in getting repealed all the odious discriminatory laws against Chinese set up by the dictatorship. Finally we told each other how old we were. It turned out we were born only a few months apart, he is the slight junior. I said, I can’t believe it. I was sure you were 19 in ’67, and actually you were 29. He laughed and said, “You know we Asians always look younger than we are.” I pushed him to write his memoirs, but he refused, saying he was an unknown man of no importance. But I think he was still in a way a communist morally.

The movement is everything, and memoirs are products of individualist vanity. Anyway, he did write a long and strange book, and asked me to write an introduction for it. Finally, I could write about him as I felt. Meantime, I learnt more about him. His father was a very poor Chinese craftsman who could not afford to send his kids to school. The father’s passion was Chinese and Javanese puppet plays. Family language, Javanese. No Chinese of any kind. In his early teens he and his elder brothers formed a band to make a little money for the family, and he was the singer. His voice is still very beautiful, and the “Indonesian” he learnt in his teens has all the dignified flavour of an earlier time. One doesn’t often meet and become friends with a real hero. I feel very lucky. Oh—I forgot. I asked him how he could remember me. He laughed and said: “I always wanted to know the skinny white boy who sat quietly taking notes while he faced the court.” But it was only in the early ’90s after he was finally released that an old comrade showed him a copy of my little brochure on the trial and on him. After that, he said, I always hoped one day we would meet again, and when the chairman called me to the podium and announced my name, he realised that the day had come. He didn’t recognise me, the white-haired overweight white man, any more than I recognised him with his still-black hair and powerful semi-wrestler body.

Love,
Ben

••

EARLY LAST YEAR, Anderson and Kishore exchanged a final string of messages, sparked by another prompt from Kishore for a contribution to a Seagull catalogue.

13 February 2015

Men will pluck their eyes. This is known. Out of shame. And horror. Over a deed committed. Often more imagined than the truth. Sometimes as a gesture made drama. Other times. In the solitude offered by the forest lit exclusively by twilight. Silhouetted against a sky perceived as unforgiving. And definitely unsung. Except by the denizens of the forest who will in time turn this monumental act of blindness into myth and legend. Sung as stories that will flood the consciousness of minds to follow. For generations. And unseen. Except by the smaller gods. Hiding in the folds of the bigger ones. The ones who do not matter as much in the hierarchy of godliness. In shadow or in the harshness of light. Man-made or that of the sun. In any season. It is not important. What is of interest is that the desire to offer up the sacrifice of sight or in this case hindsight as atonement is universal. Across cultures. Almost desperate once the urge rises. Like bile. From the pit of one’s stomach. No amount of reason can talk you out of it once the die is cast. The seed planted. In the head.

You just have to go through with it. There is no room here for grief.

22 February

Dear Naveen,

By the machinations of some evil or vengeful god, it came about that the handsome, clever, well-meaning, kingly Oedipus fell in love with an older woman whom he did not recognise—he only saw her. It seems that his queenly mother did not recognise him either. They were married and seemed happy because they saw nothing but only happiness. Then some god explained what they were doing, to hurt them, and while the mother killed herself, Oedipus blinded himself, left his palace and disappeared in the deep forest.

I think that in those days, only men did this, while women killed themselves. I am sorry to say that Freud grabbed this ancient story and decided that all male babies everywhere had the fate of Oedipus. But they could be cured.

I think of stories about tough young Indian males who so love Mother India that they will do anything for her, no matter how horrible. Will some of them blind themselves? Or is that already done, in a special way?

All the same, Oedipus blinded himself because he knew it was his god-given fate. He could understand what the gods had done to him. It wasn’t really a case of personal penance. It might be like the early times in India when wives were expected to be burnt alive on their husbands’ pyres. It was, wasn’t it, their fate?

You may remember Sophocles’ last play, composed when he was very old, about blind Oedipus. He had composed Oedipus the King when Oedipus knew nothing.

