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A treasure trove of intrigue, painted with metaphors, symbolisms, and allegories

Story / Review

By ‪Desca Angelianawati
Sep 26, 2023

Arum Manis – Cerita Bukan tentang Cerita Kita, by
Teguh Affandi
Gramedia Pustaka Utama (2022), 168 pages

In the illustrious realm of Indonesian literature, one name shines brightly—Teguh Affandi. His multifaceted identity encompasses roles as an esteemed editor for a prominent Indonesian publisher, a modest wordsmith, a discerning book critic, and an insatiable reader whose towering stack of to-be-read books appears insurmountable. Teguh, affectionately known to many as such, unveiled his literary gem, “Arum Manis” (affectionately referred to as “Cotton Candy” in English), just one year ago. Published by the revered Gramedia Pustaka Utama, this book is an opulent tapestry, divided into three chapters: “Saya” (Myself), “Anda” (You), and “Dia” (S/he). Within these chapters lies a collection of Indonesian short stories, each an exquisite reflection of life in Indonesia, painted with strokes of metaphors, symbolisms, and allegories, a treasure trove of intrigue and fascination.

Arum Manis: a testament to the art of metaphor, symbolism, and allegory

The book’s cover, adorned with the enigmatic pairing of a mango and human anatomy, prompts profound questions. What links these seemingly disparate elements? The answer eludes the reader, leaving only a tantalizing statement that beckons interpretation. The journey of unravelling these allegories, particularly within the second chapter, “Anda” (You), unfolds like a mesmerizing tapestry. 

Take, for instance, “Hujan Mawar di Lempuyangan” (Rose Rain in Lempuyangan), where two lovers bid farewell in the heart of Yogya, Lempuyangan, known for its bustling railway station. Just before parting, they plant five roses on the lips of one lover, a poignant image culminating in the question, “Apa aku mampu menunggu lama untuk kembali ke kota ini, untuk menengok biji mawar yang kutanam di bibirnya?” (“Am I able to wait so long to return to this city, just to see the rose seed I planted on my lover’s lips?”). The roses, perhaps, symbolise love and loyalty, but Teguh’s narrative challenges the commonplace, urging readers to contemplate the overrated nature of such clichéd gestures. Why roses, like any other person, and not something exotic yet expensive or simple, like orchids or baby’s breath flowers? This exploration dives into the modern world’s penchant for glorifying love and loyalty to the point where their essence appears diluted and commonplace.

Within stories like “Perut Kueni” (Kueni’s Belly), “Naga dalam Mulut Kartika” (The Dragon in Kartika’s Mouth), and “Pohon Pisang di Meja Makan” (Banana Trees at the Dinner Table), a common thread of metaphorical richness emerges. In “Perut Kueni,” the protagonist’s obsession with the fragrant kueni mango leads to unexpected fury upon discovering Lindri’s pregnancy with a different mango variety’s seed. “Naga dalam Mulut Kartika” unveils Kartika’s journey with a guardian dragon left by her late husband, and the unwelcome intentions of a new lover. Meanwhile, in “Pohon Pisang di Meja Makan,” the steadfastness and honour of matrimony find representation in the presence of banana trees gracing the dinner table, while mischievous monkeys embody disruption. These stories invite readers to connect the dots, unveiling the depths of metaphors and symbols, each interpretation a unique lens into their profound meaning.

Arum Manis transcends mere storytelling. It is an invitation to navigate the labyrinth of human experience through allegory and symbolism. Teguh Affandi has crafted a work that not only captivates but challenges and enriches the intellect, leaving readers in a state of wonder and introspection long after the final page is turned. It is a luminous testament to the enduring power of storytelling and the boundless depths of human imagination.

Arum Manis: a glorious exploration of womanhood

Let us embark on a journey into the enchanting world of Arum Manis, where the narratives of Indonesian women unfold like delicate petals of a rare blossom. Within these pages, we encounter a mosaic of lives, each one intricately woven into the rich tapestry of Indonesian society. As we delve into the stories, we find ourselves transported to the 18th floor of a small apartment, where a woman, a mother named Jena, resides with her adorable daughter. The absence of her husband, seemingly missing in action, casts a mysterious shadow over their lives. His fate remains uncertain, perhaps lost in the throes of some enigmatic endeavour.

One fateful day, Jena is stricken with a debilitating tummy ache, rendering her incapable of breastfeeding her daughter. In this dire moment, her neighbour, the benevolent Seruni, emerges as a saviour. Seruni selflessly steps in to breastfeed young Jena and becomes a guardian angel, watching over this young family. Their lesbian continuum deepens with each passing day. Through Seruni, Jena’s mother gains access to the intriguing tapestry of gossip that weaves its way through the apartment building—a rich mosaic of characters, from a granny and her lively confidantes to an actress who frequents scandalous soirées that stretch into the early hours of dawn.

Yet, amidst this vibrant tapestry, Jena’s mother is forced to confront a poignant question posed by Seruni: “Apa dia kerja di luar kota?” (“I have never seen Jena’s father. Is he out of town?”). This inquiry unveils a mystery, a missing piece in the intricate puzzle of her life.

