fiction, review

The God of Small Things: Memilih Kasih

Indonesian edition’s cover

Siapa yang patut kita kasihi? Seberapa besar dan bagaimana kita harus mengasihi mereka? Pertanyaan ini terdengar sepele, mudah saja untuk dijawab. Rasa-rasanya tidaklah sulit untuk menentukan siapa saja yang pantas memperoleh rasa kasih kita, pun dengan seberapa besar rasa kasih yang mesti kita berikan kepada mereka. Tetapi, benarkah demikian? Novel The God of Small Things karya Arundhati Roy menunjukkan bahwa mengasihi seseorang sejatinya melibatkan naluri yang lebih rumit, pelik, dan kerap kali, keji.

Berlatarkan Ayemenem di negara bagian Kerala, India, karya fiksi pemenang penghargaan Booker Prize 1997 ini menggambarkan―secara mendetail dan memilukan―kebobrokan diri manusia melalui kebobrokan keluarga mereka secara perlahan-lahan dan takterhindarkan. Dari luar, tampak bahwa kebobrokan keluarga ini diakibatkan oleh “perbuatan buruk” serta “kesalahan” orang-orang di keluarga tersebut; tetapi jauh lebih dalam dari itu, kebobrokan ini nyatanya telah datang menghampiri pada saat mereka mulai memilih siapa-siapa saja yang patut mereka kasihi, berdasarkan apa yang disebut Hukum Kasih.

Akibat dari “perbuatan buruk dan kesalahan” yang diperbuat anggota keluarga Kochamma telah tertampang jelas sejak awal cerita―ketika kematian Sophie Mol, sepupu Rahel dan saudara kembar laki-lakinya Estha, tidak hanya membuat mereka berdua dipisahkan (Estha “dipulangkan” ke ayahnya di Calcutta, sedangkan Rahel tetap di Ayemenem bersama paman dan neneknya) tetapi juga membuat mereka dipisahkan dari ibu mereka, Ammu. Sementara Rahel dan Estha mesti menderita trauma hingga dewasa, Ammu terkatung-katung dalam kemiskinan dan mati dalam kesepian setelah diusir dari rumah keluarga mereka―selain karena dianggap bertanggung jawab atas “kesalahan” anak-anaknya, ia juga dianggap telah mencoreng nama baik keluarga dengan menjalin hubungan dengan tukang kayu mereka, Velutha.

Hubungan cinta rahasia antara Ammu dan Velutha tidak hanya berujung pada kematian Sophie Mol, namun juga sendirinya merupakan perbuatan yang (dianggap) sangat salah menurut Hukum Kasih. Velutha berasal dari kasta paria, dari kelas buruh, berpendidikan rendah, dan seorang anggota partai komunis―yang tentunya bertentangan dengan status konglomerat keluarga Kochamma.

Menjalin cinta dengan seorang tukang kayu dari kasta terendah bukanlah satu-satunya “kesalahan” Ammu; di mata keluarganya ia tak lain seorang pembawa masalah: menikah tanpa izin dengan pria dari agama lain, bercerai, lalu membawa sepasang anak kembarnya kembali ke rumah orangtua. Anak-anaknya pun dianggap beban dan anak nakal oleh bibinya, Baby Kochamma. Sementara itu, “kesalahan-kesalahan” yang dilakukan oleh Chacko, kakak laki-lakinya, tidak pernah dihitung―mulai dari menghamburkan uang ibunya sewaktu masih kuliah di Oxford, menikah tanpa memberi tahu keluarga dengan gadis asing, bercerai, lalu kembali ke rumah orangtua dengan tangan hampa, sampai meniduri buruh-buruh perempuan di pabrik makanan awetan mereka―tidak satu pun yang dihitung dan dipermasalahkan oleh ibu maupun bibinya. Semuanya dimaafkan dan bagai angin lalu saja.

