Pondering an Improbable Nation

Indonesia is Elizabeth Pisani’s big, “bad boyfriend.”

By Pallavi AiyarJune 22, 2014

    Pondering an Improbable Nation

    Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani. W.W. Norton & Company. 416 pages.

    IN THIS “ASIAN CENTURY,” much global intellectual space is devoted to showering China and India, the region’s haute emerging nations, with breathless superlatives that reference their epic demographics and vast geographic spread. There is, however, another nation on the same continent that, despite its size, economic heft, social complexity, and strategic importance, remains what is, as Elizabeth Pisani writes, quoting one of her sources, “probably the most invisible country in the world”: Indonesia. 

    Spread over 17,000 islands, the country spans the distance from Ireland to the Caspian Sea. It is home to 719 languages, spoken by people from over 360 ethnic groups. It is the world’s fourth most populous nation and third most populous democracy. With 210 million citizens who identify as Muslim, Indonesia is also the country with the largest number of Muslims. The Indonesian capital, Jakarta, tweets more than any other city on earth, and around 64 million Indonesians (more than the population of the United Kingdom) use Facebook. It is among the world’s largest suppliers of thermal coal, palm oil, copper, tin, nickel, gold, rubber, coconuts, rice, and coffee.

    And yet, in the global imagination the country remains excluded from the Chindian-dominated lists of the world’s “biggest,” “fastest,” and “most dynamic.” 

    I moved to Jakarta in the fall of 2012. It was my third posting as a foreign correspondent following substantial stints in Beijing and Brussels. In preparation for the move I’d cast about for books to help prepare for my new assignment. I was looking for something that blended reportage with a dollop of history and a dash of travel; an amalgam of autobiography, anecdotes, and analysis that made for an informative, yet enjoyable, introduction into the intricacies of a large subject.

    I wanted the equivalent of a Suketu Mehta or William Dalrymple on India; a Peter Hessler or James Kynge on China. Bewilderingly, I came a cropper, with my quest leading to naught but anthropological tomes on ceremonial textiles in Toraja, or dense punditry on the ins and outs of military dictator Suharto’s New Order regime.

    Over the next two years this lacuna grew ever more glaring as I discovered just how germane this rambunctious democracy’s achievements are for parts of the world like India and China. New Delhi and Beijing rarely deign to look south toward Indonesia for inspiration or even food for thought. Yet, because of the archipelago’s successful welding of a nation out of fractured multiplicity, and its relatively smooth democratic transition following decades of authoritarian rule, its story holds much of value.

    I found myself nearly trembling with excitement, therefore, as I made my way through journalist-turned-epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani’s new book, Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation. It had been a long wait, but I was finally holding in my hands that elusive Indonesia book: a rollicking good adventure that knits together a complex of stories and insights, in a feat that rivals the knitting together of the sprawling nation it describes.

    The book details Pisani’s yearlong travels, which kicked off in late 2011, after she decided to put her job running a public health consultancy in London on hold and head off to the country that she describes as a “Bad Boyfriend” — because “however much you sometimes want to slap him,” she writes, “you always want other people to admire this wild and exotic beast.”

    Pisani’s relationship with her untamed Indonesian “boyfriend” dates back to 1988 when she was first posted to Jakarta as a journalist with the Reuters news agency. She left in 1991, only to return a decade later, this time to work a four-year stint with Indonesia’s Ministry of Health on an HIV project. Indonesia, Etc. greatly benefits from this longer-term affair, lending her more recent travels depth and context.

    For this book, Pisani visited 26 out of the country’s 33 provinces. Twenty-one thousand kilometers of the journey were made by motorbike (on roads that often disappeared into swamps), bus (squeezed between chickens, eggs, and ladies throwing up into sick bags), and boat (wedged among the densely packed human load that camp on the decks of cargo ships).

    The book’s main focus is on the archipelago’s periphery: the outer islands in the east, which most Indonesians in Jakarta’s smart set have never set foot on themselves. Pisani is fearless. She has only one rule for her travels: “Just say yes.” And thankfully, for the reader, she sticks to it.

    She drinks tea with corpses in Sumba and reads the future in the entrails of a dog. She goes whaling with the villagers of Lamalera in Flores and investigates asphalt mines (like Pisani I was surprised to discover asphalt is not only refined from petroleum, but also found in natural deposits waiting to be dug out of the ground) in the volcanic wilds of the Maluku islands.

    The many intimate portraits and moments that Indonesia, Etc. offers up are interspersed with insights and explanations addressing the fundamental question of how such a dispersed collection of islands is able to cohere. Strong-arm, state-imposed tactics used by successive governments are certainly part of the story. But Pisani details other non-state unifiers as well.

    These include the street food vendors from West Sumatra’s Minangkabau ethnicity who have conquered the nation “one restaurant at a time,” the Minang house logo being as recognizable across the archipelago as McDonald’s Golden Arches are to Americans. The country’s “es kelapa,” or iced coconut water, is in the meantime provided by itinerant Sasak cart pushers, originally from Lombok in the province of West Nusa Tenggara, but now dispersed through the nation. Its barbershops are almost always run by people from Madura, and its boats built by the Bugis from South Sulawesi.

    As she travels and talks with grandmas, politicians, rebels, and fishermen, Pisani also takes it upon herself to delve into all the defining issues of contemporary Indonesia: corruption, political decentralization, religious conflicts, and large-scale environmental destruction. These are the “etc.” in the title of the book. When the country claimed independence from Dutch colonialists in 1945, the declaration read: “We, the People of Indonesia, hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters which concern the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and in the shortest possible time.”

    Indonesia has been working out that “etc.” ever since, and Pisani’s book is an ambitious shot at examining the outcomes. In this she is unburdened by ideology, which makes her as critical of the standard platitudes of Western NGOs and do-gooders as she is of the sometimes illogical and unhelpful diktats of Jakarta. She pokes fun, for instance, at environmentalists who make “emotive YouTube videos” about the slaughter of dolphins and whales in places like a Lembata village. Given her own experiences whaling with a group of drunks hunting in leaky boats with no anchors, who are barely able to throw a harpoon, and who come back home empty-handed from waters roiling with sharks and dolphins, she is relatively sanguine about the future of these particular marine mammals.

    Pisani is clear-eyed about some of the benefits that the Suharto dictatorship brought to Indonesia even as she explains his undoing. She is critical of the corruption that has stunted much progress in Indonesia, although she is sympathetic to the wide acceptance of certain forms of patronage, given the peculiarities of Indonesia’s current bureaucratic and political arrangements.

    The portrait that Pisani paints is of a country on the cusp of multiple transitions as new forms of government and economic organization clash with more traditional social relations and outlooks. Indonesia is not alone in confronting these challenges, and there is much for other countries, including India and China, to study with interest in the details of Indonesia’s ongoing “etc.” Clearly, the nation’s future will not be turbulence-free, yet there is an irrepressible optimism, perhaps borne out of Pisani’s indomitable spirit, that leaves little room for despondency. To read Indonesia, Etc. is to grow rather fond of both author and country.


    Pallavi Aiyar is a regular contributor to LARB.

    LARB Contributor

    An award-winning reporter and columnist, Pallavi Aiyar has worked as a foreign correspondent for over two decades, reporting from China, Europe, Indonesia, and Japan. She is the author of several books, including the China memoir Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China (2008) and the novel Chinese Whiskers (2010). Her latest book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan (2021). She is currently based in Madrid, where she teaches global media perspectives at IE University.


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