from the editor's desk

Caged: A Short Story

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, (trans. Soh Liantje), Westerly 11.2 (Oct. 1966): 69-75

BUKIT DURI! It was a few months before the Dutch launched their first military offensive against the Republic that I first heard this name. To be sure, I had stayed in Djakarta during the Japanese occupation, in World War II, but I never heard that name then. Or the name might have reached my ears imperceptibly; if so it went in one ear and out the other.

One day I had a call from a friend who had just been released from Glodok Prison. He was the first who told me about the prisons of Djakarta. Bukit Duri Prison was one of them. So Bukit Duri must have been a familiar name. He also told me that any release of inmates from Bukit Duri Prison would not take place before 1951. His story impressed me. That was why the name of Bukit Duri had stuck in my memory ever since. I could not help it. I had just left the ‘interior’1 after having been demobilized. And those who had held arms—arms which were levelled at the organs of the Dutch administration in Indonesia—were always haunted by the idea of imprisonment in one form or another.

Another friend of mine had just come out of Bukit Duri Prison. After I met him, the idea that had grown upon me (that prisoners in Bukit Duri could not possibly be released before 1951) disappeared. This friend told me that in Bukit Duri one had to sleep on a bare concrete bunk. If one was strong enough to endure such treatment for a month, one could endure anything. If not, one would fall victim to rheumatism and beriberi. This friend also told me that, before being made an inmate (and this agreed with his own experience), one used to be suspended in mid-air by one’s hands for forty-eight hours. Sometimes one was also electrified until one pleaded guilty to every accusation.

The news about large-scale raids, which coincided with the Dutch military offensive, called up before my mind many images of prisons. In point of fact the idea of myself turning up in a prison had never occurred to me. Neither could I imagine what prison life would be like. Many stories had indeed been written on life in prisons, but they could not make me understand it any better.

A girl friend who had been in Bukit Duri Prison told me that ghosts haunted the place whenever the night was pitch-dark. They were restless souls of those who had committed suicide in prison. She also said that Bukit Duri was a special prison as, before the war, it housed ‘lifers’ only.

I once went for a bicycle ride to the suburb where Bukit Duri Prison was situated. From my bicycle I saw the prison—walls of concrete, painted green with patches of black tar; colours which reminded me of the Japanese occupation. My heart was in my mouth when I looked at the horrible building. Imagine myself doing time there until 1951! But at that time, the idea was just a caprice of my fantasy, and I did not give it a second thought.

But one fateful day I did enter the greyish-green block of buildings which was known as Bukit Duri Prison, and stayed there for two and a half years. I still remember how my knees trembled when I crossed the threshold, and how my blood curdled when I came face to face with gleaming black soldiers—a gleam the origin of which I could not trace. I still remember how my eyes were glued to the iron bars, the iron doors, and the red tiled roofs of the buildings within the enclosure. And I also remember the faces of the other prisoners who tried to get a glimpse of the newcomer from behind the iron bars.

Indeed, I had never thought that I would have to experience, in person, the stories I had heard. What filled me with dread for the first time was this: The NEFIS2 lieutenant had written “Bukit Duri” on the pass. It meant that I was to be sent to Bukit Duri Prison, a name which had been on my mind the last few days. For how long I was to stay there, the pass did not say. I was to lose my freedom. That was beyond doubt. But for how long? This question kept me worrying.

When I got off the troop carrier, I was led to a massive door. Like the walls, the door was painted greyish green. I saw facial expressions of a kind I had never seen before: those of mercenaries who lived by killing, and guarding, prisoners. In all, I passed three doors before I came to the narrow inner court of the prison. Hundreds of uniformed persons were queueing up for their meals. P.R.P. soldiers3, I guessed. My guess might not be as wild as it looked, since the name P.R.P. had been on everybody’s lips lately. I also speculated whether they were going to torture me.

I saw those soldiers only momentarily as I was taken into the block. It had a passageway one and a half yards wide, lined by rows of black numbered doors. While going through the passageway I did not have the faintest notion of what was behind those doors. At a turn of the corridor I was ordered to stop. Before my eyes, I saw a room with a concrete bunk in it. Only then did I realize that this was a cell. I was ordered to step in. The door slammed shut. I was all by myself. Then it flashed upon me that I was imprisoned!

