We might ask: who would learn from this? Can someone
teach me that I see a tree?
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour
The people of this book with few exceptions are of a colonial and Indonesian
urban elite of the twentieth century, which means a group to a lesser, larger,
or overwhelming extent touched by and induced into the Western culture
of imperial modernity (predominantly secular, among other things, which
explains why so few devout Muslims appear in the book). The group in par-
ticular distinguishes itself by its possession of Dutch literacy. It never made
up more than about 0.5 percent of the colony’s population,1 which, however,
amounts to as many as three hundred thousand men and women, living in
towns and cities as a general rule. Since the early twentieth century, through
the late colonial era and national revolution and deep into independence
after 1945, the urban intellectuals became a major irritant and inspiration, in-
jecting their sense of the new, of progress and of freedom, into the colonial
and postcolonial society at large.

Between 1990 and 2000, on every university vacation, and once in 1995 on a
six-month visit, I interviewed elderly people of Indonesia, mainly in Jakarta
(formerly Batavia), the Indonesian metropolis, about their youth and child-
hood. The old people lived through the colonial period, the Japanese occu-
pation during the Second World War, and the years of independent Indonesia
after 1945. I expected that I would be told about the transition to modernity,
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