Apa yang dianggap salah dan tidak salah dapat dirunut ke apakah orang yang melakukannya adalah mereka yang memperoleh rasa kasih atau bukan; dan siapa yang berhak memperoleh kasih dan siapa yang tidak ditentukan―secara sadar tidak sadar, dan ini sudah mendarah daging―oleh banyak faktor diskriminatif: gender, kasta, agama, status, kelas, seksualitas. Dalam kasus Ammu, lantaran ia seorang perempuan, ayahnya melarangnya kuliah (untuk apa sekolah tinggi-tinggi?) dan inilah alasan mengapa kemudian Ammu memberontak dengan menikahi pria pertama yang mendekatinya. Lantas, setelah menyadari ia menikah dengan orang yang salah, Ammu menuntut cerai. Status cerainya pun dianggap aib sebab ia (lagi-lagi) seorang perempuan, tidak seperti status cerai kakak laki-lakinya yang dianggap biasa saja. Apa yang dilakukan Ammu dianggap salah, sedangkan apa yang dilakukan Chacko tidak.

Kasta dan kelas juga secara mendasar menentukan apakah seseorang pantas dikasihi atau tidak. Dikasihani, mungkin―jika dilihat dari perbuatan ayah Mammachi yang memberikan tanah kepada ayah Velutha dan menyekolahkan Velutha semasa dia masih kecil―tetapi dikasihi? Ini sama sekali tidak terlihat ketika hubungan gelap Velutha dan Ammu terbongkar: Velutha dan ayahnya diperlakukan dengan begitu hina sebelum akhirnya Velutha dipecat. Dan penderitaan Velutha menjadi berlipat ganda lantaran kelasnya―faktor yang berkelindan erat dengan status kastanya dan menjadikannya makhluk terendah di antara yang terendah. Sayangnya, paham komunisme yang dipegang masyarakat Kerala tidak membuat semua manusia “sama rata”, dan agama Kristen Syria anutan mereka yang mengajarkan cinta kasih kepada sesama tidak serta-merta menghapuskan sistem kasta. Bagi mereka, Velutha adalah seseorang yang “tidak pantas dikasihi”, tetapi hanya “pantas dianiaya sampai mati”.

Di luar itu semua, ras dan kebangsaan merupakan faktor penentu yang paling kejam apakah seseorang pantas atau tidak untuk kita kasihi. Sudah menjadi hal yang umum (dan, sialnya, dimaklumi) bahwa kita selalu memandang bangsa kulit putih lebih tinggi: budaya mereka, bahasa mereka, warna kulit mereka. Sophie Mol, perwujudan dari bangsa kulit putih yang dijunjung tinggi di sini, memperoleh rasa kasih yang berlebih dari neneknya (Mammachi) dan adik kakeknya (Baby Kochamma); jauh melebihi rasa kasih yang diterima Rahel dan Estha, walaupun mereka sama-sama anak hasil perceraian dan pernikahan yang tidak direstui orangtua. Rahel dan Estha bahkan diperintahkan agar bersandiwara dan bernyanyi dalam bahasa Inggris dengan baik demi menyambut kedatangan Sophie Mol, sebelum gadis cilik itu meninggal dunia gara-gara mengikuti mereka.

Tindakan pilih kasih ini juga bisa dilakukan oleh korban sendiri, yang karakternya juga mengalami “kebobrokan” (lantaran pernah diperlakukan demikian, kemudian mungkin tanpa sadar juga memperlakukan orang lain demikian): Ammu dan Mammachi adalah yang secara mencolok dicontohkan dalam novel ini. Mammachi, sebagai korban kekerasan dalam rumah tangga oleh suaminya sendiri (Pappachi) memilih dan memilah siapa yang berhak memperoleh kasih berlebih darinya: dalam hal ini adalah anak laki-lakinya, Chacko. Selain karena Chacko adalah anak laki-laki, pemilihan yang terkasih ini dilandasi oleh tindakan Chacko yang seharusnya dianggap wajar sebagai seorang anak: membela dan melindungi ibunya dari kekerasan yang dilakukan sang ayah. Tetapi Mammachi menganggap tindakan Chacko ini “istimewa” sehingga mengasihi (dan memanjakan) Chacko melebihi terhadap Ammu. Mammachi bahkan menoleransi, membiarkan, dan “mengatur” kebiasaan Chacko yang gemar meniduri buruh-buruh perempuan di pabrik awetan mereka.

