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Review: Journey to womanhood

Review: Journey to womanhood
Published: Jul 14, 2012

 

Maria Platt

Anyone who has visited Lombok has seen Mount Rinjani, the island’s tallest peak. No matter where you are, the mountain seems to looms large over the island. This is also the case in Eva Nourma’s latest novel, Sri Rinjani: Sebuah Novel Perjalanan Menjadi Perempuan (Sri Rinjani: A Novel of the Journey to Womanhood) where Mount Rinjani not only dominates the landscape but acts as a powerful symbol in the life of the book’s main protagonist, a teenage girl named Sri Rinjani.

Sri is Sasak – the ethnic group indigenous to Lombok. Nourma’s book, as the title suggests, is a coming of age novel that charts Sri’s life from adolescence to adulthood. While Sri’s journey is filled with all the typical themes that one might imagine occupying the life of a teenage girl, including falling in love and self-discovery, her story is unique in many ways.

Set in eastern Lombok, where Islamic piety and poverty are omnipresent, Sri is confronted with circumstances which force her to grow up quickly. The main challenge facing Sri is her family’s precarious economic position. The eldest daughter of a highly regarded yet poor family, Sri is acutely aware of the hardship that not only faces her family, but the majority of other Sasak living on Lombok. Sri’s father Lukman, who has intentionally named his daughter after Mount Rinjani, has hopes as high as the mountain itself invested in Sri. When she reveals to her father that she is baffled and somewhat embarrassed by her unusual name Lukman reveals the meaning of Sri’s name: ‘The name Sri Rinjani gives you a home address my child. However far you go, I hope that you will come home to develop this island with the potential you have.’ In a society where it is men who are typically upheld as leaders, Lukman’s statement speaks volumes about Sri as a symbol of gender equality and female empowerment.

His faith in Sri leads him to seek employment in Malaysia to fund Sri’s university education. Sri doesn’t take her educational opportunity lightly, feeling a mixture of excitement about entering university, but also sorrow and guilt that, in order for her to do so, her father must leave his family and work in a foreign land for two years. After bidding her father a sad farewell at Lembar Harbour on the western coast of Lombok, Sri and her family make the long journey back across the island. During their late night journey the minivan in which they are passengers hits a man and kills him. The road accident not only acts as a literary metaphor, indicating to the reader that Lukman’s journey to Malaysia may not bode well, but also reflects the high degree of fatalism many Sasak apply to everyday life, often seeing events through a prism of fate and pre-destiny. From this point the book takes a darker tone with Sri linking the accident to fears about her father’s well-being.

Living on the campus of a prominent Islamic university in eastern Lombok, away from her home village of Perigi, Sri’s early days at university are marked by homesickness, as well as the giddy feelings of love she develops for a young man called Salian, a lecturer at her university. Not only is Salian handsome and intelligent, he is also from a wealthy family in Perigi. Salian has his own car and offers to drive Sri back home from time to time to visit her family. It is during these drives whilst listening to music and sharing conversation that Sri begins to fall in love with him.

A precarious position

Sri’s story provides space for serious reflections on society, including tensions over the precarious economic and social position of many Sasak in Lombok, who are among the poorest people in Indonesia. While Sri frets over her father in a faraway place, she laments the situation of Sasak people who are forced to chase the Malaysian ringgit just so their families can survive. This dependence on outside economic opportunities is weighed up against a fierce sense of Sasak pride and resilience, which is embedded into the book’s narrative. For example, Sri recalls her grandmother’s stories about the history of Perigi. We learn that Perigi was founded by a group of Sasak who hid in the forest to escape a Dutch incursion on their original village. These stories of Sasak resourcefulness and bravery motivate Sri to struggle for a better life and hopefully end her family’s current misfortune. Just when Sri seems to be finding her feet, relishing the opportunity to study at university, tragedy befalls the family. Sri’s father has been killed in a workplace accident in Malaysia.

Not only is the family hit by grief but also a wave of uncertainty, as it is no longer clear if they can afford to pay for Sri’s education. Stunned by sadness and unsure about her fate, we see Sri retreat to Perigi where she turns back to her old task of tending to the family’s small flock of sheep. Her mother, however, is determined to fulfil Lukman’s wish that Sri complete her studies. Given the strong feminist overtones of the book thus far, Nourma could be seen to be taking a sharp detour from this perspective when she reveals Sri’s mother’s plans for her daughter. In order to ensure Sri can continue at university, her mother enlists the help of Kemil, on old friend of Lukman who also happens to be the wealthiest man in the area. At first it is unclear how Kemil will assist, but what transpires may disappoint many feminists. Kemil, whose wife is currently dying of cancer, agrees to Sri’s mother’s request that he take Sri as his second wife.

Sri – who only becomes aware of her mother’s plans once the deal has been struck – is left reeling. Not only is Kemil old enough to be her father, he is also the father of Salian, the university lecturer for whom she has developed romantic feelings. So Sri finds herself in a bind, on one level shocked at the idea of marrying a man who she had hoped might become her father-in-law, yet on the other hand grappling with her faith that an all-knowing God (and her mother) has her best interests at heart. The tension that arises makes for compelling reading, as Sri’s future lies in the balance.

Her ultimate decision to obey her mother’s wishes highlights Sasak society’s emphasis upon complete devotion to one’s parents and trust in what God has in store. It also highlights the complexities of poverty and the compromises that it demands. Nourma’s portrayal of polygamy goes beyond a simplistic analysis of the practice, demonstrating how it effectively allows Sri to continue her education so that, as her father wished, she can become a woman of substance. Nourma’s willingness to explore the complexities behind polygamy is made all the more obvious when we realise that Kemil has agreed to provide financial support for Sri and a place for her to live, but not consummate the marriage. In presenting polygamy in this light, it seems that Nourma is invoking a feminist interpretation of polygamy, which underscores its primary purpose as supporting the welfare of women rather than satisfying male sexual desire.

Nourma, a Sasak writer who grew up in East Lombok, is clearly familiar with the realities of everyday life for many Sasak people, especially those from rural areas where poverty is endemic and regular paid employment is almost non-existent. Her evocative, albeit slightly flowery, prose captures not only the monotony of poverty and the weight with which it bares down on many of Lombok’s inhabitants, but also the strength and warmth of family and friendships that counterbalance an often harsh reality. In doing so she depicts lives that are complex and rich, and which are defined by much more than just material hardship.

The author has a great deal of affection for the landscape and this shines through in the ways she paints a picture of its stark and often tumultuous and exhilarating beauty. This description of Lombok in many ways parallels the high stakes game of life itself for many of the island’s people. Hopefully this is only the beginning of an emerging literature from Lombok which skillfully represents the lives of this group of ordinary Indonesians, who often go overlooked.

Eva Nourma, Sri Rinjani: Sebuah Novel Perjalanan Menjadi Perempuan, Pancor Selong, STKIP Hamzanwadi Press, 2011.

Maria Platt (mariaplatt@hotmail.com) is a postdoctoral research fellow at Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.


Inside Indonesia 109: Jul-Sep 2012

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