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“I thought I should have read it long ago.”

Story / Review

By Sarita Supratman
Sep 29, 2019

Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (The Dancer) by Ahmad Tohari portrays the tumultuous days of 1960’s Indonesia through a love story between Srintil and Rasus in Paruk, a village that struggles to keep up with the changing world.

The village of Paruk is rather isolated, could only be reached by traversing the network of dikes bordering the wet rice fields. It was because of this isolation that its inhabitants had developed a unique way of life.

“Twenty-three homes made up this tiny community, inhabited by people with a common genealogy. It was believed that all the villagers were descended from a man named Ki Sacamenggala, a shaman and mystic of ages past who, it was said had sought out this very isolated area as a place to retire from his villainous career. To this place, the village of Paruk, Ki Sacamenggala had entrusted his descendants, his flesh and blood.”

After a bongkrek tragedy that killed a lot of people in Paruk, many kids became orphans, including Srintil and Rasus. They were taken care of by their grandparents and the two grew up together, created a bond through a shared destiny.

At the age of eleven, Srintil found her love for ronggeng dance and her grandparents sent her to a trainer who can help her become a professional dancer. It doesn’t require a profound knowledge to understand that ronggeng dancing was nothing more than spontaneous movements tending only toward the erotic. It is a crude imitation of gambyong, a dance which was performed to arouse desire in people from aristocratic circles.

In order to become a ronggeng, she must complete certain rituals such as bathing and bukak-klambu (opening of the mosquito net). This is a competition open to all men to win the virginity of the candidate wishing to become a ronggeng dancer. The man who can pay the amount of money determined by the dancer’s trainer will win.

“Winning the bukak-klambu contest did not only involve passion, nor was it simply about the celebratory rite of passage of a young girl. It was a matter of pride for the winner.”

Reluctantly, she completed all these rituals and became a successful and famous ronggeng dancer.

“Later, Srintil told me that she was awakened by Dower, huffing like a horny bull. She didn’t say anything about the rape that followed, only commenting that requirements for becoming the ronggeng of Paruk Village were truly harsh.”

Feeling disgusted by the lifestyle of a ronggeng, Rasus decided to join the army, left Paruk and embraces Islam.

“I wouldn’t ever marry you because you’re a ronggeng. You belong to Paruk.”

At the age of eighteen, Srintil was a woman who had already experienced the pain that came with bukak-klambu, bitterness of being rejected by the man she loved, also experienced relations with many men. But her fame, naivety, and sexuality got her involved with the region’s leftist propaganda and she was arrested following the 1965 tragedy.

This book gives a deep insight of the political turmoil leading up to the coup in 1965 which the government (New Order era) tried hard to conceal. It shows the lives of people, whom with their innocence and faithfulness towards their culture, were dragged into the darkness politics and power.

“These people could never be satisfied with the idea that two years of Srintil’s life could simply be erased from all record, to remain an historical unknown. The past is the past, and the role of history as teacher to humanity should never be disregarded. Wisdom and knowledge in life is tempered by histories that are constituted by deeds of heroism and human decency as well as acts of betrayals and human depravity.”

I read the English translation by René T. A. Lysloff and was greatly impressed. The translation does not discount the richness and details of Tohari’s words.

Here is how Lysloff translates Tohari’s description of Paruk’s landscape:

“Because Paruk was located in the middle of a large expanse of rice fields, the setting sun was clearly visible. A soft wind breathed, just enough to shed the branches of some of their leaves. Clumps of dry grass rolled along the ground, stopping only when they were blocked by the dikes surrounding the rice fields.” 

And the sexuality of Srintil as a ronggeng:

“Vague feelings of lust and desire, always engendered by true ronggeng dancers, were aroused in her young audience by Srintil while she danced. The sweep of her neck, the glance of her eyes, even the way she swayed her shoulders would have mesmerized any adult male that saw her.”

And the dynamic and complexity of different societies:

“Paruk, that tiny place of my birth, had given me a social understanding: but one without any morality. For instance, the fact that people did not know for sure which child belonged to whom never caused problems. I also knew of a treatment for childless women which was common in the village. The treatment was called lingga: a combination of the abbreviation of two Javanese words meaning “neighbor’s penis”. And this treatment was, in the spirit of Ki Sacamenggala, not considered taboo or even strange. So, why did people laugh at me when I pinched Siti’s cheek?”

There are some words that I thought was translated rather plainly although these words were not familiar to me, either. I can imagine how hard it is to find their equivalent in English.

Bajul buntung, asu buntung = son of bitches
Bocah bagus = boys
Sasmita = omen

And some words such as kula nuwun, mangga are not translated.

The introduction by Lysloff also gave me a great insight of the author; his journalistic career, his religious upbringing, and his activism for the village community.

Tohari served as staff editor for the Jakarta daily Suara Merdeka. Although described as a political novelist, he avoids being too overtly political in his fiction, emphasizing fundamental moral and ethical issues. He argues that overly politicized writing is, generally speaking, poor literature.

Growing up in a pesantren (religious school, madrasa) he shares his opinion on Muslim society in Indonesia.

“The author sees himself as a progressive religious intellectual whose aim is to nurture what he calls a post-modern Islam, one that honors indigenous culture and tradition yet follows the teachings of the Koran. He advocates not the modernist orthodoxy of many Indonesian Muslims today but a more tolerant form that places emphasis on moral and ethical behavior over the formal aspect of Islamic practices.”

While reading this book, I feel that the inclusion of indigenous culture is the essence of the story.

He is also a community activist. Growing up in the village, he saw many farmers depended entirely on rainfall. And during the dry season, many people suffered from malnutrition. This is also reflected in the story.

“The answer, I saw, could be traced to ignorance, which was frequently fostered by religious leaders who wrongly said that the poor had no work ethic. In fact, the problem was in the system of production. The agricultural system wasn’t fair, and the government administration was feudalistic. These factors combined to keep people poor.”

Because of his efforts, the village he lived in had telephone service, schools, roads, etc.

Many contended that he had misrepresented the ronggeng dance tradition. I don’t know how ronggeng dance is like either to be able to judge how accurate his description is. But I feel that the issue isn’t that the story misrepresents the ronggeng tradition but that it describes a truth about Indonesia’s past, the injustice of rural poverty and ignorance which is too painful for some people to bear.

I am certain that he had described a real-world within the fiction in this story. I have visited villages like Paruk. Reading this reminds me of my own parents’ village.

When reading a highly celebrated book, I often asked myself: “Where have I been? How come I didn’t read this way earlier?” And it was clearly the case with Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk. I thought I should have read it long ago. But I was touched by this passage.

“To enable us to open the pages of that story, specific conditions must be met. One of these is the passage of time, which has the power to dissolve all sentimentality. The conditions also demand maturity of character and a certain degree of honesty in the reader which would provide the courage to acknowledge the historical truth. Only if these conditions are met, can the story of Srintil be told. If they are not met, the story will disappear forever to become a part of the secret that surrounds Paruk.”

Perhaps it takes readiness and maturity to read certain books. And I am glad to read this book recently in my 30’s where I am more mature to digest many aspects of the story. Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, and German.

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