Departures opens on a wrenching scene at Jakarta’s old Kemayoran Airport as Dutch evacuees pass through immigration. Employees of recently nationalized Dutch firms, plantations and factories were pouring out of the country. On their taut and worried faces was reflected the same kind of fear that I saw on the unforgettable faces of Chinese families crammed into Kota’s immigration hall during the riots of 1998.
Evacuees included those who’ve worked in Indonesia for a short while and those whose families have lived here for generations. Elisa Frissart was among those choosing to remain behind. She was saying goodbye to her Dutch-Eurasian family who was leaving for Holland. Elisa’s family decided to leave even though they were dark-skinned, spoke Indonesian, were Indonesian citizens and felt Indonesian.
Elisa had left home four years earlier, seeking refuge from the unrelenting emotional abuse she suffered under her jealous mother. The family home felt like a prison, so she moved to a low-cost boarding house when she was only 17. Elisa was the only Eurasian in the hostel in the Jakarta suburb of Rajawali. One couldn’t tell from her skin or her face that she was mixed race, except for perhaps her “sharp nose.” It upset her to be treated different. “She’s Elisa, the Indo.” her housemates would say to visitors.
The issues surrounding race are unflinchingly examined in this novel in which racism and sexism combine to limit the main character’s desire for self-expression and fulfillment. Working for the new Garuda Indonesian Airlines, Elisa is determined to establish her independence and find a place where she feels like she belongs. She decides to throw in her lot with the young republic and identify fully as an Indonesian. She chose the pure Indonesian form of her name, dropping the diminutive Dutch ye as in Elsye.
With the support of only two of her Indonesian housemates, Elisa learns what it means to be a young woman finding her way in the troubled early years after Indonesia’s independence. She sought out the company of Javanese crew and staff so she could become more Indonesian. Her only true friend, who accepts her for who she was, is worldly, bookish, straight-talking Lansih in Garuda’s Flights Department.
At the time the atmosphere was tense in the capital where a minority of the population still identified with the colonizers and openly preferred using the Dutch language. But a feeling of ill will was directed at Indos speaking Dutch or who had foreign-sounding names even though their complexion was as dark as the natives. Some local shops and even pedicab drivers refused to serve them. People yelled “Dutch dogs!” at them on the street. Increasingly, lighter-skinned people were afraid of going out alone at night.
With a dysfunctional family background and almost no knowledge of her ancestry, 21-year-old Elisa searches for her true identity. Finding her real father proves a heartbreaking ordeal and she encounters frustration with her various Indonesian suitors. She finds the prospect of marriage to the handsome Javanese, Sukoharjito with whom she has fallen deeply in love, may give her the sense of belonging and the stability she yearns for.
Her brushes with romance and the stirrings of sexual arousal with Sukoharjito are about as racy as this novel gets, adheringas it must to the literary convention of the times. There’s a little too much attention in the book devoted to the oh-so-delicate micro aggressions, slights in friendships, demure Javanese-style courtships, niceties of mannerisms, parties and dates, church-going and co-habiting issues within the small circle of friends. I yearned for riot, murder, betrayal, infidelity – anything exciting. The story only gets interesting again when Elisa starts uncovering her family’s enigmatic and scandalous history in Surabaya, her mother’s carefree sexuality, doubts about her biological father and the lonely time she spent in an orphanage in Batavia during the Japanese occupation.
Nh. Dini’s writing style is unemotional on the surface, but raw feelings are stirring below that reveal themselves in a melodramatic bedside reunion with an adopted uncle and overwrought anguish when her boyfriend leaves her for another woman. She distances herself from the politics of the period, as if it is not her place to comment.
Her disinterested observations make it seem that those turbulent times were uneventful. She presents a picture of normalcy. No opinions are expressed. A realistic eyewitness account of what it was like to live in a country where a resurrection in Sulawesi, military operations against rebels in West Sumatra, the downing of an American spy plane over Ambon, a national economy in crisis and Sukarno’s mass expulsion of Dutch citizens were taking place would’ve been an invaluable historical record.
But we must bear in mind that Dini’s story of a young independent woman making her feelings known about the prejudices and discrimination she felt was daring for the period. Elisa had to constantly fight against the belief that Eurasian girls were free and easy as well as many other subtle ways that she felt frustrated at not being accepted by other Indonesians as one of their own.
The author trained as a Garuda flight attendant, known in the parlance of the mid-1950s as an “air hostesses.” It was the time of telexes, Dakota airplanes and smoking allowed in the passenger cabin. After its launch, the national airlines used aging aircraft purchased from KLM that were badly in need of repair with no Dutch mechanics and few spare parts. The government even commandeered Garuda planes to put down regional uprisings.
We get the inside scoop on the duties and perceived social standing of a low-ranking airline employee. We learn what it’s like traveling with the presidential entourage and serving VIPs.
Dini is particularly adept at describing tactile details of clothing, dialog, facial expressions and Garuda’soperational and bureaucratic procedures. In a rare you-are-there account by someone who has survived an air crash, Elisa tells of her plane’s engines losing power and plunging to earth in a swamp with water quickly filling the cabin.
In this book I found the references to social and political unrest, anecdotes from the very early years Indonesia’s nascent airline industry, the searing portraits of Elisa’s unpleasant mother and of her best friend Lansih actually more intriguing than the well-behaved and conformist personality of the young Christian narrator.
Nh. Dini was one of Indonesia’s earliest feminists, so she makes sure her female characters explore a wide range of life options. In Elisa’s case, jolted and admitting defeat, she finally decides to apply for an immigrant visa and join her family in Holland, turning her back on the country that ultimately would not accept her as one of their own.
Departures by Nh. Dini, translated by Toni Pollard, Lontar Foundation 2014, ISBN 978-602-9144-09-3, paperback, 172 pages, dimensions 14 x 21,5 cm.
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