Ben

23 February

Yes, dear Ben,

I agree about your take on old Sigmund who, in his own way, was blinded too, seeing darkness for what he thought it was! Some form of a malaise to be treated like one big Collective Disease rather than focussing on one individual fate at a time!

Imagined, or self-inflicted, as in the case of Gandhari, the wife of Dhritarashtra in our very own Mahabharata. Where the self-infliction took on the act of blindfolding oneself into a life of non-seeing out of loyalty to a husband born blind. Then again, if one were to open one’s eyes to “other blindnesses”… the husband in this case is comparable to Lear who, though not actually blind, was blind after all, was he not? Allowing himself to be led into “not seeing” the youngest daughter for her virtue and her concern and her honesty and her affection… like Gandhari’s husband who, unlike the blindness of romance—which suggests a certain inner brilliance that the blind cling to and “see,” unlike us so-called wide-eyed “seers”—was in fact completely taken in by other people’s machinations, so he was twice-blinded…

I am very interested because this seems to go across cultures, this “blindwish,” as if it’s the worst suffering the male can inflict on himself by way of atonement for acts knowingly or unknowingly committed… the horror of recognition and knowledge… awareness dawning that this is what has been done… innocently or deliberately.

Then again, there are those that refuse to atone or take responsibility. Are there instances of this in contemporary myth-making in your part of the world… the one you left behind and the one you so feel at home in… or in film or theatre, novels and poetry… this blindness?

Love and hugs

N

23 February

Dear Naveen,

Silly of me. I forgot that Sigmund’s Oedipus Complex starts from the beginning of life, and the baby (male) knows nothing. None of our males can remember that early phase, but we are, he says, stuck with it. Yes, the beginning of the Javanese Mahabharata, and the enmity between the cousins of the Pandawa and Kurawa lineages… I don’t have the right books here with me but I think the trouble started with the spooky time when Gendari gave birth to the Kurawa all at once, with Destarata as the father. When D was near death, he turned over the kingdom to his younger brother Pandu. If I am not wholly stupid, Pandu was blind, I don’t know when or why. But it was in his reign that the tragedy started.

My memory is really terrible these days.

Big hug,
Ben

23 February

Dear Ben,

I know! The grand epic defeats me too! I often find myself mixing the cast of characters. Pandu was indeed the younger brother but it was the other way around! Pandu turned over the kingdom to his blind elder brother D!

Interestingly, blindness features differently here, because, according to our version of the story, Pandu was born as a result of the union between his mother Ambalika (whose sister Ambika was the mother of blind Dhritarashtra! Both were the widows of Vichitravirya who died early) and Rishi Vyasa who, in deference to his mother Satyavati’s instructions, slept with—or, as they would say in those days, “visited”—both the sisters. Having been told to keep her eyes open so that her son would not be born blind, Ambalika—though successful in keeping her eyes open—couldn’t help turning pale at the sight of the formidable Vyasa. As a result of which Pandu was born very pale! Luckily, he wasn’t blind, though blindness does feature strongly…

Love and hugs,

N

23 February

Dear Naveen,

As soon as I sent you the message this morning, I discovered a strange little booklet to the effect that the Kurawa actually were not that bad. The writer is an old communist who Suharto put in jail for years in miserable conditions. There I saw my mistake. As you say, it is D who was the blind older brother of Pandu (who was a kind of albino). The old communist writes that when Gandhari was told to meet D, she was appalled because of his blindness, his dirty clothes, his rough moustache and beard. At first she didn’t want to marry him, but soon became very attached to him. There are pages about a mysterious time when she had a hundred Kurawa babies in her womb all at once. The Javanese mostly think that the Mahabharata took place on Java, and that all the main characters are Javanese. Of course, they change it like crazy. Their favourite is always Srikandi, who is the only woman who is a great warrior, who shouts at people if she is annoyed, including her irresponsible but handsome husband Arjun.