Ammu juga tak luput dari kebobrokan ini, walau faktor yang mendasari tindakannya lebih “sepele”: Estha lebih pendiam dan penurut, sedangkan Rahel lebih keras kepala dan pemberontak. Estha, tentu saja, mendapat rasa kasih ibu lebih dari yang didapatkan Rahel (walaupun mereka saudara kembar).

Sadar atau tidak sadar, berdasarkan faktor apa pun, besar atau kecil faktor tersebut, kita akan selalu memilih kasih dan mengecilkan mereka yang “tidak pantas” menerimanya. Pilih kasih ini pun bertingkat-tingkat sifatnya, bak piramida. Orang yang paling tidak pantas menerima kasih kita akan duduk di tingkat paling bawah, menjadi yang “mahakecil”―yang dalam novel ini direpresentasikan oleh Velutha: ia memang seorang lelaki, tetapi ia “hanyalah” seorang tukang kayu berpendidikan rendah dari golongan kasta paling rendah yang tidak akan pernah beranjak dari tempatnya yang terendah.

Ammu berada sedikit di atas Velutha. Perlakuan diskriminatif yang diterima Ammu pada dasarnya lantaran ia seorang perempuan, dan semakin buruk lantaran ia seorang perempuan yang ingin lepas dari batasan-batasan tradisi keluarga, agama, kasta, dan aturan masyarakat. Ammu seorang perempuan yang nekat, pemberontak, yang akhirnya menyerah pada gairah hatinya sebab ia tidak tahan lagi dengan keterkungkungan hidupnya, sebab ia ingin bahagia, sebelum tutup usia―yang ia tidak tahu kapan.

Mengapa posisi Ammu masih bisa berada di atas Velutha? Sebab ada kaum perempuan yang nasibnya jauh lebih mengenaskan: para buruh pabrik awetan. Buruh-buruh perempuan ini duduk di tingkat terbawah bersama Velutha: kasta dan kelas mereka memperburuk keadaan mereka sebagai perempuan. Sebagai buruh―dan dengan jenjang kasta lebih rendah―mereka harus “terima-terima saja” ketika Chacko melecehkan mereka satu per satu, lalu diberi bayaran seperti wanita penghibur. Mereka juga tidak dapat berbuat apa-apa, angkat bicara pun tidak, jika tidak mereka pasti akan kehilangan pekerjaan yang sangat mereka butuhkan.

The God of Small Things menggambarkan segala naluri pelik dan keji serta perlakuan-perlakuan diskriminatif ini dengan amat rumit namun apik. Arundhati Roy, dengan gaya berceritanya yang penuh lika-liku, sarat metafor dan humor (yang lucu tapi menyakitkan, menyakitkan tapi lucu), tidak menutup-nutupi inti cerita sedari awal; namun seiring majunya narasi, semakin banyak detail yang terlihat, semakin terkuak setiap karakter yang tampak (apa yang melandasi kebobrokan mereka, apa yang menjadi masa lalu mereka). Roy tidak menuliskan mereka sebagai orang-orang yang sepenuhnya baik atau buruk, sepenuhnya benar atau salah; ia menggambarkan mereka sebagai manusia apa adanya, yang memilih apa yang mereka anggap baik, nyaman, tepat dan terhormat bagi mereka meskipun itu berarti mendiskriminasi, menyakiti, dan merugikan orang lain (dan tentu saja mereka tidak peduli sama sekali).

Sifat dan sikap mereka inilah yang kemudian membentuk pola masyarakat, yang menciptakan jenjang bertingkat-tingkat. Pola dan jenjang ini kemudian diturunkan dari generasi ke generasi, diterapkan pada satu kelompok masyarakat ke kelompok masyarakat yang lain. Pola dan jenjang ini tidak pernah musnah lantaran ada sistem hukum: mereka yang melanggar akan disingkirkan, tak peduli jika itu adalah anggota keluarga mereka sendiri. Pola dan jenjang yang mengakari diskriminasi ini lantas menjadi bibit penyakit yang tidak akan pernah sembuh sampai kapan pun, selama manusia masih memilih dan memilah siapa yang layak dan tidak layak mereka kasihi.

