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Being a Nyai: a Fairy Tale or a Curse?

Story / Review

By Teguh Affandi, ‪Desca Angelianawati
Oct 14, 2022

We probably often hear and be familiar with the word nyai – indigenous women who live in the house of the master – normally Dutch as a companion, concubine or mistress. At a certain degree, their status is higher than the other indigenous/native people. Most of us are even familiar with some nyais written in the historical records or in literary works. Let us give an example of Nyai Dasimah, a dominant female character in the work of G. Francis. Her story has has been adapted into various forms: film, soap opera, music, dance or theatrical performances, and others.

We might also recall another remarkable nyai named Nyai Ontosoroh, a fictional character from Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s This Earth of Mankind. She is portrayed as a progressive thinker and a warrior compared to other females in her era. Her figuration in the novel has also been adapted into theatrical and any other adaptations.

Despite of the existence of these nyais in the so-considered colonial era, there is a recurring themes to discuss, they are  both are written from by a male author and are probably narrated from the perspectives of men. Thus there may be certain sides of womanhood which is left unexplored by their male perspectives.

Another novel, Lebih Putih Dariku (Lighter than I – Eng raw trans.) which portrays a life of another Nyai and is written eloquently by Dido Michielsen, a Dutch citizen with Indonesian descent. The original title of the novel is Lichter dan Ik and is Dido’s – as what we call her, debut novel. This book was firstly published in Dutch and has seized the public’s attention in its home country. The book was also selected for the Libris Literature Prize and were shortlisted of Hebban debut Prize. In addition, this book has won the Nederlandse Boekhandelprijs in 2020 for its style, content, and beautiful use of language. Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for the book to be translated into Bahasa Indonesia from Dutch language by Martha Dwi Susilowati and to be published by Marjin Kiri, an Indonesian publisher.

Returning to the content of the novel, this story is told from the perspectives of three female narrators. The first narrator is Isah as the focal point of these stories. Canting, another wife of a Dutch man has as the second narrator. Lastly, the other narrator is the voice of Dido Michielsen herself as what she told at one of the literary panels with Makassar International Writers Festival.

What the readers should realise is the fact that the voices of these three women culminate a poluphonic narration which strengthens Isah’s character and also enrich her development throughout the story. Isah who only work as a “baboe,” – a domestic helper criticises the stereotype of “baboe” as she is depicted as someone who is critical and assertive. She questions her origins and she challenges the society where she comes from.

From the perspective of other character, Isah differs from other nyai. According to Canting – another nyai, Isah who was firstly introduced as a new washer has different physical appearance and attitude when compared to the stereotype of maid as aforementioned. It should be addressed that although both Canting and Isah are a nyai, their fate diverges considerably. Canting becomes the official wife of Ferdinand Wiggers, a Dutch officer after the birth of their third child and lives a comfortable life. In contrast, Isah, born in the palace of an Abdi Dalem family undergo hardship almost the entirely of he life. She was born by a mother who was taken as a “mistress” from one of the princes. As a result, Isah and her mother can live in the palace but had no legal status even though she carries the royal lineage. Her mother holds no official and legal recognition as a wife and only works as a batik maker for those royal family in the keraton. Isah had to give her possession for those considered high-ranked princesses. One example of her lower status is that she is forced to be separated from her pet, a monkey given by Paklik Ibrahim as a birthday present just because Karsinah- one of the princesses wants to possess the monkey for herself

The life in Keraton may look so lavish for the eyes of the outsider but its tight demarcation makes Isah deeply desires freedom. Isah is suffocated with the social-rank-based-injustice commonly practiced in the palace.

“Mereka memiliki lebih banyak hak dibandingkan yang lainny. Hak mereka lebih tinggi dari kamu karea kamu bukan putri sultan. […] Tak ada yang bisa kaulakukan untuk mengubah hal ini.”
“They have more rights than others. Their rights are higher than you because you are not the Sultan’s daughter. […] There’s nothing you can do to change this. ” (p.21)

The arrival of the Dutch suddenly opens Isah’s eyes with new perspectives. She considers how life outside the palace fence seems to be some promising and the independence it offers looks enchanting. White women are free to wear clothes without tight jarik and setagen– cloth bandage. Moreover, they are also free to go wherever they want. Those images of what Isah has been longing for later drive her to become a nyai at at the house of Gey van Pittius, a Dutch man who work in the small city of Yogyakarta She chose to become a nyai even know she acknowledges that a nyai will only hold a higher position than a domestic worker but less superior than an official wife. Isah holds true on her belief and her imagined tale on van Pittius that she will have a better status that other nyai, thus she gives up everything without a second thought for living with van Pittius.