I looked round. Concrete! Wherever I turned my eyes, I saw nothing but concrete! Only the ceiling was made of timber. The bars in the window and the door were made of iron. Through the skylight a little, a very little, bit of sky was visible. I sank to the floor. My God! The door barred the road to freedom.

If you were a caged animal which had been frank and free before, you would beat the bars of your cage until you got hurt and exhausted, until in the end you grew sullen because you lost hope. But if you are a human being who is deprived of his freedom and shut up for the first time, you lose your head. You are silent because you are at a loss what to do.

Slowly I rose from the floor and crawled to the concrete bunk to sleep. Ideas, a great many ideas which I can no longer remember now, coursed through my head. I only remember that my awareness of being an Indonesian grew because of my imprisonment. It was this awareness which in the end pervaded all my thoughts. It pushed all other thoughts to the background. It gave food to the sentiment which hoped for the fall of the Dutch empire. If I think of my frenzied feeling at that time, I feel ashamed. But we have to take into account that strange feelings, queer ideas which are totally devoid of logic will come up when one is deprived of one’s freedom for the first time.

I lay on the bench for an hour, fancying that units of the Republican armed forces had successfully penetrated into Djakarta and beaten the Dutch. Alas, at the time the onrushing Dutch armour had wedged and rent the Republican forces apart. I was sensitive to every sound. When the siren of a railway workshop nearby sounded a break period, I hoped against hope that the Republican air force might make a raid. Let this prison be pulverized, let me die among the debris of the prison walls, if only the Republican air force would strike! Then the whine of the siren died away. Aircraft droned overhead. My heart beat faster. Might they be planes of the Republican air force? I waited and waited in suspense. But nothing happened. It was only some time afterward that I found out that the siren belonged to the railway workshop, and that the planes flying overhead were Dutch. Rambling thoughts whirled in my head. I could not possibly be in a prison, I thought. It was inconceivable. Why should I be imprisoned? It was an impossible idea.

Later on, the sound of human voices filtered into my cell. Some of the voices were singing the refrain of a battle song. I jumped up and listened. If that was a battle song, this could not be a prison, I reasoned. The song swelled, and was loudest when the singers were in front of my cell. I wondered whether they were P.R.P. soldiers, and whether I would be turned over to them. These thoughts rather irritated me, but I calmed down. Come what may, I will face up to the situation, I told myself.

I lay down again on the concrete bunk. My eyes were turned toward the door. I then saw that the door had a spy-hole—two inches square. Slowly I shut my eyes. I tried to compose myself. But I was hungry, and this fact defeated my intention. I felt a gnawing at my stomach. I shivered as if I were suffering from a malaria attack. The concrete bunk felt cold. I had to put up with it. Gradually the cold concrete grew hot, its heat piercing into the flesh of my back. Every now and then I changed my position. Still I could not get to sleep. I tried to forget everything. I also tried to ignore the heat which was starting to burn my flesh. But my efforts were in vain. Then and there it dawned on me that sleep is one of nature’s great blessings. Sleep makes a man into a child, a new-born child, again—a spiritually pure and untainted, though passive, human being. Yet again and again I failed to fall asleep.

A peel of laughter broke out. I rose. Suddenly the spy-hole opened with a bang. I jumped to my feet as if the head of a bamboo spear had pricked me. I felt drawn to the window. Was I dreaming? The face of a former brother-in-arms appeared before the spy-hole.
“You here?” he asked in a low voice in which there was no trace of surprise at all.
“Is it you, Rusli?” I asked in turn.
“I have been here for two months already,” he said.
“Two months? Quite a long time. Which is your room?”
“It is a cell!”
“A cell?”
It was brought home to me again that I was in prison. How mad had been my way of thinking! But what about Rusli? Had he become a member of the Pasundan army? At least, I saw he was clad in green. I had known him as a model soldier. Under the rationalization plan4 of the Republic, he was demobilized. He then moved to Djakarta to get away from hunger. There he had to lie low.