Sebagai sebuah karya, The God of Small Things sungguh luar biasa, baik dalam menceritakan suatu kisah secara mendetail, mendalam, mengharukan serta membuka mata, pun dalam menggambarkan tokoh-tokohnya secara manusiawi namun keji―sesuatu yang sesungguhnya, dan sayangnya, tidak bisa kita hindari.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

Orang-Orang Bloomington

2016 reprinted Indonesian edition by Noura Books

Budi Darma’s narrative is always a place where readers will find the darkest sides of human beings: hatred, envy, spitefulness, loneliness, indifference, anger, obsession, resentment. If anyone ever read his works before (for example: Hotel Tua, Kritikus Adinan, or Olenka), they’ll know right away that the late Indonesian author never describes human beings as “okay” (literally or figuratively). People have ill-intentions, they have their own evil; and the tone in which Mr. Budi portrays them can always drive the reader even more to that dark corner where they wish (or deny) that they are not one of them. Orang-Orang Bloomington is no exception. Every piece of the seven short (and rather long) stories on the list brings us disturbing narrators who let us see more characters with even more disturbing behaviors and attitudes and thoughts, which often result in sort of saddening situations.

Laki-laki Tua Tanpa Nama is the starting example. Through the eyes of the ever-curious, and disturbingly anxious, narrator―who rents an attic room in Ny. MacMillan’s house, which is one of the three in a row in Jalan Fess―the reader will see an old World War II veteran who plays with a gun in his own rented room and carries it to crowded places, causing confusion (and cautious amusement) among people.

But under this worrying situation―at least according to the narrator―what becomes a bigger problem is the indifference of the people around him, and how it clashes with the narrator’s unreasonable, growing fear. On the one hand, readers have to witness how―for some people―an old, senile man carrying a gun (loaded or not) is “none of my business”; on the other hand, the narrator keeps nagging his lady neighbors about the old man and his gun and trying so hard to get to know and befriend him so that he can stop him. It’s not something pleasant to read; it shows how people―in their comfortable space―try to draw a clear line between other people and themselves and end up misunderstanding others and then taking an unnecessary, fatal action. It also shows how our unstoppable desire to meddle in other people’s business can bring about their bad ending.

Another disturbing story is Keluarga M. However, here, instead of giving a disturbing vibe of a character, the narrator seems more of a dark-hearted, vengeful person. The Meek family is poor, and though both parents (Melvin and Marion) are working, the children (Mark and Martin) still cannot get enough food and clothing, and they definitely do not have toys to play with. That, quite understandably, leads to both often having fights with other children in their apartment complex over toys and trivial stuff.

Mark and Martin, however, also do not have the best of characters, and do not always do the best of actions. One day the narrator finds out that the younger brother has scratched his car’s passenger door, so he demands justice from their parents. But Melvin and Marion defend their children, and they already apologize so there’s nothing the narrator can do about it. Unfortunately, the narrator’s mind cannot rest until he can make Martin pay for what he’s done; and somehow, in his action of revenge, he hurts the other family’s child instead.

In Yorrick readers will meet a worse narrator (not the worst, if they can understand the annoyance and the broken heart he has to suffer) and an annoyingly worse character who (very much strangely, as the narrative shows) is very likable among people around him. For some inexplicable reason, Yorrick―this annoying man, at least according to the personal experiences and opinions of our narrator―can be very friendly toward others (but not toward the narrator) and can even snatch the attention of the girl our narrator falls in love with. If we put ourselves in our narrator’s shoes, we can probably understand why he hates Yorrick (and everybody around him) so much; but if we step back and observe everything from another point of view, then we won’t probably agree with all his actions.

Not all stories here are bleak and dark, though; some are pretty warm to read―with a tinge of grittiness still. Orez is a story of a man who’s determined to marry the woman he loves despite knowing what bad things could result from their marriage, and who still loves his son however his condition is and whatever he’s growing up into. There’s a fleeting moment when he almost kills him but fortunately doesn’t have time to because once he gets back into his car, that moment’s gone away. Ny. Elberhart is also heart-warming, although it is actually a reminder to the reader that we, people, at the end of our days, will always be old and lonely and have no one to accompany us day and night, unless there’s someone who is sometimes willing enough to take care of us―someone who doesn’t necessarily like us, for that matter.

