I feel a bit as if I’m going out on a limb here, but I read The Girl from the Coast by Pramoedya Ananta Toer as a metaphor for Indonesia under Dutch colonial rule.
It’s a deceptively simple story. From what I can translate of the Good Reads reviews in Indonesian (peppered with incomprehensible-to-me Javanese slang), most of its young readers see it as a tale about the oppression of women. The Girl from the Coast (Gadis Pantai) attracts the attention of a wealthy aristocrat, and is taken from her home (with her parents blessing) to live in his mansion as a ‘practice wife’ i.e. a concubine. She has two roles to fulfil: to obey the Bendoro’s every whim whether she understands what it is or not, and to command the servants to obey his every whim (i.e. to be held responsible for their obedience whether she has the wherewithal to make them obey or not).
At this level, this semi-fictional story of Toer’s grandmother’s own experience is an indictment of the way women were exploited in Javanese feudal society. This girl, never named except as The Girl from the Coast, is a child bride, removed from parents who really had no choice but to agree and genuinely believed that she had a better future with the Bendoro (Lord). This relationship of unequals is purely sexual – in her loneliness the girl pines for the Bendoro, but since she can never speak to him as an equal their conversations consist entirely of her flatteries and protestations of undying love and his magnanimous acceptance of same. He visits her only between disappearances elsewhere to places unspecified, and the servant scuttles out of the way quick smart when he comes home, because, well, although she doesn’t say so to the naive young girl, it’s been four days so he’ll be ready for it, eh? (Nobody tells her about what to expect when it’s time for her defloration, either, and the girl is beside herself with distress afterwards.) In fact nobody tells her anything much at all, and she is left to discover for herself just what her ultimate exploitation might be, which makes her resilience all the more remarkable.
Surely this is a metaphor for the way the Dutch arrived on the coasts of Indonesia, promptly established themselves as an incomprehensible superior force requiring unquestioning obedience, and discovered over time that Indonesians would meet the challenge with remarkable resilience? No coloniser behaved well, but the Dutch in Indonesia were so cruel and exploitative that (from what I’ve read in scholarly tomes when doing Asian Studies at Murdoch University) the Indonesians regarded the brief period during the Napoleonic Wars when the British took over the colony (1811-1816) almost as a Golden Age: Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles introduced partial self-government and land reforms, abolished slavery and expressed respect for Javanese culture by restoring monuments such as Borobodur. When treaties returned the status quo, the Dutch immediately re-established their repressive rule and it was not until after WW2 that Indonesia was able to realise its long-cherished goal of independence (which I am proud to say was supported by Australia).
Read from this perspective, The Girl from the Coast makes fascinating reading. The girl’s father, traditionally an authority figure in age-status-conscious Indonesia, is very promptly put in his place by the Bendoro, and this mirrors the way the Dutch imposed their will on the Indonesians and made them impotent. Toer makes reference to the treaties that the priyayi (aristocracy) negotiated with the Dutch, and although there were princely rebellions notably by Prince Diponegoro, now a national hero, the price of their compliance was the brutal oppression of the ordinary people. That the promises made under these treaties were a sham is shown by the girl’s immediate awareness that by accepting the Bendoro’s terms ‘there would never be anyone she could address as an equal’ (p40). This means more in Bahasa Indonesia than many Western readers may realise: it is a language in which the word for ‘you’ has different forms depending on the status of the person spoken to. There is no neutral form; when the girl addresses the servant as mbak it subverts her position as ‘young mistress’ because that form of ‘you’ means ‘sister’ (though not necessarily a sibling). It is familiar, it is not the language of master and servant. It expresses a profound longing for an end to her isolation. But that is never going to happen. Having been removed from her home the girl will never be accepted as one of them again. Things can never be put back the way they were.
But she is never going to be made fit for acceptance into the higher castes either. One of the crucial differences between the British and Dutch as colonists, at least in India, was that the British educated some of the local population at least to the lower levels of the bureaucracy. (Gandhi, for example, studied law in Britain 1888-1891). This meant they were literate, and although they had always been precluded from the top jobs and paid less for the jobs they were allowed to do, they were, when granted independence, ready to govern. For most of their regime, there were no such educational opportunities for Indonesians under the Dutch. It was not until the Balinese Royal Family and thousands of their supporters committed putupan (ritual suicide) rather than surrender to the Dutch in the early 19th century that world opinion forced the Dutch to minor reforms, one of which was that some Indonesians were educated overseas (and these formed the nucleus of the subsequent independence movement). So it is with the Girl from the Coast: she is taught only what she needs to know to serve the Bendoro’s needs. Her ‘education’ is within a strictly limited field: traditional crafts such as batik and Muslim prayers which she does not understand.
The serving woman who is the girl’s mentor and sole confidante is also her betrayer. She is at pains to make the girl conform because her own position depends on it. As a warning, she tells the story of her great-grandfather who was hung by the Dutch because he was foreman of labourers who had failed to build a road on schedule. She explains about her grandfather who joined Diponegoro’s rebels, fled with another noble when defeated, eventually surrendered and then was beaten and imprisoned when he escaped after returning alone from a patrol that was attacked by a band of robbers. She tells how she lost her baby when a Dutch foreman kicked her when she was working as a forced labourer and how her enraged husband was killed when he tried to defend her. It is fate, she says, that common people such as they must submit, but it is also compliance. What happens when her loyalty to the girl conflicts with her loyalty to the Bendoro is instructive. In thrall to an uncompromising authority, one has no option but to surrender.
I wish I knew more about Indonesian history so that I could identify more correspondences. This is a very fine book: great reading in its own right as a story with a compelling plot; fascinating about the role of women in a feudal society; and very revealing in terms of what it has to reveal about Dutch colonialism.
 Animism (the belief that non-human entities like rocks and the sea embody spirits) is still practised in Indonesia especially in remote communities, but also often side-by-side with other religions such as Hinduism as in Bali. Perhaps one of the reasons Toer was banned in Indonesia was because he is critical of the hypocritical religiosity of the Bendoro and his ostentatious devotion.
Author: Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Title: The Girl from the Coast
Translator: Willem Samuels
Publisher: Hyperion Books, 2002
Source: Personal library