If Bali is likened to a woman’s body, she must be beautiful and sexy. Not only physically from all angles but also with an exoticism that comes from within. Graceful, friendly, and calming. Such is the image of the Island of God in the memories of many people from around the world, who have visited Bali frequently, and even those who are planning to visit. This perspective of Bali culture does not describe the Balinese women in Oka Rusmini’s works.
Oka Rusmini is a prominent Indonesian writer from Bali. Her works contain a sharp critique of the patriarchal elements in traditional Balinese society. Her stories usually lay bare the inner world of Balinese society that is rarely perceived on the surface.
In her novels, Tempurung —reprinted by Grasindo publisher in 2017, Kenanga and short stories compilation, Sagra —the Balinese inner world is a hard and rigid traditional space. It is confining and constitutes a narrow space, akin to the circumference of coconut shell (tempurung in Indonesian). This embodiment of an institution of obedience is a foundation that causes suffering, especially to women.
In Kenanga, Kemuning is a woman who had to sacrifice her own feelings to be the wife of a husband she doesn’t love. The character is also a Jero (outsider), a title earned for a woman of lower caste, who marries into a nobleman’s family. Kemuning is of Sudra blood, the lowest caste, while her husband is from a Brahmin caste family, the highest social status in Balinese tradition. Kemuning’s arranged marriage was designed to elevate the dignity of her family. According to the customs, her marriage necessitates that she discards her given name, Luh Putri Arimbi. She also has to discard her family, ancestors, and even her Sudra body. Through the union, she is a new human who will forever belong to her husband’s family.
Kemuning’s next misfortune is her willingness to extinguish the fire of her love for Rahyuda, who is her husband’s nephew. It would be a disgrace for Kemuning to voice her feelings for Rahyuda, even though after the death of her husband, Kemuning and Rahyuda lived in the same house. With a sincere heart, Kemuning could only attend to Rahyuda’s various needs after he returns from work. Kemuning could not bring herself to tarnish her reputation as the once dignified wife of a Brahmin.
Likewise, Rahyuda, an intellectual and a professor, must also abide by the institution of obedience that is firmly entrenched in the griya (the residence of a Brahmin caste family). It is impossible for him to breach the limits. In feelings indebted to his late uncle, Rahyuda chooses to remain unmarried for life, just as Kemuning remained a widow until her death.
In the puff of smoke from the burning fire at Kemuning’s cremation, the story’s titular character, Kenanga, converses with Bhuana; “What do you see in that plume of smoke, Bhuana?” Bhuana agilely answered; “Losing”.
If Kemuning is the picture of an outsider in the griya, then Kenanga and Bhuana are insiders. Yet, all of them, regardless of their position as insiders or outsiders, are victims of Bali society’s non-negotiable obedience.
In the griya, a child named Luh Intan, must surrender to accept her status as a little errands girl and servant for the noble children her age. As nothing more than an adopted child whose origins are unclear, how could she not?
Only Kenanga was happy to welcome the child. Kenanga’s mother, father, younger sister, Kencana, and other close relatives could only see Intan as a great potential that could tarnish the honor of a Brahmin family. Intan is, after all, the living proof of Kenanga’s secret. The little girl was the result of Kenanga’s secret relationship with Bhuana, a Brahmin man, who then also became husband to Kenanga’s beloved sister, Kencana.
Intan’s arrival at the griya is reminiscent of the character, Eliza in the novel The Daughter of Fortune (1999) by Isabel Allende. A girl with no pedigree growing up in an aristocratic English family’s household in Valparaiso, Chile. Baby Eliza was found on Rose’s doorstep, in a cardboard box, covered in a worn sweater. At first, Jeremy (Rose’s brother) objected to accepting the baby but relented at Rose’s eagerness to care for the child. Rose’s other brother, John Sommers, greeted Eliza with joy. He hoped that the Indian-faced baby could comfort Rose, who had been suffering the heartbreak of a lover’s betrayal. Eliza is then revealed to be none other than the daughter of John Sommers. The sweater that wrapped around baby Eliza when she was found had belonged to John. Understandably, John was a sailor, in every port he visited, there was always a woman lying on his lap.
In Oka’s depiction, Intan is loved fiercely by Kenanga, because the small girl, whose beauty was acknowledged by all members of the griya, is actually her daughter.
For Kenanga, no man could conquer her heart other than Bhuana. But because Kencana has been anchored in Bhuana’s lap, Kenanga’s love becomes taboo. Bhuana shares the burden in this forbidden love. Kenanga and Intan are two women confined to his dark past. He cannot break tradition by revealing the truth. He must protect the secret to protect the honour of the griya, his family and Kenanga’s side of the family.
The well-educated characters in Oka Rusmini’s works are not immune to the rigid aversion to breaking away from tradition. Kenanga is a lecturer with a master’s degree and Bhuana is a doctor, yet the rationality that supports their minds is powerless against the hard shell of tradition. Kenanga and Bhuana do not try anything but to become further and further hidden. Their powerlessness is as weak as Rahyuda’s resistance to the institution of obedience that tormented his life.
In Tempurung, Ni Luh Nyoman Glatik is a woman, who hates birds and men. Her father had been a man who loved birds, to the point of ignoring and forsaking his household, comprising five women, including Glatik. The man had the heart to let his wife and children starve for the sake of the birds. Every day he only works to feed the birds or go around the market to see new bird collections. Glatik’s home was more like a “cage” than a “house.” In it, her mother died from tuberculosis. Death also took her three older sisters.
Only Glatik survived, rising to become a strong and independent woman. Apart from working as an academic, she started the Cut Flowers business which later expanded to five-star hotels in Nusa Dua. As Glatik’s wealth grows, the flower cutters, flower delivery, to drivers in her business, are all women. Glatik fights the customs that favor men in this manner, and by being openly antagonistic to the male sex.
Oka’s characters in her short story compilation, Sagra also depict Balinese women, in different social classes, fighting against patriarchal sentiments that were the source of their trauma. This can be seen in the battles faced by Songi, Sipleg, and Ni Luh Putu Saring, who showcase the perspectives of non-noblewomen from various levels. There is also the story of Pidada, a high-born woman with a globalised perspective from living overseas, still choosing to keep her Sudra lover, Made Jegog, in a secret affair, as outwardly, she pretends to accept Ida Bagus as her husband candidate.
I personally believe that Oka, as the author of these books, had infused some of her own biography into the characters she created. In the opening of her novel, Tempurung, for example, there is one character, Dayu —short for Ida Ayu—that I suspect is based on Oka’s own life experience. Although Oka has not married a Sudra man, she is considered to have breached tradition when she dared to marry a non-Balinese man of a different religion. Similarly, Dayu regards love to be higher than the idea of her nobility. Her love led her to break free and shatter the hard shell of traditions imposed by Bali society.
Oka is well-known as a Bali novelist and poet, particularly for her portrayal of Indonesian women’s struggle against patriarchal norms and culture. She has spoken at various international literary forums, such as ASEAN Writers Writing Program 1997, and also represented Indonesia at the Winternachten Literature Festival in Amsterdam, in 2003. Her novel Earth Dance (2007) was hailed as the Work Honorees Writing Literature by the Ministry of Education, Language Centre, Indonesia. Oka is also the winner of the 2012 S.E.A Write Award.
Cover image sourced from Oka Rusmini.