Through these “unpleasant” stories, in general, we kind of able to see our true faces reflected like in a mirror. It’s not to say that we are all as bad and pathetic as those characters drawn by Mr. Budi, but at the very least we are as complex as they are. None of us are saints, and sometimes, not to say that it is right to, we can hate someone who has treated us unfairly or has merely annoyed us to the core.

Mr. Budi treats all his characters in this book very humanly, giving them a chance to speak out their minds through their narratives and let the reader see not only their personalities but what makes them decide what they do. And Mr. Budi’s profound writing style lend more strength to their each characterization so they look, feel and sound so real that readers would not probably be able to bear it sometimes. Some points in some pieces feel too cruel, too painful to “enjoy”. For some readers it would probably be like, “I’ve had enough of this life I don’t need it to be written on a piece of paper.”

But that’s not actually the flaw of Mr. Budi’s writing here; it’s the grammatical errors and the diction. Orang-Orang Bloomington was written and first published in 1970s and 1980 respectively so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Mr. Budi didn’t use today’s standard of Indonesian language. But the book being reviewed here is the reprinted edition from 2016 and they should’ve edited some incorrect sentences and confusing diction but apparently they didn’t. It makes the writing a bit off and awkward; and just imagine reading it in the middle of putting so much effort to sit still and face unacceptable characters.

All in all, however, Orang-Orang Bloomington by Mr. Budi Darma is a classic to start off if people want to know more about Indonesian literature, though not about our culture because that’s not what he’s talking about here. But at least people get to know our kind of literature and that there are still more fields yet to explore. This book is already translated into English by Tiffany Tsao and published by Penguin Classics for those who are interested.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Salvation of A Saint

It’s definitely a howdunnit, because no matter how hard the reader tries to avoid spoilers and not to take a peek at the last pages, still they’d already discover who the culprit is right after the first chapter. And the excitement (if there is any) comes from the question of how the culprit commits the murder when there is so much distance to cover.

Mashiba Yoshitaka was found dead at his home with a cup of coffee spilled all over the floor beside him. Some kind of arsenic is detected in that coffee, so it is decided that he was murdered. But who could poison him when he was all alone at home? Is it possible then that he actually committed suicide? And if he did, why?

Among all the possibilities the police could think of, there is one where Wakayama Hiromi, the young woman who first found his body, is the one who committed the puzzling crime. Looking at the fact that she had an affair with him behind his wife’s back, Detective Kusanagi deems it possible that there was a certain “love motive” behind it. But his junior, Detective Utsumi, doesn’t share the same view. Using her instinct as a woman, she doesn’t think Hiromi would do such a thing. Instead, her suspicion is directed toward the victim’s wife, Mashiba Ayane. It’s simply because if there was any “love motive,” then Mashiba Ayane would be the only one who had the “right” to murder her husband.

However, if it is really the wife who is the murderer, there is not a single evidence to prove it. She was miles away at her parents’ home in Hokkaido, how would she put poison into her husband’s coffee in Tokyo?

Mashiba Ayane, as the prime suspect, is obviously the most outstanding character in this novel by Higashino Keigo. But Higashino clearly does not want her to stand out above all the other characters, much less above the iconic Detective Galileo. Higashino makes her a very quiet, calm and inconspicuous person, pitiful even that our main protagonist, Detective Kusanagi, falls hard for her. Unfortunately, this is what makes the book so unbearable to read. It is quite impossible to sit still and enthusiastically read a crime story where the detective, who’s supposed to be clear-headed and objective in viewing and solving cases, sort of fall in love with the suspect and is blinded by his sentiments. It’s somewhat exasperating, somehow urging the reader to stop even before they get to the last quarter of the book.

Fortunately, however, the pace picks up at that last quarter, a bit too rushed maybe for some people, but it just wants to make sure that everything is revealed one by one in an appropriate way before the plot gets longer and boring. It ends quite well, in a way that our smitten detective isn’t devastated too much.

