Most of the Indonesian literature enthusiasts may not yet familiar with Tenni Purwanti even Tenni – as what we often call her; she was one of the notable writers in Emerging Indonesian Writers, Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in 2015. Went unnoticed for some time, it later takes a while for Tenni to enrich Indonesian literary scene with the book Sambal dan Ranjang simply translated as Chili Paste and Bed in English published by one of the Indonesian publishing magnates Gramedia in October 2020. The book is a compilation of sixteen short stories, in which the allegories and narrations functions as a social critique toward multiple issues in Indonesian society.
Sambal dan Ranjang: a resistance towards social injustice.
Having worked as a journalist, Tenni tactfully employsallegories to narrate the social issues in the Indonesian society especially related with women discrimination. In the story Tikus – Mice in English for instance, Tenni tells a story about a couple who live their life by corrupted some money from the government project. Instead of feeling guilty for conducting such lousy behaviour, this couple lives glamorously in an Indonesian-crazy-rich style. Meanwhile, a tikus – mouse would have to starve because people in the house keep chasing him around and want him to die while this little creature is dying from hunger.
“Apalagi yang dia lakukan lebih kejam daripada yang kulakukan. Dan yang tak dapat aku mengerti mengapa dia sangat menikmati mendapat julukan tikus? Manusia yang aneg. Ah, kini aku harus menebus perbuatanku dengan nyawa…padahal aku hanya…lapar.”
(Moreover, what he has done is crueller than what I have done. I really cannot understand why he enjoys being referred as “a mouse.” What a strange human. And now I have to make up for my actions with my life…even though I am just…hungry).
These allegories run parallel with the disturbing situation in Indonesia related with high rate of corruption. In 2020, Indonesia was considered of one of the most corrupt country, 102 out of 180 countries being analysed based on its CPI (Corruption Perception Index). This high rate of corruptionfurther illustrates the income disparities between the have and the poor in the high rate of poverty.
Returning to Sambal dan Ranjang, Misteri 12 April – Mystery on 12 April is another noteworthy story in the novel. It tells a story about a man who has just started to work in a company and finds out that the employees are given a day off every 12 April. He accidently finds out that the only daughter of the company owner was sexually molested on 12 April by her uncle. At the same time, our male character finds out that he once was also sexually molested by a man when he was studying in the UK. In this review, I am not going to make a comment on the sexual harassment that often being a centre in some of Tenni’s stories but to point out an interesting fact that a man can be a victim of a sexual predator too. This illustration refutes an argument that only women can be sexually victimized.
“Perkosaan adalah perkosaan. Korbannnya laki-laki atau perempuan, itu tetap kejahatan. Bahkan jika pelaku hanya memperkosa laki-lakipun, itu tetap kejahatan. Tidak ada satu pun manusia yang layak diperkosa…”
(A rape is still a rape no matter the victims are male or female. It is still a crime. Even though the perpetrator only rapes men, it is still a crime. Not even a single human being deserves to be raped).”
Meanwhile in the story Surat untuk Anak Perempuanku – a Letter for My Daughter for instance, the narrator is a single mother who tries to write a letter to her unborn baby. She starts her story by telling the baby what she has been through and how she – a mother-to-be is abandoned by the boyfriend after he impregnated her. She then hits the main point of the story that being a woman is a difficult task. As the example, people often scoff at her and neglect all the achievement she has made in her life because she decides to become a single mother. The narrator encourages her unborn baby to grow up and to become a strong creature who is able to stand on her own feet. She also reminds her that the world she is going to live in is the world full of prejudice especially when it comes to women.
With the state law which is always intersected with the norms, religious values and local customs, women are often considered as a second-class citizen in Indonesia. They live with the expectation that they should become a kanca wingking – domesticated and always in the urge of showing their best behaviour. An emancipated woman – adds on a single mother may not be concluded in the dictionary leaving them as a gullible prey to be abused. Tenni through this single-mother-to-be says:
“Kekerasan fisik adalah kekerasan yang bisa dilihat kasat mata seperti menampar, memukul menendang…Selain itu ada kekerasan non-fisik yang terbagi menjadi dua, yakni verbal dan psikologis.”
(Physical abuse is an abuse one can see through their eyes like hitting, kicking and slapping…meanwhile, there are two other non-physical abuse: verbal and psychological abuse…).
