Monday, November 21, 2016

Putu Oka Sukanta, A Man of Courage

Few men are alive as Putu Oka Sukanta is alive. He practices acupuncture and traditional medicine. He writes poetry, short stories, and novels. He was also jailed during New Order’s anti-communist purge in 1966 for his involvement in Lekra. The government never put him on trial, and they only released him 10 years later. 

It is therefore unsurprising that many of his stories and poems deal with oppression. As a victim himself, he was subjected to physical torture in prison. In a documentary produced by AJAR, he recounted being hit, kicked, punched, and whipped with manta tails. At the same time, the lack of judicial process also means that he was treated as less than human being. For him, it was worse than being tortured.

After his release, he understood that his movements would be limited. He made a living by practicing acupuncture, a skill he acquired in prison from another prisoner. In the meantime, he continued to write about his experience in the prison but he found that there was extremely limited opportunity for publication. The powers that were embargoed works by ex-political prisoners, and when he won an award for his work on environment, the Ministry of Information soon after issued a regulation barring people involved with communism from publication. He was thoroughly cornered. 

Still, he found other ways for channel his creative work. He remembered Goethe Institute fondly: they gave him stage when everybody shunned him. To publish his work, one of his acupuncture patients helped him smuggle his manuscript, Tembang Jalak Bali, for publication in Malaysia. It was also published in English and was met with critical acclaim.

“The book is like a pair of wings. It carried me all over the world,” Putu said. Two poems from the book are included in Voices of Conscience, a worldwide collection of poems about state-sanctioned oppression. 

Putu Oka also understands that the imprisonment affected not only the political prisoners themselves, but also their immediate family and their environment. In his anthology, Tak ‘Kan Melupakanmu, he wrote short stories about people who “struck the line,” a euphemism that alleged involvement with the communist party. While his stories are often set in Bali, they do not paint a picture of an idyllic haven. Instead, they tell stories of innocent victims facing arbitrary dismissal from their jobs, enduring stigma and harassment from their family and communities, or death.

Today, Putu remains a prolific writer. As his health deteriorates, he relaxes his writing target to complete one book every two years. 

Over the years, his writing has branched out to other topics, including to HIV/AIDS. “I have always been drawn to marginalized communities,” he said. 

It is easy to imagine that had Putu Oka not been incarcerated, he would have championed the cause of marginalized people all the same. According to Putu Oka, people with HIV/AIDS face great discrimination and stigmatization just like him.

“This is an unending fight.”