DAS is a labor union activist, the bearer of progressive ideas, a perfect hero.
He appears as the ‘workers’ advocate’ who demands improvements from the textile industrialists. Das, a young man from Benggala, is fascinating. A person who saw him address a public meeting was impressed: “Have you ever heard him speak? He is captivating! It is as though we are lifted up, as though becoming new men, yes, new men!”
Das is the main character in Manusia Baru (The New Man) an Indonesian play now forgotten. His full name is Surendranath Das. The playwright is Sanusi Pane, the famous poet from the magazine Poedjangga Baroe—the first magazine to publish Manusia Baru in 1940.
Sanusi Pane was probably the only Indonesian writer to fashion a story with characters and setting all in another country. Even though ‘another country’ is probably not the right phrase to refer to India for Sanusi, whose poetry anthology was titled Madah Kelana (Wanderer’s Song).
In 1929, Sanusi visited India for a few months. His travels there produced poems in praise of Shiva (Syiwa-Nataraja) and Arjuna, and prayers to Kresna (Krisjna). And this was not surprising: he was a theosophist.
Theosophy, which emerged among immigrants in the United States, attempted to overcome inter-religious conflict, and conflict between religion and modernity. Its agnostic tendencies were fortified with spiritual elements from India. In Indonesia, the theosophy movement began in the late 19th century. Its influence grew among pre-independence intellectuals: Radjiman Wedyodiningrat, Tjipto Mangunkusumo, Mohamad Yamin, Sanusi Pane...
Takdir Alisjahbana once told me how the intellectual generation of his time promoted theosophy: they would put the initials ‘D.I’ after their names. ‘D.I.’ stood for dienaarvan India, ‘servant of India’. India was to them the center and source of global spiritual enlightenment.
This is why in Manusia Baru India is not a foreign place, even though it is not a theosophist play. The story opens in the office of a textile factory in Madras. There is tension from conflict between the workers and the bosses.
On one side stands Das. Along with him is Aiyer, the head of a textile workers union. On the other side is Narayan Wadia, the head of the Association of Textile Factories, together with two colleagues. And in the middle: Saraswati Wadia, Narayan’s daughter—the young woman who, predictably, ends up siding with Das and falling in love with him. And just as predictably, in the play Das wins.
The story is not exciting. The sentences are long and full of didactic messages. A play without action: character development that is purely verbal. Manusia Baru is like Sanusi’s other plays: lacking any experience of the stage which requires progression and variation.
But in this Sanusi Pane actually depicts the world of his time: colonialism as superiority, and as the fundamental flaw. Manusia Baru welcomes the era driven by the presence of ‘the West’, but also shows the wounds brought by capitalism; in other words, ‘the West’. The theme of the time, in literature and in the world of Indonesian intellectual ideas, is repeated here: ‘the East’ is confronting what Malraux called la tentation de l’occident, the temptation of the West.
The end of the play is certainly not about the life of the workers. The figure of the proletariat is shown only briefly, in the person of Mudalinggam who is struggling to make ends meet. The main character, Das, is not from this class: he is an intellectual who can speak fluently about the position of art and religion in the era of progress. He comes from Calcutta, and represents the board of directors of the association of unions. The conflict with the bosses in Madras is not radical. The two sides negotiate beneath the image of national unity. Consensus is quickly reached. Saraswati points out the ideals of the play:
“I do not agree with the workers’ movement now because the workers think only of their own interests, but I also do not agree with the stand of the bosses who also think only of their own interests. In India there are not only the industrialists and the workers. I want Indian unity.”
And that wish comes about, quickly. Just a few paragraphs later, Sanusi’s closing words of the play are like a public service announcement: “…I see the people of India happy, peasants, workers, capital, the educated, all working together in the new society…”
In the end, the workers are merely elements in a configuration, a name that feels weighty because of their association with the ‘modern world’. The workers are part of industry, and industry is part of the new era, and that new era is what is important. The workers are not daily reality: they are mythological creatures that must be depicted as “emerging from the roaring seas of time.”
Manusia Baru is thus a hagiography of characters in the imagination. Inadvertently, it shows how faint the proletarian presence was in pre-industrial Indonesian society—so that, in order to be more ‘realistic’, Sanusi used an Indian setting, where capitalism and industry were more visible.
It was also around 1940 that Armijn Pane, Sanusi’s older brother, articulated the faint position of the proletariat when he closed one of his poems with a note of resignation, “hamba buruh apa dikata...” “I am a worker, what can one say…”