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Siti Rukiah

Kejatuhan dan Hati

Why are most romance novels narrated against the backdrop of blue skies and green mountains in the distance? In Siti Rukiah’s Kejatuhan dan Hati [The Fall and the Heart], the story begins in 1930s Java on a beach where lovers relish in ebony nights filled with a red shimmer, red dreams, and red memories that tell of the colour of love – but also about the red in bloody murders or during a bloody revolution, a redness that has now faded, or vanished.

Kejatuhan dan Hati [The Fall and the Heart], early novel in Bahasa Indonesia about personal-political rebellion, told in the first person, precedes Elena Ferrante’s theme about being young and intellectual and belonging to the women’s category; here as the impact of social policy and feminism on an individual in Indonesia between 1930 and 1950, the divisions between old and new, political ideologies and reality, economic independence, and acceptance from family.

The young Susi, considered by her family to be inferior to her sisters Dini and Lina, accepts everyday life without protesting. The only thing Susi says she is accomplished in doing is quietly giving herself promises. When her mother disappears on trips with the most liked daughter, Susi does not welcome them when they return, but watches the mother and the sister from a distance; a quick smile and then withdrawal as her two sisters cheer over the sweets the mother has acquired. The daughter with the most traditionally advantageous look is celebrated, while Susi and her other sister Dini are scolded.

Why can’t you be thin like your sister, the mother reproaches sister Dini. As a constantly corrected, Dini, relegated to heavy kitchen chores, dislikes the home, experiencing it as a minor hell, and wants nothing more than to leave the family. But how would a woman cope on her own, she is always in danger from men, the mother reasons. I’m neither soft nor beautiful, so it’s all right! triumphs Dini. Sisi’s shyness and integrity leads to her receiving hardly any attention at all, instead of vengeful or complaining, she becomes irritable, displaces other emotions, even the joyful ones, and hides them in her heart. According to tradition, a daughter must repay everything her parents have done for her by marrying a man of sufficient income, a man whose emotional life the daughter can take possession of and gain influence over. A prospect Susi and Dini realize they cannot and will not fulfill.

Does a child have to show gratitude and repay her parents with a favorable marriage? The tenderness between mother and child should be a law of nature, Susi argues, not subject to deliberation. Love is a mystery, a miracle, a feeling that creates bonds beyond everyone’s control. A parent who cares for their children sees the love for them as compulsory, yes, as part of the necessary care for the child. The mother, unseen resource without compensation for working in the home, has, like her daughters, been raised to become an object in the marriage trade, and therefore she understands little of Sisi’s attitude. Powerless before the family situation, believing that things will get better eventually without the family, Susi promises herself to do everything possible not to marry someone she does not love. Lina, on the other hand, marries her mother’s favorite, a wealthy young man, and gets a marriage without tenderness and affection.

The year has become 1949, the time of the country’s independence revolution, and family, neighbors and friends are experiencing financial stress: no one has proper clothes and food, and illegal market traders take advantage of the situation. The family is not politically engaged: “Why ought one give into a revolution, if all it gives is an opportunity for the few to exploit the many and enrich themselves at their expense?” Susi is beset by the uneducated people from the country and the slums joining the military. People with broken clothes, made from rubber instead of jute, complained and blamed the revolution and wanted the Dutch back. People starved, while sister Lina lived a luxury life with her new husband. Susi, now in her twenties, promises herself again that she will choose the red colour; to love rather than to be absorbed by the material. At the same time, she has begun to doubt that affection and tenderness could lead to happiness and truth.

She begins to spend time outside the home socializing with activists in the Young Women’s Movement; acquires a job as a writer and distances herself even more from the idea of marriage regulated by Christian priests and Muslim penghulu. Relationships should be based on love, nothing else; why did people generally find such thoughts strange or obscene? Humanity had a distinct tendency to create rules, even when the rules turned into shackles, it diminished itself with all its desecrating edicts that destroy true love and affection. Susi confronts her mother with her decision: I don’t want a marriage without feelings. If you’re ashamed of me, I might as well leave home. Why do you think I wouldn’t let you go outside the house? replicates the mother. Then you’d join organizations like that! No man wants to marry a woman who has engaged in such things (the women’s movement)!

Trouble is followed by trouble. For the mother, unmarried daughters mean irrevocable shame. Susi questions herself and her relationship with her mother, recalling how she, Dini and Lina must serve male guests and be friendly no matter how the men behaved. Susi leaves the family and joins the Red Cross; cuts her hair; deliberately distances herself from anyone she thinks wants to get close to her. She conquers a new pride and suppresses all emotions; starts reading books about social movements and political history; leaving the Red Cross to work as a nurse with the guerrillas, because the struggle there is concrete and tangible. Susi feels that she has failed the humility and honesty she has held so dearly, and begins to look for another path, even one marked by cruelty, hardness, bloodshed.

Her heart is hardened to cover up the emptiness and promises she has accumulated. The war takes place near the guerrilla camps, and the red colour makes her want to be like the male rebels, cold and dismissive, but as a woman she receives mean comments about being sad and abnormal, an old maiden with no future. Love relationships conditioned by gender roles and financial negotiations stand in the way so much that she cannot be a whole person. Among the revolutionaries there is a suitable ideal of strength: What if one were to become soft and buy something as unnecessary as flowers for one’s loved one! Susi is a thinker who reflects: the universal body obsession is an obstacle and incorrect because “the body at birth does not determine the shape of the soul”. But is she forever forced to abide with her family and society’s ancient feelings and memories, ancient ideals, and old stories? Can she be free, choose freely?

