Revolt in Paradise

Book Review

Ni Wayan Murni
The Times, Lombok, July – August 2007

Revolt in Paradise
K’tut Tantri
Reprinted Gramedia, Jakarta, 2006

Revolt in Paradise is a classic and it is good to see it in print again after a long absence. It is rather hard to classify this book: maybe autobiography, perhaps historical novel, possibly adventure story. On the face of it, it purports to be autobiographical: the story of a British-born American woman’s fifteen years in Indonesia in the 1930s and 1940s. Doubt has been cast on its accuracy and indeed the author begins the book by saying, ‘It is always difficult to be completely honest about oneself’. This does not matter. It’s a great story.

The story is divided into three parts. The first part tells of her time in Bali. In 1932 in Hollywood she saw the film Bali,The Last Paradise and shortly after set sail from New York on a cargo ship. She was an artist and made for Bali immediately after arriving in Java. Like all visitors at that time she stayed in the Dutch owned Bali Hotel in Denpasar. She felt, however, that this was not Bali but Holland, part of the colonial masters’ country, and determined to leave as quickly as possible and live in a Balinese village. Such a thing was unheard of in those days but she hated the Dutch attitudes. She took off in her car, driving herself, and decided to stop when she ran out of petrol. The car happened to halt outside a Rajah’s palace and although she does not mention it, I have it on good authority that it was the palace of Bangli.

She was accepted as one of the family and given a Balinese name — K’tut Tantri. K’tut is the fourth-born child — the Rajah already had three. In this section she describes what it was like to live with a royal family. She describes the various ceremonies she attended and trips she took. She also tells of run-ins and arguments with the Dutch authorities. They did not approve and schemed to deport her, but never succeeded. Her analysis is not terribly profound — the Balinese are all wonderful and the Dutch are all terrible. She herself is heroic and brilliant at all things. She formed a very close relationship with the Rajah’s son Agung Nura. My informant tells me that she formed an even closer relationship with the Rajah himself. Agung Nura was active in the independence movement, which K’tut Tanri later joined.

She found palace life a bit restrictive and unrepresentative of real Bali life and moved out and as she put it, ‘bought practically the whole of Kuta beach’. Here she put up a hotel in partnership with some Americans. This is a delightful section of the book despite the fact that she fell out with the Americans. The accounts of her relationships with her staff are endearing and clearly affectionate. The first hotel in Kuta seems to have been very popular. It was not a financial success, however, and she ran into difficulties with the Dutch authorities. Europe was at war. Germany invaded Holland and Japan invaded Indonesia — they landed in Bali first. The Dutch did not fire a shot in defence and fled to Java. It was no longer safe. K’tut Tantri left for Surabaya in East Java. The hotel was demolished by looters permitted by the Japanese.

The second section of the book recounts her time in Japanese occupied Java. The Dutch quickly surrendered. She was able to negotiate travel passes with the Japanese and helped the underground resistance movement against the Japanese. She narrates stories of arms smuggling and tales of derring-do. K’tut Tanti always plays a starring role. Finally she was caught and imprisoned for more than two years until almost the end of the war. She was tortured and the descriptions are quite harrowing.

The third and final section of the book describes the long independence struggle and her part in it. After the war the Dutch wanted to come back to Indonesia as overlords. The English helped them and bombed Surabaya, which was unarmed and did not have air-raid shelters, for three consecutive days. The blood of hundreds was shed. Women and children died. It was a turning point for K’tut Tantri and she determined to help the Indonesians again. She broadcast twice nightly in English from secret radio stations run by the guerillas. By this means she brought the struggle to the attention of the World and became known herself as Surabaya Sue. She also helped spread the word in an English language magazine called The Voice of Free Indonesia. She met and wrote a speech for President Sukarno. There were more cloak and dagger escapades until she went to Australia and toured the main cities publicizing Indonesia’s case for freedom. Finally six years after the War ended world opinion forced the Dutch to grant Indonesia her independence.

The book ends there; K’tut Tanti drifts back to New York. After all the excitement it is rather an anti-climax and the reader is left dangling wanting to know more. Whether or not it is all true, it’s a jolly good read.

Ubud, Bali

Revolt in Paradise