by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Hyperion | September 2003 | ISBN 0786887087
Extract from The Girl from the Coast
She was only fourteen at the time, a wisp of a thing. Her profile, the line of her nose, was nothing extraordinary, but she was attractive, nonetheless, with honey-coloured skin and slightly slanted eyes. In her fishing village outside the regency seat of Rembang on the north coast of Java, she was the flower of the town.
The girls life, her soul, was each day filled by the sound of the waves and the sight of the small fishing boats that set off at dawn and returned in the late-afternoon or early-evening hours to the rivers estuary. There the boats set anchor, unloaded their catch, and waited until the next morning when buyers would come from the city for the days auction.
She had left the nineteenth century behind and entered the twentieth. She was leaving childhood behind. Even so, the coastal wind that whistled through the tops of the casuarinas trees that fronted the shoreline did little to hasten her growth; and despite the passing of days, she remained a person of slight stature, the wisp of a thing she had always been, the girl with the bright and gleaming eyes. But unaware to her enveloped as she was by the unceasing sound of the waves, the whistling of the wind, and the coming and going of fishing boats there was a man who had taken note of her and informed his employer in the city of this village girls beauty. One day, the man returned to the village and paid a visit to the home of the girls parents. No more than a few days later, the girl learned she had to leave her hearth and home behind. She had to say good-bye to country ways, to her hometown and its salt-sea smell. She had to put out of her mind the nets she repaired each week, the tattered sail that hung in her mothers kitchen, and even the odours of her native home.
She was taken to the city, where her body was wrapped in lengths of batik cloth and her torso cloaked in finely embroidered kebaya she had never before dreamed of owning. A gold necklace encircled her neck, its thin strand pulled downward toward the cleft of her small breast by a golden, heart-shaped locket.
The day before, she had been married, in proxy manner, with a dagger representing her husband-to-be. At that moment, she had become aware that she was her fathers daughter no longer, that she was not her mothers baby anymore. She was now the wife of a keris, a dagger standing in for a man she had never seen.
The bridal procession consisted of just two carriages carrying, besides the girl and her parents, two uncles, several relatives, and the village chief. Their provisions were equally spare: a few lengths of cloth, homemade cakes, and food the sea had provided since time eternal - seaweed and several kinds of fish.
As the convoy made its way from the fishing village toward Rembang, the girls mother found herself constantly having to repair her daughters makeup. Time and again she checked her daughters face, only to find that the powder on her cheeks was scored by tracks of tears.
You mustnt cry, she scolded her daughter. Youre now the wife of an important man.
The girl didnt understand. Neither did she know what lay ahead. All she knew was that she had just lost her entire world. Why couldnt she live where she wanted to, she asked herself with fear and apprehension, among the people she cared for and loved, in her seaside world of pounding waves?
Dont cry, her mother repeated. Starting today youll be living in a big house, not in a ramshackle hut like ours. When you have to relieve yourself, you wont have to do it on the shore. And you wont be mending sails or nets, either. In the city, youll be sewing and silken thread. So please, dont cry anymore.
She was only fourteen years old, and the thought of objecting to having to relieve herself on the beach had never crossed her mind - except when there was a full moon, that is, which drew the snakes from their lairs to the moonlit sand. She was afraid of snakes.
Stop your crying, child! the girls mother demanded. Youre the wife of a rich man now.
But the girl could not stanch her sobs, and finally, she began to wail. She had never ever thought of herself as being poor.
The sight of the shoreline that paralleled the road, dotted with clumps of seaweed and knots of scraggly brush, where sea lizards skittered across the sand and crabs warmed themselves in the sun, scarcely held her attention. She was hardly conscious of the rhythmic clopping of horses hooves on the roadway, but when the carriage suddenly stopped, she raised her head momentarily.
She watched as her father stepped down from the lead carriage and walked back to the one in which she was seated.
Are you going to shut up or not? he asked.
Like a frightened snail, the girls small body shrank further still. Her father was a fisher and a seaman, a hardworking man who did not put up with whining. She knew well the slap of his rough hand, but the hurt she was now feeling was different. Why did she have to suffer such pain? She buried her face in her mothers lap.
