Review: Tarian bumi is the story of four generations of Balinese women
With this novel (originally serialised in Republika in 1997) Oka Rusmini joins two minority groups in contemporary Indonesian literature - Balinese novelists, and female novelists. Born in Jakarta of Balinese parents in 1967, Oka is a journalist for the Bali Post. She has had poetry published in several anthologies, and short stories in a range of journals and magazines. She is married to the East Javanese poet Arif B Prasetyo, a union which so upset her family on account of his ethnicity and religion that they disowned her.
Tarian bumi is the story of four generations of Balinese women. It is told in the third person, but from the narratorial point of view of Ida Ayu Telaga, a woman in her thirties whose aspirations for herself and her daughter Sari differ somewhat from those of her mother, her grandmother, and her female peers. These women are motivated primarily by two factors: a longing to be beautiful, and desire for a high-castebrahmana husband.
Telaga's mother Luh Sekar, born into a commoner sudra family, declares when she is just a girl that the only thing she cares about is becoming the wife of a brahmana man, thus elevating herself from her lowly status. When she finally meets and marries her brahmanaman, her world changes irrevocably. She can no longer use the name Ni Luh Sekar. She can no longer pray in her family temple. When she gives birth to Telaga, her mother-in-law forbids her from taking the child to see its maternal grandmother. Yet, as a woman who has become a brahmanaby marriage rather than by birth, she is treated differently within the circle of her husband's family compound. She can never truly be a part of her new brahmanafamily, but at the same time she is expected to sever her ties with her sudrapast.
Despite the displacement and distress her new status causes her, she continues to perpetuate the importance of high-caste standing by projecting her aspirations onto Telaga who, however, scandalises her family by marrying the sudraWayan Sasmitha, in defiance of the importance in the Balinese hierarchy of a woman not lowering the status of the whole family by marrying beneath her.
Telaga's difficulty in adjusting to the lifestyle of a sudra family is proof to her mother-in-law that the marriage should never have taken place. Finally, because her presence in the household is regarded as unlucky, her mother-in-law asks her to go back to her family compound to perform the upacara Patiwangi, the ceremony which officially sets a person free from the brahmana caste. In the end, Telaga is transformed into a sudrawoman. It is a liberation for her.
The women are also driven by the longing to be beautiful, which goes hand-in-hand with the desire to be a fine dancer. However, like the brahmana status, beauty has its price. In the novel, beauty is infused with the same sort of quality traditionally associated with power in Java: it seems to be finite, and the competition to acquire it is fierce. The envy surrounding beauty is compounded by pique that brahmanawomen are perceived as having more than their fair share of it.
Closely linked with the quest for beauty are questions about what it means to be a woman in Bali. The female protagonists of Tarian Bumi are somewhat ambivalent about their womanhood and how it intersects with their quest for a brahmana husband and unrivalled beauty. Telaga, whose life is controlled by her mother's avarice, her mother-in-law's bitterness, and her sister-in-law's greed, has frequent cause to question what it means to be a woman.
Tarian bumi is in part a novel about caste, beauty, and Balinese women. The caste system has to the outside world generally seemed to sit lightly on Balinese social structure. It is here depicted as in fact an insidious one that perpetuates a hierarchical way of understanding the world and creates jealousy and avarice in the women who are forced to compete with each other for brahmanahusbands and for beauty. Tarian bumi is also, however, a novel about the ways in which caste binds and divides per se. The male characters in the novel, too, are subjected to the inequities of this hierarchical system.
Like much other contemporary writing about Bali, the novel is an antidote to the exoticism depicted by early anthropologists and travel writers and in mainstream contemporary tourist ventures. Much of its appeal lies in the fact that it is an attempt by a Balinese, rather than an outsider, to deconstruct some of the myths that lie at the heart of the Orientalist fantasy.
Oka Rusmini, Tarian bumi, Magelang: IndonesiaTera, 2000, 141 pp, ISBN 979-95428-8-X
Pamela Allen (Pam.Allen@utas.edu.au) teaches Asian studes at the University of Tasmania, Hobart.