In another corner of the city, we encounter Yarasia, a woman of unyielding strength and independence. She rejects the conventional norms of marriage and motherhood, choosing instead to embrace a life of solitude. Yarasia’s only companionship comes in the form of a Kintamani dog she lovingly cares for. Society, however, offers a disapproving chorus, questioning her life choices with remarks such as, “Cantik. Kaya, tapi tidak kawin. Buat apa?” (“Beautiful, wealthy, and unmarried. What’s the point of living?”). Yet, Yarasia remains steadfast in her beliefs, finding solace in her solitude.

“…Kesendirian…, justru membuatnya kian tangguh. Dia tak pernah berpikir untuk menikah. Menikah hanya membuatnya repot – harus melayani suami, berakhir pekan bersama, liburan berdua. Tidak bebas. Tak pernah terpikirkan bagaimana ia harus tidur bersisihan dengan seseorang. Dengan bersuami, kenikmatan tidur di ranjang akan dijajah sedikit demi sedikit…” (“…Being on her own…, actually makes her tougher. She has never thought about getting married. Getting married means going through a hassle – serving her husband, celebrating weekends, going on a holiday together. It means not being free. She’s never thought how she would have to sleep side by side with someone. With the existence of a husband, the pleasure of sleeping in bed will be lessened little by little…”) (p.17)

Yet, Yarasia’s life takes an unexpected turn when her close friend Kunita entrusts her with the care of her two children for a few days. In this moment, Yarasia confronts a side of herself she had never explored—the vulnerabilities of love-starvation and the emotions that lay dormant beneath her tough exterior.

These tales of Jena’s mother and Yarasia serve as compelling reflections of the “superwoman” archetype, embodying the strength and resilience of women who can not only navigate life’s challenges but also care for others. However, they also highlight a societal construct—the doxa—that expects women to embody an alpha female persona, capable of juggling multiple roles and responsibilities while maintaining an unwavering facade of composure and self-sufficiency.

Yet, in their moments of solitude and vulnerability, Yarasia and Jena’s mother reveal that they too are human, susceptible to suffering and loneliness. At times, they, like all of us, require the helping hand of others. They are bound by the constraints of gender performativity, a circle that restricts their choices.

“…cara jitu melanggengkan cinta adalah menguasai persoalan perut (dan sedikit di bawah perut), lantas naik dan kekal abadi dalam dada…bila rumah tangga mulai gonjang-ganjing, pasti ada yang tidak beres perihal dapur dan kasur…” (“…The sure-fire way to sustain love is by mastering matters of the stomach (and a bit below), then ascending to eternally reside in the heart…when a household begins to waver, something is surely amiss in the realms of the kitchen and the bed…”) (p.13)

Another prevailing doxa within the book underscores the significance of motherhood—physical birthing—within the context of male presence. A single mother, devoid of a husband, often finds herself marginalised within society. The ability to conceive and give birth to children is seen as a noble contribution, granting women a semblance of acceptance. However, this societal expectation overlooks the holistic nature of women, defining them solely by their ability to bear children. Women should be celebrated as whole individuals who bring more into the world than just offspring—love, desire, language, art, social constructs, political ideas, and religious beliefs. The language we use, referring to our “motherland” or “mother tongue,” illustrates the nurturing essence of women that extends beyond childbirth.

In Arum Manis, the readers traverse a landscape of womanhood in all its intricate facets, exploring the complexities of their lives, their strength, vulnerabilities, and their enduring spirit. These narratives, adorned with eloquent prose, illuminate the multifaceted nature of Indonesian women, and offer a poignant reflection on the societal constructs that shape their identities. As readers, we are invited to contemplate the essence of womanhood, free from the confines of expectations and stereotypes, and embrace the profound beauty of their individuality.

Arum Manis: an epitome of literary brilliance

Teguh Affandi’s inaugural anthology of short stories, Arum Manis, emerges as a dazzling tapestry of words, where the vibrant flora and fauna of Indonesia serve as metaphors to illuminate the pressing issues that ripple through Indonesian society. With remarkable finesse, Affandi delves into themes of class disparity, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and the pervasive solitude that envelops modern individuals in the midst of the relentless grip of the Covid-19 pandemic. This collection is not merely a literary work but a profound exploration that courageously intertwines gender and environmental quandaries, offering a fresh and potentially transformative perspective on Indonesia’s contemporary landscape.

Reading Arum Manis evokes memories of a long-forgotten biology class from years past. Just as I learned that mango is classified as a monocot, where the plant has a single seed that does not split, so too should the stories within this book be perceived and savoured as a unified whole. They serve as a seamless portrayal of the daily lives of urban society, which claims to be modern and civilized. Affandi’s storytelling prowess draws parallels between the intricate world of biology and the intricacies of human existence, inviting readers to contemplate the interconnectedness of life, society, and nature.

In Arum Manis, Teguh Affandi does not only showcase his literary dexterity but also provides a poignant mirror reflecting the multifaceted challenges and triumphs of Indonesian society. It is a masterful work that transcends the boundaries of conventional storytelling, challenging readers to see the world through a different lens and encouraging them to engage deeply with the intricate narratives that unfold within its pages. This anthology is not merely a collection of stories; it is a powerful testament to the enduring relevance of literature as a medium for profound exploration and transformation.


Desca Angelianawati simply known as Desca Ang is a lecturer at one of the universities and a research assistant at an Indonesian NGO. In her spare time, she travels, reads, writes, and doing some book reviews with the melodies of John Denver and Connie Francis from her stereo.




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