Ben Anderson’s best-known work, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, first published in 1983 and revised in 1991, has been translated into 35 languages, including my own (Thai, 2009), in at least 38 countries. I first met the author in Ithaca in the autumn of 1967, when I went to his office to ask him to be one of my three academic advisers. He was then 31, and had just finished his PhD and started teaching in the Department of Government at Cornell. From that point, we stayed in touch for 48 years. On 4 December 2015, aged 79, Ben said goodbye to many of us in Bangkok, went to Java, the land he loved most, and was gone.
Ben Anderson was a man of silpa and sastra (art and science). He lived an uncommon common life, combining his way of living with academic pursuits, turning the two into one. His sastra (science) was of the state and nation (rattha and chat) while his silpa (art) was languages, literature, history, dance and music. He travelled the globe widely, while focusing on the world of Southeast Asia. He loved evoking the ‘spectre of comparisons’ which he borrowed from José Rizal’s Noli me tangere. He crossed back and forth: Indonesia, Siam/Thailand, the Philippines and elsewhere. He probably saw what many of us are not able to see. In one of his last works, he said that the first thing he would tell his students was: ‘Look at what’s in front of you, but think about what is missing.’footnote1
In his autobiography, which first appeared in Japanese (2009), and then posthumously in English as A Life Beyond Boundaries (2016), Ben described how he was born in Kunming, Yunnan, where his father, born in Penang, Malaya, was an official with the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. It seems his first language must have been French, the language in which his mother and his amah—a Catholic Vietnamese from Tonkin—spoke to each other. In 1941, when he was nearly five, the Anderson family made their way to California, just before the Pacific War broke out. They remained stuck in the us for some four years, returning to his father’s home county of Waterford in Ireland when the war was over and Ben was nine. While in California, he and his younger brother attended elementary school at Los Gatos. A younger sister was born in 1943 in Denver.
Revisiting the Country House School in Los Gatos in 1978, more than thirty years later, he recalled the way his American classmates made fun of his English accent, while in Ireland he was mocked for his American accent—and later, in an English preparatory school, for coming from Ireland. In 1949, at the age of 13, he won a scholarship to Eton College. Ben did not seem to have particularly good memories of his childhood schooling, either in the us or the uk. According to him, Eton had two types of boys: those accepted for their brains and those for their connections and wealth. However, one good thing, he said, was that it offered a fine opportunity to read and read.
In 1957, when Ben was twenty-one, Queen Elizabeth ii had reigned for five years. At roughly the same time, 1954–55, the usa and uk joined hands in setting up the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (seato), with its headquarters in Bangkok. Its purpose was to fight the influence of Communist China, the Soviet Union, and their allies in Indochina. In Indonesia, Sukarno was busy with his Guided Democracy, while in Thailand, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat was toppling Field Marshal Phibun. In that year, 1957, Ben graduated from Cambridge with a degree in classics and was offered a teaching job at the University of Edinburgh, which he had no wish to take up, any more than to apply for a post at the British Foreign Office, as his mother suggested. Instead, at the prompting of a school friend, he got a post as a teaching assistant for one year at Cornell, crossing the Atlantic in a freighter and studying under George Kahin (1918–2000), the leading American authority on Indonesia. Ten years later, he completed his doctorate on the country, which became the big book Java in a Time of Revolution: Occupation and Resistance 1944–1946 (1972). It was then that he dropped his British passport and acquired an Irish one. Why Irish? To become a citizen rather than a subject, Ben used to say with a smile.