I still remember his demobilization. He sold everything he had, until nothing was left but the trousers and the undershirt he had on. In those trousers and in the undershirt he went to Djakarta. I recall him walking wearily on the muddy alley to the station. It was December 1946. The end of the year was drawing near, and the new year was within sight. He had a bundle wrapped in a mat under his left arm. I did not know what the bundle consisted of. Perhaps one or two litres of rice for his parents in Djakarta. We sat on the railway tracks and had a talk. He talked about the people who relied on him for support—his brothers and sisters who could barely scrape a living in Djakarta; his father, a cobbler, who hardly ventured out of his house to ply his trade, now that affrays and shootings were the order of the day. The subject changed abruptly when he took a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and showed it to me. “Look,” he said, “what I have got for my one and a half years’ military service.”

I smoothed out the piece of paper. It was his discharge. It contained a few lines. In part, it ran as follows: “Discharged from military service. The Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia express their thanks for services rendered.” These lines were followed by a magnificent signature. I had hardly finished reading when he said: “That is all I have got for my pains as a combatant.” He stretched out his legs to me. They showed two long scars. “Bullets,” he said. He snatched the paper from my fingers. His eyes were burning. Deliberately he tore up the paper and scattered the pieces on the ground near his feet. Might he have become a P.R.P. soldier?
I asked: “Have you become a P .R.P . soldier?”
“A P.R.P. soldier? Why should I?”
“Your uniform . . . ”
He laughed, but did not give a direct answer. He explained: “This is a prison, not a barracks. The people here are prisoners, mere prisoners.”
“Why have you been thrown into prison, Rusli?”
“Why?” he echoed. But he did not give an answer. For a moment he looked tense. Then my memory supplied the answer.
When Rusli had succeeded in slipping through the screen of Dutch troops which guarded Djakarta, he set up as a bicycle repairer by the roadside. I could see this very clearly in my mind’s eye. So he must have been caught there. Once I had him repair my bicycle. While at work on my bicycle, he said: “What is the use of mending tyres? I should be more useful as a combatant at a time like this.” I saw disappointment reflected in his eyes, and I did not dare to carry on the subject. So I asked: “Are you married, Rusli?” He stopped his work for a while. He looked up at me, rolled his eyes, and then lowered his head to resume his work. But he did not give an answer.
“What kind of people are kept prisoner here?”
“All kinds: fighters for Indonesia’s independence, thieves, robbers, all kinds.”
“What about you?”
“I don’t know. I have never been interrogated since my detention. Maybe I am detained because I have been a Republican combatant, but I don’t know exactly why.”
“And how long have you been here?”
“Two months.”
I sighed. He kept silent. Then I asked: “Are you married?”
He did not answer, but a stern look came over his face, a look which stopped me from repeating the question. Neither of us said another word.

I looked at my bare bunk again. Could I stand sleeping on it for two months? I realized that I had to undergo the things my friends had gone through. I calmed down and resigned myself to my fate, whatever might befall me. Gone was my bitterness.
“Why aren’t you locked up as I am, Rusli?”
“Newcomers are usually locked up for half a week or a full week. But this rule has now been changed. Since the Dutch launched their militaiy offensive, we are all locked up.”
“Why are there so many people outside?”
“We are taking our rations.”
I understood. Slowly I returned to my bench and lay down. Rusli closed the spyhole and went away…

I had dozed off for a little while, and woke up when the spy-hole banged open. An offensive face appeared. A pointed nose jutted into the hole, and a shrill voice snapped: “Hey, you’re a spy, aren’t you?”
“No, I am not,” I answered nervously.
“Then, why have you been brought here?”
“How the deuce do I know?”
“Watch your words! Don’t tell lies! If you turn out to be a spy, you will be shot in the morning.”
At that moment I could not contain myself. I did not care what might happen and cried out: “Suit yourself. Kill me now!”
But the man did not draw his gun. He closed the spy-hole. His menacing voice came deliberately from behind the door: “Mind your words!”

A dead silence fell. I lay down again. I can still remember vividly that I smiled scornfully then, and muttered to myself: “Men!” People like him were quite capable of killing other people for a few hundred rupiahs. I still cannot imagine how someone can lend himself to killing a fellow human being for just a few hundred rupiahs. It seems that, just as a mechanic repairs with a clear conscience an engine which has broken down, and with an equally clear con- science uses his earnings to support his family, people of this kind as cheerfully do in fellow human beings, who eat like them, drink like them, dream of a happy family like them. The question for which there was no ready answer, cropped up again: Why do things take the course they do, and not otherwise? Why, indeed!