Salvation of A Saint is actually a good blend of a character-driven plot and a proper crime story; but the narrative is a bit dull at first, almost no excitement at all, and having a blinded-by-love detective doesn’t help, either. Personally speaking, this book doesn’t quite work; but for Higashino’s fans, it might do.

This book was read and reviewed for #JanuaryInJapan reading event.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die

Is it The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die, or is it the old tradition? In this novella by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay it is, sadly, both. Translated from Bangla by Arunava Sinha and firstly appeared in English language in 2019, this book depicts a particular landlord family and the society they live in with all the traditions and patriarchal practices they’ve been performing through generations. It’s supposed to be funny, through the actions and voices of the characters, but as the plot progresses and we get deeper into it, it’s not funny anymore.

It opens with Somlata, a poor young girl of 18, being married off to an older man from an aristocrat family that’s already at the door of bankruptcy. They have nothing left but a facade, they even have to borrow money to pay for Somlata’s dowry. And while the family tries so hard to maintain their dignity, Somlata knows they can no longer survive without doing anything.

In the knowledge of this, Somlata stumbles upon the body of her husband’s aunt, whom she calls Pishima. When she finds her Pishima is already dead, and her ghost appears out of thin air. She asks Somlata to keep her box of jewelry and not to tell anyone in the family about it, much less letting them have it―even though they both know the family is in financial crisis. Somlata is so scared of the ghost but she does what she’s told, and does not admit her keeping the box although her sister-in-law clearly knows that she does.

The family’s financial crisis can no longer be ignored, and with Pishima’s box of jewelry Somlata might just save the entire family from falling further into poverty. But her fear of Pishima, and her ghost’s constant appearance and following Somlata everywhere remind her that she cannot break her silent promise. She therefore sells her own necklace and invites her husband to open a shop. Her husband’s reluctant, and the family, except for Somlata’s mother-in-law, is resolutely against the idea. They are a landlord, upper class family, they “don’t do trade” and they “don’t be a shopkeeper”. But Somlata’s husband finally agrees, and though their business often fails at first, they can eventually pass the storm.

Somlata’s persistent efforts can be seen as her act of kindness and loyalty to the family she’s married into, but on the other hand, it can also be considered as her act of rebel against its long-lived tradition. They are too busy preserving their dignity and refuse to do any labor to stay afloat, while Somlata sees no other way to survive than to do so. She’s insistent in the face of the family’s sneer and rejection and ridicule at the beginning, and her hard work and her husband’s willingness to follow her suggestion and guidance prove to be fruitful. But this is the only line that she’s determined to cross, and that’s certainly for the sake of the family.

As the second generation, her fate is actually no different (no better?) than Pishima’s, who had to conform to the patriarchal family tradition and suffer from it all her life through to her death. She was married at 7 and widowed at 12, and never allowed to remarry or even to enjoy a little bit of worldly pleasure after that. She’s doomed to be a miserable, unhappy, caged widow all her life and what she had left to keep is her box of jewelry―that’s why her ghost warns Somlata not to give her jewelry to their family, because she holds a deep grudge against them for all the sufferings they had put her through as a woman and a widow. She curses them all the time, wishes them all dead. She also teases Somlata to betray her husband and go seeing the handsome guy who’s been stalking her for days. But Somlata resists the temptation, because there is only one line she’s determined to cross.

Her daughter Boshon though, as the third generation, is the true rebel of the family. She refuses to submit to any social mores or family rules or patriarchal system which has held down her mother and her great-aunt. She doesn’t want to marry, and she doesn’t want to be loved merely for her looks because it’ so “empty” and pointless. She even sneers at her friend Priti who’s so mooning over her boyfriend.

