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 Rendra: Going against the tide

The Jakarta Post ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 08/08/2009 1:35 PM  |  Opinion

Anand Krishna

 

My first and last meeting with W.S. Rendra took place not long after The Jakarta Post carried an exclusive interview on the great poet on Nov. 12, 2005. I was then invited by a friend to talk about national integration and Pancasila, the state ideology.

Rendra was seated with others in the audience, and listened to me attentively. After I finished my talk, our host introduced us. Rendra was very informal, "Bung," meaning "brother", "You are going against the tide. Nobody cares about Pancasila anymore. What can you do?"

I said, "I learnt the art *of going against the norm* from you."

He remained silent for a while, and then nodded, "Yes, yes, yes, we have to go on. Don't we?"

We discussed many things, and I could feel his restlessness. At the same time, he was also surprisingly hopeful. What a man! He was a perfect blend of tragic poet and dynamic activist, restless and yet hopeful.

I was truly impressed.

Here was a man who dared to go against the tide. He lived life on his own terms. He was not ashamed of his lust and passion, at the same time he did not stop at that. He was clearly trying to transcend them.

"When I hear people talking about my possessions, I tell them that I am but only a trustee."

In the next few lines, he lists out all his possessions, the movable and the immovable.

"But, why have I been entrusted with all these things? What should I do with them? Why do I grieve when something that has been entrusted to me is taken back by the rightful owner?"

Rendra, who was born a Christian in Surakarta (Central Java), on Nov. 7, 1935, died a Muslim in Depok (West Java), on Aug. 6, 2009. He lived to be as human as possible.

When I heard about his death from a friend, I sighed. "One more loss."

Two days earlier, we had lost Mbah Surip, another great artist and a humble man, a down-to-earth person.

Alas, Mbah Surip and now Mas Rendra. But, then I remembered the poet's lines.

"Why do I grieve when something that has been entrusted to me is taken back by the rightful owner?"

I can almost hear Mas Rendra reciting the next lines in that verse. "Why do I consider it a calamity? Why do I call it a test?"

Rendra was a poet, a genius at that, but more than a poet, he was a man of integrity. He was a man of courage.

Rendra complained about our system of government, which he believed was a continuation of the Dutch colonial system. "Through poems I criticize development that does not benefit the people and that ignores social and cultural issues.

"It is normal for a colonial ruler to ignore those aspects, but after independence we have to work on the social and cultural aspects."

One of Rendra's core beliefs was that when a nation forgets its social and cultural values, moral decadence cannot be avoided.

"I must enlighten the people. Anytime there is moral decadence, poets have to react.

"If there is natural devastation, poets have to react. If there is failure in the government, many poets say that it is not their business. I do not agree."

Here it is not Rendra the poet speaking, but Rendra the activist.

During President Soeharto's governance, Rendra was often threatened and detained for expressing his thoughts on the government through his poems and dramas. Undeterred, he continued promoting his beliefs through his work, despite the hardship.

When Rendra was asked about his support for Nurmahmudi, the Major of Depok and a member of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), he said:

"*I* support Nurmahmudi not because I am a member of PKS. It is impossible for me to join PKS. For me, PKS is a party with an unclear platform."

PKS was not the only political party targeted by Rendra, who constantly lamented that not a single party had reacted to an increase in politicians' salaries when the majority of Indonesians live below the poverty line.

Nurmahmudi was notorious for canceling a building permit for a church that was to be built in Depok. I am not sure whether Rendra ever raised this issue with the Depok mayor.

Rendra was very much concerned about the rights of minority groups.

"There was a Christian family who was expelled from their house for organizing a prayer *meeting*. I often organize prayers at home peacefully. Does it mean that a Muslim is allowed to organize a prayer and others are not allowed?" he asked.

Mas Rendra, soon we will be celebrating our national day, albeit without you, and without Mbah Surip this year. We will miss you. But as we hoist the national flag, we shall remember your words.

"There is a hope. It is not because of the quality of the government or the political parties. It is because the young generation have started to understand social knowledge, psychology, linguistics and anthropology. There is hope."

The writer is a spiritual activist and author of more than 130 books (www.anandkrishna.org)