Does Isah’s story end up happily like in a fairy tale? The answer is no! Her fate resembles any stories of Nyai in general. Van Pittius despite of his pledge of love to Isah decides to let Isah go when he finally marries a Dutch woman as a legal wife. The worst part is that van Pittius has already fathered two children from Isah. As a result, Isah would have to would have to give up her two beloved children: Pauline Constantine and Louisa Alexandrina. Then, she would have to ask a favour from Arnold van Boekhout and Lot, his wife.

Does Isah’s instincts as a mother allow her to give the daughters up completely? The answer is NO. Isah has travelled from Purwokerto to Yogyakarta then later to Jakarta in order to find the daughters yet similar with other stories of Nyai, Isah’s story ends up tragically.

Some people may ask what makes this book different from any other books about nyais if the theme adresses remain similar? As aforementioned, this book is written by a female author and told from the female perspectives. Thus, as a woman herself, Dido Michielsen as the writer is better able to relate herself to the story of Isah and the struggles she experiences.  Another interesting point is how Dido described Isah as a woman in which her agency is underlined. Most of the story about nyais will position them as a victim of the colonial system and masculine domination. This system construes the male as a sexual predator when women are their prey. Yet in Isah’s case, Isah is somewhat sexually liberated as  woman, a unique case for a native woman within the Dutch colonial society in that era. This can be seem from the way she approached Paijo,a Javanese man from an opposing aristocratic family. Isah also asserts her initiative when meeting Arnold  and willingly becomes a nyai for van Pittius.

Hence, even though Isah’s story may resemble the story of any other nyais told before, the readers should appreciate Dido’s efforts in representing real scenes into her book. Her descriptions which came from years and years of research and observations towards the local culture in Yogyakarta and other part of Central Java give this book some extra points. Her descriptions about the local food, different kinds of Batik motives and the symbolism that comes with it as well as the traditional Javanese dances we – as Javanese may never hear before are remarkable.

In addition, the title of the book is open to interpretation. Lichter dan Ik – Lighter than I – Lebih Putih Dariku may rise a question to its reader? Who is I here? Does it refer to Isah or any other unfortunate Nyais who experience the oppression from their male masters during the colonial era? And does lichter here refer to the colour of the colonisers’ skin? In contrasts, does it refer to the purity of the heart of a nyais who are mostly left by their master with no choices but to accept their misfortune as a woman and sometimes a mother of mixed pribumi children?

Although there is nothing really new in the storytelling technique, the readers should bow their head and raise their thumbs up to Dido’s ability in portraying the determination of a nyai as a woman and as a mother. Women for centuries have been commodified and reified to a society which mostly favours men. The portrayal of women especially nyais in this case, is always full of misery. We always remember what the Freudian say about women and their penis envy. We tend to neglect that men also experience the womb envy? I know it is a little bit Horney’s but what I am trying to point here is a question, “what can men do without a woman either a mother or a wife? And what can women do without men? Shouldn’t they complete each other without even looking down at any other side?”

People say that women are taken from the men’s ribs, so what makes these nyais are different as they are also a woman? Shouldn’t they become an equal partner as they are taken from their men’s ribs? Then why does their stories most likely end up as a curse of being a woman, of being a nyai, of being a victim from the patriarchal society and the colonialisation? Can we – as a reader and as a human hear some stories which portray a life of a nyai and their fairy tale as a woman who longs to be love and to love?

There is nothing I can say more about the life of a nyai; whether it is a fairy tale a native woman can dream of or a curse but to quote what Nyai Ontosoroh in the book This Earth of Mankind once said:

“Jangan sebut aku sebagai perempuan sejati jika aku hidup berkalang lelaki, namun bukan berarti aku tidak butuh lelaki untuk kucintai.”
“Do not refer me as a real woman if I depend my life on a man, yet it does not mean that I won’t need a man to love and to be loved.”

This article was published in Koran Sindo on 10 September 2022 by Teguh Afandi. The original title is “Cerita Nyai Beruntung Adalah Perkecualian”. The article was translated by Desca Angelianawati with addition for IDWRITERS.

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