Into an alien land

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Author Sadanand Dhume reliving his journey into the heart of Indonesia

Remember that lovely trip you went on with that Islamic fundamentalist?

No? Sadanand Dhume does. He bears the distinction of deliberately choosing one as his travel companion as he journeyed through Indonesia. Then he wrote My Friend The Fanatic.

It was a book that was born in the ashes of the Bali bombings of 2002, a terrorist attack that claimed 202 lives.

Sadanand boarded a virtually empty plane to Denpasar, headed there on an assignment for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Asian Wall Street Journal. (When someone commended his valour in journeying to the site of a terrorist bombing, Sadanand was quick to reassure him laughing, “Oh no. My employers didn't really give me a choice.”)

But, he soon realised, as he stood amidst the charred remains of the Sari Club, that you could get all the little questions right, and the big question wrong. The big question was the increasing tinge of radical Islamisation in Indonesia. He quit.

“My years of writing about bank privatisation and debt restructuring and the fluctuation fortunes of noodle manufacturers and motorcycle importers were over,” he writes. Six months later he returned, a book brewing in his mind.

“But suddenly, I was just some Indian in Jakarta. It was going to be hard to access the people and places I needed to meet.”

Enter Herry Nurdi. The young editor of the Sabili magazine, a fundamentalist mouthpiece that spewed extremist views (including naming the accused of the Bali bombings as ‘Man of the Year'), and an ardent admirer of Osama Bin Laden.

He was the much-needed help that Sadanand needed, a key to several doors that would never have opened for him otherwise. Together, they travelled and talked, passing through everything from dance bars to universities, from Jakarta to Ambon.

Poet, dancer and writer Tishani Doshi, who was in conversation with the author at the reading, asked about his forthright statement that his “performance was a patchwork of half-truths and evasions”.

“I'm not referring to blatant lying, but the constant evasion that was needed as I travelled.”

Sadanand, a confirmed atheist, was incessantly put the question of his religion as he interacted with the hardliners; and he knew the fate of his research depended on his answer.

“Then, once,” he remembers with a laugh, “when asked ‘What is your religion?, I responded stoically, 'I'm looking for answers'. Sometimes I didn't know which was worse in their eyes — an idol worshipper or a godless atheist.”

The narrative of the book is heavy with dread, and winds to an ominous close — its basic premise being that the fundamentalist ideologues in Indonesia are gaining momentum, slowly yet steadily. The irony is that Indonesia was, and is still considered home to one of the most syncretic cultures of our time.

The book remains steadily unpretentious (Sadanand notes Herry's neat clothing at their first interaction as either meaning “that this meeting mattered to him, or that he had somewhere important to go afterwards.”), effortlessly navigating history and history-in-the-making, people and opinion.

But in the time since My Friend… was first released in countries abroad, the main hardline party — the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) — has fared poorly in the elections.

“Yes, I'm a little more optimistic than I was back then. But, I firmly believe that it is possible to win culturally, even if you've lost politically.”

Sadanand's relationship with Herry has weathered a few storms, especially after the provocative titling of the book.

“He felt I'd written about him, rather that about Indonesia.” He describes Nurdi as a man curious about the world. “And that is what I think sets him apart from a real fanatic.”

After all, it is the inimitable Nurdi who said, “I'm a fundamentalist from Monday to Friday; but on the weekends, I'm a liberal.”





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