The narrative says a lot about how the three women of different generations and different personalities and thoughts have to face the same problem: long-lived tradition, endless sexism, and familial system unfriendly to women. Somlata is the bridge between the heavily shackled Pishima and the more free Boshon, that’s pretty obvious; her situation is not as bad as Pishima, either, but she still restrains herself at the end, knowing that she has limit she cannot break. Pishima’s ghost appearance here and there at unexpected moments throws out all of her rage and anger toward all of those system and tradition, because she is dead and cannot do anything anymore to take her revenge on her family and society. Boshon’s freedom seems relieving, but let’s not forget the fact that she has privilege of being pampered by her family, that she’s entitled to do as she likes because she’s the only granddaughter of their family whose mother has successfully dragged them out of poverty. The sexism is still there, and she’s determined to fight against it.

Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay has certainly an engrossing, thought-provoking, yet funny style of storytelling in this book. Well, it’s not funny because it is funny, but because it’s ironic and it’s a mockery of the way and the condition that we live. It’s funny because it’s not supposed to be the life that we live. It’s funny because after three generations, old tradition and sexism are still lurking behind us, trying to catch us unguarded and put chains on us, though each in a slightly different way.

There are more and more books highlighting women’s problems we see being published every year, both in English or translated ones. And among those growing number there are still very few from South Asia, which is actually very rich and unique and has many things to tell the readers. Mukhopadhyay’s The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die might only be one among those few, but its poignancy is worth a spotlight.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Bagaimana Kita (Seharusnya) Memandang Olenka

Dalam sebuah cerita, sudut pandang adalah yang mendorong jalannya narasi dari awal hingga akhir. Sudut pandang ini bukan semata-mata perkara dari “kacamata” siapa cerita tersebut dilihat dan dikisahkan, tetapi juga memengaruhi bagaimana kemudian pembaca menerima dan memahami cerita tersebut. Bukan hanya itu, sudut pandang jugalah yang “membentuk” karakter setiap tokoh yang kemudian tertanam di benak pembaca.

Novel Olenka diceritakan dari sudut pandang pertama, dari “kacamata” Fanton Drummond, sang tokoh utama. Namun ada yang terasa sedikit mengganggu pada sudut pandang bercerita ini. Gangguan ini datang dari bagaimana tokoh Olenka digambarkan sebagai seorang wanita, diperlakukan sebagai seorang wanita. Gambaran yang menggelisahkan akan tokoh Olenka ini juga datang dari Wayne Danton, suami sang tokoh dalam judul. Jadi bisa dibilang, bagaimana karakter Olenka “dibentuk”―dan bisa jadi “diterima mentah-mentah” oleh pembaca―adalah bagaimana kedua tokoh pria ini (secara dominan) memandang tokoh tersebut.

Pertama-tama mungkin kita mesti melihat bagaimanakah karakter Wayne Danton, seorang penulis menyedihkan yang tidak memandang Olenka sebagai istri melainkan sebagai wanita jalang dan budak belaka, dalam urusan seks pun dalam urusan rumah tangga. Wayne seorang pria yang egois, yang ia pikirkan hanyalah karier dan dirinya sendiri. Ia tidak mau bekerja karena baginya itu akan mengganggu pikirannya dan memakan waktunya sehingga ia tidak akan sempat menulis. Demi menopang keluarga, Olenka-lah yang harus bekerja. Wayne juga menganggap Olenka sebagai alat pemuas nafsu dan memaksa Olenka memiliki anak―dan melahirkan anak yang tidak diinginkannya membuat Olenka tak pernah menyayangi Steven, anak mereka, begitu pula sebaliknya. Masih ditambah lagi, Wayne terus-menerus berusaha (dan berhasil) membuktikan bahwa Olenka bukanlah seorang ibu yang pantas dicintai.

Sementara itu, Fanton Drummond, sang narator dan tokoh utama, bisa dikatakan terobsesi terhadap Olenka. Pemuda gelisah ini mungkin terlihat sebagai “pria yang lebih baik” daripada Wayne. Fanton mencintai Olenka dengan tulus dan tanpa usaha. Ia merasa memiliki ikatan batin dengan Olenka dan merasa terus dibayang-bayangi Olenka. Ia mengikuti semua keinginan Olenka dan ketika Olenka menghilang dari hidupnya, ia menelusuri jejak-jejak Olenka. Bahkan saat mengejar Mary Carson, Fanton tetap tidak bisa melupakan Olenka. Ia juga merasa bahwa dengan mengenal Olenka, ia dapat mengenal dirinya sendiri.