In the old days, I liked to tease people by asking them why she never had a baby. Unusually, they had never thought about this and didn’t know how to reply. Old male scholars would laugh and say, “That’s how the Javanese are.” They don’t know that Srikandi is actually a male warrior—he was too good in battle, so one of the gods got irritated and changed his body into a woman’s. But his brains, rationality and courage all stayed male.

Did Arjun know about this? He always makes me feel that he was a bit dumb.

Big hugs and love,
B

30 October

Dear Naveen,

Now I wish I hadn’t asked you that question. Probeen, so spelled, looks like a type of hi-tech medicine and/or perhaps a new explosive, or an Anglo-Irish dialect word rhyming with shebeen (shack) poteen (lethal potato whisky) Maureen and so on. Hmmm, how to spell it differently? In this lamentable country, “sir” survives as the male equivalent of “ma’am,” to be used by anyone selling something to a gullible customer.

Hugs,
Ben

3 November 2010

Dear Naveen,

Yes, early morning walks, when the sky is starting to lighten, but sun still snoring. The people who are up and busy at that hour are usually interesting, the dead-tired and the just-up. Long before traffic jams start, great smells of food being cooked, dogs chirpy, songbirds at full blast. The light is perfect for photography. In a strange town you have to remember every landmark to find your way back, unless you happen to understand the local language. In Indonesia, if you have lost your way, they say, not “Go on till the second red light, then turn left,” but rather, “Head south till you reach a huge pothole, then turn east.” The sun might be better than GPS. I have hundreds and hundreds of photos starting from when I went to Indonesia for the first time in 1962. Black-and-whites mostly. The earlier ones. And some coloured slides. These pictures are being digitised by my assistant, and will go to the Cornell library after my death. All the photos have details on the back, dates, names, places. But they also want me to record a running commentary. I want to do this only after everything is ready, so I can natter on chronologically from ’62 to the fleeting present. I hate digital cameras, because they remove the delicious excitement of going to the photo shop and being annoyed, elated, surprised by the envelope of 36 prints. I used to take rather solemn pictures of monuments, friends, landscapes etc. in an early romantic spirit. But as I got older I liked looking for oddities, especially strange combinations. My all-time favorite photo is the one I captured three years ago, while walking down one of the main streets of Ubon, a largish town near the Thai-Lao border. At one point, half blocking the pavement, there was a three-foot-high statue of a zebra, stuck on an iron stanchion. But someone, some time, had neatly cut off the back half of the zebra, so all that was left was the touching striped head, chest and forequarters. Utterly mysterious. I spent 15 minutes that morning watching people walk by, no one paid any attention, just stepped off the pavement for a few seconds, circumvented the half-zebra and then strolled forward on the pavement again.

••

ON 1 OCTOBER 1965, in Jakarta, a small group of insurgents calling themselves the 30 September Movement killed six army generals and occupied key sites in the Indonesian capital in an attempt to oust Sukarno, who had been the president of the country since it declared independence, in 1945. Forces under Major General Suharto moved against the rebels, and crushed the uprising. The provenance of the 30 September Movement was never proven, and is fiercely disputed to this day. The Indonesian government blamed it on the PKI, the country’s massive and growing communist party, and, with help from the army, set off a vicious anti-communist purge that, by some estimates, saw half a million people killed and over a million imprisoned. In March 1967, Suharto took over Sukarno’s presidential powers.

At the time, Anderson was a graduate student at Cornell University. Working with two fellow students, and using Indonesian news sources, he anonymously co-authored what became known as the “Cornell Paper”—an account of the doomed coup that defied the official narrative, and challenged the notion of there having been a communist plot. The paper created much controversy, and came to be widely shared among Indonesian dissidents. In 1971, Anderson was one of the only two foreign witnesses at a show trial for the PKI’s general secretary, Sudisman, who was subsequently executed. Anderson recorded, translated and published Sudisman’s testimony. The following year, he was expelled and barred from Indonesia. He was only able to return in 1999, a year after the end of Suharto’s dictatorship.