Let her be, she heard her mother say. A short while later, she felt the carriage begin to roll again.
Your father is right, her mother said to her. There is no parent in the world who would willingly throw his child into the lions den. You know that, dont you? All your father wants is for you to have a happy life. Look at me. Old as I am, I have never in all my life owned a piece of batik as fine as the one youre wearing.
Then take it, the girl pleaded.
Just look at the things youre wearing: that batik and kebaya, that necklace, those pretty earrings, and that gold dragon-head bracelet. Your father and I have had to work ourselves to the bones so that you could have such things... Now it was the girls mother who could not speak. She swallowed, trying to keep the tremor from her voice. Oh my, I never dreamed my little girl would have such things. Suddenly, the tears she had been trying to hold back burst forth.
Oh Mama, dont you cry too, the girl uttered amid her own tears.
Her mother turned her head away from her daughter to stare out the carriage window at the sea that had sustained her through her mounting years. She could not tell her daughter that she was crying from the joy of seeing her escape life in the fishing village, of knowing that she would be a woman of high standing who would not have to toil or sweat or run about collecting the sunracks of drying fish whenever it started to rain.
Starting today. . . she began to say but then found herself unable to continue this stream of thought and changed tack: Youre lucky to be the wife of a pious man. They say hes made the pilgrimage to Mecca twice already, so theres no telling how many times hes read the entire Koran. When a woman marries bad, life is going to be all the worse for her, she stressed. But when she marries good, then its good for her, too. What do you have to complain about him?
Him? Who was this man she had been married to? The girl asked herself. She closed her eyes but could not picture him. Was he a better man than Tumpon, her brother who had been lost at sea in a storm? Was he a better man than Kantang, another brother who, when diving to free a net that had snagged on a coral reef, never surfaced again, and whose only visible remains were a liquid billow of red, and even that, the sea had sucked back in after a shark had torn his stomach in two? Would this man who was her husband give his life for his family as Kantang had?
Hes an important man, her mother continued, religious advisor to the government, a powerful man the Regent relies on for advice. Even the Dutch Resident is said to visit his house. At least thats what everyone says.
Entering the city, the carriages turned onto a street lined with Chinese shops. The sights that day were similar to the ones she had seen two years ago when she and the other villagers had travelled en masse to the city to attend a night fair. She recalled the stuffed alligator that hung above the door to a shoe store. And the ceramics factory with its many samples of tiles with multicoloured flowers. And all the big buildings of the city, with white columns so high and so huge she could not even put her arms around them.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925 2006) is considered to be one of Indonesias greatest modern literary figures. Born on the island of Java, he took part in Indonesias revolt against Dutch rule in 1945, and in 1947 he was jailed for two years for carrying anti-Dutch documents. While in prison, he wrote his first novel, The Fugitive, about the struggle against colonialism, which established his reputation and launched an extraordinary literary career. From 1950 to 1965, Pramoedya played an increasingly important role in Indonesian intellectual life. First as a member of Lekra, the Institute of Peoples Culture, and later as editor of Lentera (Lantern), the cultural section of the leftist paper Bintang Timur (Eastern Star), Pramoedya advocated a new socially conscious Indonesian literature. He was also one of the founders of the Multatuli Literature Academy and a Teacher at the Dr. Abdul Rivai Academy for Journalism in Jakarta. Arrested during the Indonesian governments massive repression of 1965, Pramoedya was imprisoned until 1979, spending the last ten years on the brutal Buru prison island, where he composed his best-known novel, the Buru Quartet. From 1979 1992 he was placed under house arrest in Jakarta, and was eventually released after the downfall of the Suharto regime. During this time he wrote The Girl From the Coast, a semi-fictional novel based on his grandmothers life, and the memoir A Mutes Soliloquy (1995). Pramoedya is the recipient of numerous awards and accolades, including the PEN Freedom to write award, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Frances Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and the Japanese Fukuoka Asian Culture Grand Prize.