The author yields to the moist-eyed spirit of Indonesia’s third largest city.
Bandung, Indonesia’s third largest city, has long held an allure. Surrounded by volcanic mountains, its natural fortifications and cool weather made it a magnet for the Dutch imperialists who once ruled over Indonesia. It was the military headquarters of the Dutch East Indies from 1920. And for much of the first half of the 20th century, the region’s colonial planters and other well-heeled officials from Batavia (Jakarta) flocked to the city’s trendy department stores and elegant cafes for weekend revelry, earning it the moniker: Parijs Van Java (Paris of Java).
In its contemporary avatar, Bandung continues to play host to battalions of day-trippers from other parts of Java, who descend on the city’s factory outlet stores and designer boutiques for retail therapy. But outside of Indonesia, in countries as far flung as India and Ghana, Bandung has a different resonance.
It is black and white pictures of Asian and African world leaders, their faces lit with sepia-tinted idealism that come to my mind when I think of the city. For it was here that the Asia-Africa conference of 1955 birthed the non-aligned movement. And it’s these fuzzy, yet persistent, images from my school history textbooks that motivate me to make the three-hour journey from Jakarta.
The train ride to Bandung is a throwback to an earlier time, in itself. An old-fashioned train puffs and winds its way along a hilly track. Red clay-tiled roofs of traditional Javanese village homes intersperse paddy fields bursting with a green so bright, it almost hurts to look at them.
Bandung train station is a revelation. White-washed awnings, and trimmed hedges abutting the train tracks, lend it a feel straight out of the Victorian era. As I drive out into the historic centre, the air of a cantonment town, complete with level crossings, lawn-fringed homes, and orderly round-abouts, barely holding back the chaos of the wider, modern city, is unmistakable.
I’m staying right on Jalan Braga, the main tourist place. Colonial buildings with signs like Braga Van Huis, patisseries, cafes and souvenir shops flank the road. I stop for a bite to eat at the Braga Permai, an open-fronted eatery that dates back to 1902. Originally called Maison Bogerijen, the restaurant displays a painting of its early 20th century façade, with linen-suited, frocked and hatted Europeans lunching on its verandah.
Unlike Braga Permai, few colonial-era buildings that have survived retain their original use. Department stores have become banks and coffee warehouses turned into government offices. The building I am most curious about, however, is the art deco masterpiece that used to be known as the Concordia. It was named after the Societet Concordia, an elite club of Europeans who gathered in the building for lavish dinners and balls.
Today, it’s been re-labelled Gedung Merdeka (Independence Building) and houses a permanent exhibition dedicated to the April 1955 Asia-Africa conference, since it is in fact the very building where the meeting took place.
I find myself strangely overwhelmed as a guide ushers me into Gedung Merdeka’s cavernous conference room. History weighed heavily in the space. All the 450 original chairs and several tables from 1955 bear silent witness to the past. “That’s where Nehru sat,” whispers the guide, even though there is no one but us in the room; for this is not a room that brooks disrespect.
Outside the main conference venue there are several tableaux featuring the meeting’s leading cast of characters from Nehru to Indonesia’s Sukarno, China’s Zhou Enlai and Egypt’s Nasser. A number of objects, including typewriters used by the press covering the event and stamps released to coincide with the conference are also neatly displayed, next to large photographs of the leaders gathering, chatting, and walking around the city.
A contemplative snap shot of Nehru dominates one wall, with a quotation, that is possibly his most famous in this part of the world: “…and Bandung has been the focal centre, I might even say the capital of Asia and Africa during this period.” The guide points it out earnestly. “Your Prime Minister called our city the capital of Asia and Africa,” he says, a wide smile lighting up his face.
Before I exit, a display of newspaper articles written about the conference from around the world catches my eye. “Chinese premier exploits his understanding of the Oriental mind- US viewed as uncouth upstart, flouting ancient cultural standards,” read one headline from the Washington Post.
I retire to the Savoy Homann hotel, just opposite the museum, for a coffee. It was here that the bulk of the delegates had stayed in 1955, and the visitor’s book displayed in the lobby is pregnant with the signatures of the non-aligned movement’s great and good. I feel a tad deflated as I reflect upon the chasm between the rhetoric of South-South cooperation and the ugly reality of the often-fraught relations between these countries in the decades following the Bandung meet. But it also feels curmudgeonly to be cynical. The moist-eyed spirit of Bandung deserves some emotional surrendering to, and I brush away any intruding realism.
My last stop is at the city Mayor’s residence, a magnificent blend of colonial and traditional Javanese architecture. Inside the compound the twitter of bird song and the susurating tree leaves provide a soothing aural backdrop, but immediately outside, the sizzle of noodle stalls, tinkling of pedicabs and thud of construction machinery are all-enveloping. I walk out into the melee and close my eyes, allowing the sounds to wash over me. A muezzin’s call to prayer adds to the ambience. It’s a perfectly encapsulated moment of 21st century Indonesia.