19 December 2010

Dear Naveen,

So nice to learn you have been enjoying careening around the book world to such good effect. You deserve it all.
I just got back from two weeks in Indonesia, and am now in Bangkok again facing piles of overdue work. Jakarta is a hellhole, garish, corrupt, uncreative, petty, etc. But the beautiful interior of the country is still great. Emotionally, the best moment was the launching of a huge book by a man I first admired in 1967, and still do. In July ’67, the Suharto regime put the highest surviving member of the Communist Party, Sudisman, on military trial, with a sentence of death plain from the first moment. I attended the trial religiously from beginning to end. A long line of witnesses, mostly middle-level officials of the Party, all of them broken by torture, betrayals, etc. Sudisman himself was fine and dignified. Only two witnesses rejected their “pretrial confessions” as the products of torture, and told their stories honestly and proudly. One was an elderly woman, half deaf, who had been a leader of the Party’s women’s organisation. The other was a skinny-looking Chinese boy who looked about 19, though he was the person who hid Sudisman for months. He was the only Chinese.

A year or so later, I translated Sudisman’s final address to the court, very moving, and wrote a short introduction describing the trial and especially the calm bravery of the woman and the boy. I was allowed back into Indonesia in ’99, 32 years later, and one day I found myself attending a sad reunion of Communist ex-political prisoners. The only “white guy” there. After some old-fashioned speeches, the chairman asked me to come to the podium to say a few encouraging words. As I sat down, a tall burly dark-skinned Chinese man came up to me and asked me if I remembered him. No, I didn’t. He then said, I remember you, and my name is Tan Swie Ling. At once I knew who he was, and we threw ourselves into each other’s arms, tears in our eyes. I had no idea he was even alive. After that I always went to see him when I went to Jakarta. He told me that in the panzer that took him to testify, his military guards told him they would finish him off if he rejected his “confession,” obtained by excruciating torture with the poisonous tail of a Giant Sting Ray. He meditated, and in the meditation he saw the figure of a mythological ancient Chinese hero who told him to be brave and honest. The amazing thing that happened when he entered the panzer to be taken back to prison, his guards took off their hats to him for his courage, and didn’t hurt him anymore.

Still very active, an active proponent of human rights and above all the struggle (finally successful two years ago) in getting repealed all the odious discriminatory laws against Chinese set up by the dictatorship. Finally we told each other how old we were. It turned out we were born only a few months apart, he is the slight junior. I said, I can’t believe it. I was sure you were 19 in ’67, and actually you were 29. He laughed and said, “You know we Asians always look younger than we are.” I pushed him to write his memoirs, but he refused, saying he was an unknown man of no importance. But I think he was still in a way a communist morally.

The movement is everything, and memoirs are products of individualist vanity. Anyway, he did write a long and strange book, and asked me to write an introduction for it. Finally, I could write about him as I felt. Meantime, I learnt more about him. His father was a very poor Chinese craftsman who could not afford to send his kids to school. The father’s passion was Chinese and Javanese puppet plays. Family language, Javanese. No Chinese of any kind. In his early teens he and his elder brothers formed a band to make a little money for the family, and he was the singer. His voice is still very beautiful, and the “Indonesian” he learnt in his teens has all the dignified flavour of an earlier time. One doesn’t often meet and become friends with a real hero. I feel very lucky. Oh—I forgot. I asked him how he could remember me. He laughed and said: “I always wanted to know the skinny white boy who sat quietly taking notes while he faced the court.” But it was only in the early ’90s after he was finally released that an old comrade showed him a copy of my little brochure on the trial and on him. After that, he said, I always hoped one day we would meet again, and when the chairman called me to the podium and announced my name, he realised that the day had come. He didn’t recognise me, the white-haired overweight white man, any more than I recognised him with his still-black hair and powerful semi-wrestler body.

Love,
Ben

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Benedict Anderson (1936–2015) was a professor emeritus of international studies at Cornell University. He is best known for Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. His others books include The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World, Debating World Literature and Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination.

Naveen Kishore is a lighting designer and photographer, and the publisher of Seagull Books.

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