This quote leaves us a pathetic question on “what is the state of women’s rights and gender quality in Indonesia?” the statistic shows a significant rising amount of violence against Indonesian women these days. The Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice (LBH APIK) had received 1,178 reports of violence against women and children in 2020, a rising number from 794 reported cases in 2019 and 837 in the previous year. This number is also still questionable regarding there are types of violence and there may be women who are unable to report the violence they have been through. Pathetic, isn’t it?
Sambal dan Ranjang: small portion of aphrodisiac for pumping up your male’s (ego) libido
Further reading on Tenni’s narration focuses on the issue of sexuality which is linked to female insubordination toward the dominant male. She places women in leading roles with multiple personality and background. The story focuses of either a woman who longs for love, a woman who tries to recollect herself after being sexually molested and mentally abused, or a single mother. Sambal dan Ranjang is one of the short stories presented and is taken to be the main title of this compilation of short stories.
It tells a story about a middle-class couple with their before-sex rituals. To spice their bedding rituals, the husband will always ask the wife to cook him sambal – a chilli sauce or paste. It is a common believe that spicy food can increase our sex power and help us last longer between the sheets. The study performed at the University of Grenoble shows that 114 men between the age of 18 and 44 had higher levels of testosterone and performed better during sex after consuming spicy foods. This study was just one of many studies that analyse the same matters, a theory that many of us believe so and the husband is without exception.
Meanwhile, the wife thinks that being able to serve a good sambal and perform good ritual in bed are more than enough to ‘tie’ the husband at home. Yet Tenni presents more polemical situation between husband and wife. The husband somehow rejects his wife’s idea when she wants to financially contribute to the family income by opening a sambal restaurant with her male partner. He rejects the idea and his reason is pretty cliché: his wife’s sambal is exclusive and he holds the patent rights for that sambal.
This has become a small matter in the beginning of the marriage yet when the readers furtherly read the story, they will find out an important fact that we often see in the real life: the male domination towards women and the obligatory that a woman should stand and remain in their place as a domesticated wife and a mother leaving men as the breadwinner of the family. Women’s right as a wife will depend on their husband’s grace while their husband are free to do whatever they want because they possess what Freudians refer as phallus. Tenni brilliantly portray the patriarchal values in the hetero relationship between husband and wife through her spicy sambal.
The narration of Sambal dan Ranjang is rather unique. The wife knows that her husband cheated on her with some other women during those so-called work trips even though she has already served him whole heartedly. However, instead of confronting her husband, she decides not to co-opt herself in those feminist blunders and still going on with her plans: opening her sambal restaurant. This reminds me of one of the verses that Tenni once says in Sambal dan Ranjang.
“Kita melawan dominasi laki-laki bukan untuk mengubahnya menjadi dominasi perempuan, tetapi untuk membuat lelaki dan perempuan di posisi setara sebagai sesame manusia. Baik laki-laki maupun perempuan tidak boleh melakukan kekerasan dalam bentuk apapun termasuk terhadap laki-laki dan perempuan lain.”
(Our purpose to stand against the male domination is not to transform it into the female domination but to make both men and women in an equal position as a human being. Neither men nor women are not in the position to commit any forms of violence against other men or women).
Sambal dan Ranjang: a wrap-up
I know that Tenni’s Sambal and Ranjang is supposed to be a light reading. And yes, I often giggle over some stories and the anecdotes presented. Yet my heart constricts also when I reach the parts that contextualise women’s oppression because of the social construction and the social prejudice towards them. To become a woman is a hard work. Yet It really seems to be a harder work for being a woman in places where patriarchal values are unconsciously established.
This reminds me of my small talk with Intan Paramaditha, another Indonesian writer over one of her books: Deviant Disciples. She told me that people are often agitated seeing a smart, independent, and powerful women. Meanwhile, other women hate and try to compete with one and another because women are only offered A small and tiny spaces in the world dominated by power-thirst men. Therefore, it is our duty to enlarge those spaces in order to be able to transform the system.
I also cannot help myself but to think about one verse from my favourite French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu once said that masculine domination is so anchored in our social practices and our unconscious that we hardly see it. Tenni Purwanti as a writer brilliantly portrays this domination in her Sambal dan Ranjang for the aforementioned reasons.
As a reader, I offer a tip to the readers which is to eat more sambal. My reason is simple because I think it is beneficial. Imagine how much money we can save from buying those chemical Viagra by eating sambal! A cheapo type of aphrodisiac.
Ah, some spicy sambal for spicier sex, honey?