With the courtier communist Luk, freedom fighter, defender of the people, she begins to smile genuinely for the first time. However, Susi’s parents would never accept Luke; it should be a man who is someone, a businessman, a government official with a high and stable income. Instead, Luk holds perceptions far more pressing than the norms most people agree with: Why would one wish for an expensive car to get to the market when people around you are hungry? According to Luk, there are selfless people with skills in economics, law, technology who sacrifice themselves for the guerrillas, but they are vilified by those who cannot imagine people working for anyone but themselves. These sacrificing people do not want to devote their lives to satisfying individual desires but want to do something about the semi-colonial regime of plantation owners who, with the support of the United States, are oppressing the people.

But love is included – it is not a right just for supposedly ordinary people. All humans are made to love. Love is not just for the rich, he argues, communism is more than an economic system; it’s a kind of religion. Luk and the other guerrillas’ dream is a communist revolution – and the only way to realize it is in their eyes with war. Susi is becoming more and more distancing and bitter: Weren’t they exhausted of all the violence? She is tired of listening to the men’s lectures, and the women in the guerrillas are like the men, hardened. She begins to distance herself from their talk of fighting, at the same time she falls even more in love with Luk. When several of her friends return to the camp mutilated and dead, she can no longer endure, an inner ambivalence arises and she takes refuge in philosophers and artists who have avoided war and politics, propaganda, and political intrigue.

She and Luk find themselves in disputes about the role of art in society; whether art should perhaps primarily promote the proletariat’s fight for equal property? What do artists in the community care about the people hungering? Luk points out. Artists, he says, are busy looking for the beauty of the mountains, which is as silly as the ten costume-clad scientists who meet to discuss whether a frog can experience love. Universalism of this kind is of no use to the people. There is no point in marveling at mysteries and miracles. Priority should be given to defending the mass of the people.

Do the people really share your faith and your ideals? Susi objects. Why don’t you take care of yourself, you’re one of those people you say needs to be defended? Aren’t you just trying to get people into a kind of antiquated heroism so they can share your suffering with you? She cannot stand hearing more about the people who need their say: either we can submit to the strongest group, or we can demand the abolition of all power in politics and the military and government and the police. Susi gets a friend who wants to make the faith, hope and love of humanitarianism his goal; and ultimately reach the truth. She begins to read poetry and fiction which talk about the universal human’s experiences rather than politics: Tolstoy, Tagore, Huxley, religiously based approaches that can change the economic system.

They love each other but differ existentially and politically. Luk speaks in favour of getting married, Susi argues against; getting married is being valued as one values beef. After long discussions, Luk agrees to do what she wants, even if it goes against his principles. As one of the most influential leaders, Luk will be sentenced to prison; Susi finds the laws of society inequitable and humanitarianism inadequate. Luk is convinced of the struggle and wants to continue to help ordinary people stand up to those who exploit them, while Susi believes that the kind of policy Luk pursues has no prospect of achieving the goal. Luk becomes a refugee, and it becomes impractical to continue together. Luk: If we don’t win today, we can still prevail in the future. Susi: My quest is the same as yours – but without violence and blood.

Susi returns to the Red Cross medical station but realizes that no alternative is given but to take refuge in the home, even though she feels like a robot without emotion, forced to lie and pretend. Organizations like New Women (after 1945 Women of the Struggle) visit her and say she must get a job, but Susi rejects them: they only talk superficially, they are far from the revolutionary women and their intellect. She is ashamed that she wishes the Dutch to come and “take over this chaotic and constantly revolting country” so that Luk the guerilla man, her beloved father of the child she secretly carries, can be freed from the new Republican generals.

But even after the political situation has changed, Luk will not be free, and he decides to flee into the mountains with a new guerrilla band. Susi resembles her existence by a naked tree in dry soil: She hates the revolutionaries, she hates the Dutch, she hates everything; she helps the revolutionaries but is betrayed; the money and medicine do not go where they said; she distances herself from all political camps, closes her door and then her heart. The family is wrongly called anti-nationalist, and Susi feels compelled to marry a man whom her parents consider a good party, and who loves her, but whom she does not love back.

Her husband offers a shelter from the impending disaster, while Susi is terrified that he will see through her and drive her and the future child out of the house. She feels like a traitor and suffers from thinking of the judgmental gazes of her surroundings that await if she fails to hide the truth about the child, created under a red moon. The colour red remains her dream, the promises she made herself, the promises she feels she betrayed. When the baby is born, she consciously accustoms the child to the red colour in the form of red toys and red clothes.

  • S. [Siti] Rukiah, Kejatuhan dan Hati, Pustaka Rakjat NV, 1950; “An Affair of the Heart” in Reflections on Rebellion: Stories from the Indonesian Upheavals of 1948 and 1965, William Frederick red., Ohio University Center for International Studies Southeast Asia Program: Athens, Ohio, 1983], The Fall and the Heart, translation into the English language by John H. McGlynn, Modern Library of Indonesia Series, Jakarta: Lontar Foundation, 2010

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