I tried to answer this question for a long time, but again and again I failed. I clenched my fists and beat the wall. My fists hurt, but the answer kept eluding me. I tried to stop thinking, but I could not. The elusive answer tantalized me. So I beat the thick wall again. At last my fists hurt so much that the acute sensation of pain numbed my thinking.

Once more I heard noises outside. The other inmates were entering their cells. When they were inside, the cell doors were locked. The voices faded into murmurs, and gradually died down. Now and then, I heard people talk, sing or laugh. I did not detect any sadness, or anything resembling bewilderment in the voices. Apparently, they were at peace with the world, and had let things take their course.

The spy-hole banged open again. A face, ugly as if it had been ravaged by leprosy, appeared before the hole. A rasping voice said: “Do you smoke?”
“I do,” I replied, in spite of myself, and got up.
Two packs of cigarettes, a box of matches and a cake of soap changed hands through the spy-hole. Apparently, it was the day when things were doled out to the prisoners. I was glad to get these things. Strangely enough, as soon as I started smoking, the cobwebs in my head faded. Unwittingly I started to sing. I felt relieved and grew quiet. I began to think that there was nothing to worry about. It dawned on me that my problems would not be solved by fretting. So I fell into a quiet sleep.

That afternoon I got an airing, like the other prisoners. The airing took two hours. That was the time for us to take a bath, go to the toilet, or have our meals. It was still strange for me to go to a bathroom without a towel or a toothbrush, and to take a bath stark naked in the presence of so many people. The feeling of discomfort turned up again the moment I had to fetch my food, and there was no plate for me. I had to wait until an inmate had finished his meal, so that I could borrow his plate.

We lined up for the afternoon roll call. No one dared to make the slightest noise. Then the prison governor made his appearance to inspect us. He was a tall, sturdy, sourfaced Negro. A large pipe, endlessly giving forth puffs of smoke, was embedded in his mouth. With his left hand he swirled a bamboo cane. This cane hypnotized us. If the cane swirled (by a turn of the sturdy Negro’s hand) and crashed on someone’s head it was sure to break in two, while the owner of the head would be stunned.

The Negro was followed by his guards, armed to the teeth. It was these guards who always occupied the minds of the Republican combatants; they were Indonesians, too. Just like the Republican combatants, they had brains which could be used for thinking. Just like the Republican combatants, they were armed. So far, they were like the Republican combatants, and there was no difference between them at all. The difference, if difference there were, lay in, the fact that they were tools of the Dutch who were hostile to our people, while the Republican combatants fought for the Republic which the Dutch sought to destroy. They belonged to opposing parties which fought each other. And many of them died, hit by bullets which were made in foreign countries. It was the flesh of Indonesians which was riddled by these bullets; it was the Indonesians who had to die.

The Negro reviewed the row, and then went away without causing the cane to land on anyone’s head. His guards followed him, like chickens after a mother hen.

The doors of the cells were locked again. The inmates could only lie on their concrete bunks and let their imaginations run riot.

Sometimes they thought of the future: Was there any possibility of their leaving this prison? The question had to remain unanswered. Only hope, a tiny flicker of hope buoyed them up. Some hope certainly remained, though that hope was not worth a farthing.

Sometimes it dawned on them that they could not pass the prison guards. The chunks of flesh, which were their bodies, had already been the targets of leaden bullets. Such a big risk had to be considered maturely. For the time being, it was no use contemplating a breakout. So they remained stretched on their benches. When their brains were tired of traversing the universe, they sighed, screamed or sang.

The solitude of a prison gradually engulfed their hearts. When they felt forlorn, millions of desires might churn in their heads. They hardly felt them coming. They indulged in daydreams until the hordes of mosquitoes brought them back to earth. And it was those mosquitoes which made them realize how slowly night went by. Midnight and the small hours crawled past. It was only when dawn was in the offing that the obstinate eyes would yield to sleep.


Pramoedya Ananta Toer

(Translated by Soh Liantji)



1. The generic name for the inland countryside which was controlled by the revolutionary Republic of Indonesia.

2. The intelligence service of the Dutch armed forces.

3. P.R.P. = Pasukan Republik Pasundan, army of the Dutch-sponsored Sunda State in West Java.

4. A plan intended to put the Republican armed forces on an efficient footing.

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