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Social Change in Java: The Tale of a Family



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Gentry by Umar Kayam
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From their origin in paddy mud during the final decades of the Dutch East Indies, to unimagined roles within the new structures of a modernising Indonesia, 'Gentry' is the saga of an extended Javanese family heroically pursuing its dream of betterment through a social leap. There was in that era at the start of this story a unique route by which an exceptionally determined peasant might attain the status of a 'priyayi'--a class of functionary gentry with a government salary, bureaucratic aristocrats with duties divorced from manual labour, bearers of noble principles of responsibility, figures infinitely esteemed by the illiterate masses below them. That road was education. In 1920s Java, as little as five years of primary schooling--when obtainable--could make the difference. Sastrodarsono's epic begins in the dearth and misery fixed in the race-memory of his forebears, and too in an awareness of where history is tending. The good will of a local priyayi administrator gains for the young man sufficient schooling to qualify him for a position as a humble village-teacher. He has 'mastered the sciences', in the view of the astonished countryside from which he derives. Out of him will spring and extend a clan of such gentry; his children, who will now be born priyayi, shall go on to greater achievements, higher levels of education and prestige, to further consolidate their gentility. And as they do--and Umar Kayam movingly and with wry humour describes the parade of those generations progressing in joy and in sorrow to further their founder's grand ideal--suddenly the immemorial stability of the Indies is riven by war, invasion, a liberation struggle, rebellion and coup, and by the stresses consequent on an awakening country confronting modernity. Ultimately, 'Darsono's striving addresses to the reader and to all social humanity an inevitable question: have we any choice as human beings but to evolve and endeavour? Kayam answers it as creditably as anyone can: one must go on, whatever the difficulties surrounding life; go on and take as many others as possible forward with oneself, in the spirit of duty to family, to nation, and to the human race. The simple ambitions of a Javanese peasant are in this book transformed into a philosophical quest with universal relevance.

Author Biography

Umar Kayam (1932-2002) was himself one of those who in the years of transition from colonialism to independence passed through stages of that schooling he wrote about in this novel; albeit, his father being a teacher, he could recall and describe that experience from a more fortunate perspective than that of most village children, afforded scant education, if any. Following school, and a graduate of Gadjah Mada University (1955), he was among the first groups of Indonesians to be given the opportunity of studying in the U.S., during the reorientation away from Dutch-based instruction occurring after 1953, in line with a tacit U.S.-Indonesian policy of creating a new, modernizing Indonesian elite. The period of two decades after that saw hundreds of young Indonesians immersing in the social sciences at various American universities. Among them, Kayam extended his education at the University of New York, where he received an M.A. (1963), and at Cornell University, gaining there a Ph.D. in Rural Sociology (1965). Within a few years after his return to Indonesia he was occupying leading managerial positions in a wide array of public entities: Director General of Radio, Television, and Film in the Ministry of Information, Chairman of the National Film Council, Chairman of the Jakarta Arts Council, Member of the Jakarta Academy, and Member of the MPRS (the People's Consultative Assembly). His academic titles included Director of the Social Studies Training Centre at Hasanuddin University, Lecturer at the University of Indonesia, and Senior Professor in the Faculty of Letters at Gadjah Mada University. Incredibly in what must have been an exhausting public life, he produced his classic 'Para Priyayi', as well as other novels, books of essays, a number of short stories, and critical works on Indonesian arts and culture, gaining a reputation for literature and commentaries grounded in a genuine knowledge of his subjects.
Release date Australia
December 28th, 2014
Translated by Vladislav Zhukov
Country of Publication
United States
black & white illustrations
Vladislav V Zhukov
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