Tetapi bagaimanakah Fanton memandang Olenka? Apakah sebagai manusia, ataukah benda? Apakah sebagai subjek, ataukah objek? Ketika berhubungan intim dengan Olenka, Fanton selalu menganggap Olenka sebagai “peta dunia”, yang ia ketahui “lika-liku dan seluk-beluknya”. Dalam menggambarkan hubungan dan badan Olenka, Fanton selalu menggunakan kata “meletakkan” dan “menggarap”. Bagi Fanton, tubuh Olenka adalah alam yang dapat ia “garap”, ia “rombak”, ia “kuasai”, ia “miliki”, dan ia “rusak” kalau perlu. Bahkan, pada salah satu bab, Fanton pernah berkata, “Seorang laki-laki jantan yang baik mampu menguasai perempuan bagaikan pioner memperlakukan tanah dan hutan,” dan “saya yakin bahwa dia [Olenka] juga ingin saya perlakukan demikian.” Dari mana Fanton tahu? Apakah Olenka pernah berkata demikian? Setidaknya, dari sudut pandang Fanton sendiri, ia tidak pernah mengutip pernyataan dari Olenka bahwa Olenka memang ingin diperlakukan seperti “tanah dan hutan”.

Bukan hanya dalam hubungan seks, dalam hubungan cinta pun Fanton menganggap Olenka sebagai objek. Bagi Fanton, Olenka adalah “sasaran” dari rasa cinta dan gairahnya, tujuan dari segala obsesi dan keinginan-keinginannya. Sudut pandang Fanton dalam bercerita juga menjadikan Olenka objek pemikirannya. Olenka merupakan sosok yang jauh, sosok yang tertanam di benak Fanton yang kemudian ia gambarkan dengan kata-kata dalam narasinya. Sekalinya Olenka memiliki ruang untuk bicara sebagai subjek, sebagai dirinya sendiri, adalah ketika ia menulis surat panjang kepada Fanton. Dalam surat tersebut, Olenka bercerita tentang dirinya, tentang keluarganya, tentang pengalaman “main apinya” dengan seorang kawan perempuan beralias Winifred, dan bagaimana akhirnya ia menikah dengan Wayne dan menderita karenanya.

Dalam surat tersebut, Fanton bukanlah objek bercerita Olenka sebagaimana Olenka dalam narasi yang dikisahkan Fanton pada keseluruhan novel. Fanton merupakan “teman bercerita” Olenka, Olenka bercerita kepada Fanton. Dalam surat tersebut, Olenka adalah subjek sekaligus objek narasinya sendiri, dan Olenka tidak memandang atau memperlakukan Fanton sebagai objek dalam hal apa pun, sebagaimana yang terlihat sebaliknya. Sesungguhnya, ini bukanlah sesuatu yang dapat dianggap aneh. Namun lantaran penggunaan sudut pandang pertama pada novel ini―juga “cara pandangnya”―ini menjadi terasa tidak (atau kurang?) adil. Adil memang bukan soal “sama” dalam segala hal, tetapi entah mengapa dalam kisah ini ketimpangan yang demikian terasa―sedikit banyak―mengganggu.

Lalu bagaimanakah kita (seharusnya) memandang Olenka dalam kisah ini? Apakah sebagai “wanita jalang” seperti yang digambarkan Wayne Danton lantaran ia gemar “melayani” pria-pria lain? Sebagai “bukan istri dan ibu yang baik”? Atau apakah seperti yang digambarkan oleh Fanton Drummond―objek cinta dan obsesi serta objek seks yang bisa diperlakukan sesuka hati?

Dalam novel Olenka, tidak ada satu pun tokoh yang sempurna, atau bahkan “cukup baik” menurut standar moral tertentu―entah itu Fanton, Wayne, ataupun Olenka sendiri. Maka apakah kita mesti bergantung (dan percaya) pada sudut pandang Wayne yang membuat ketidaksempurnaan Olenka tampak sebagai suatu “keburukan” alih-alih suatu “kewajaran” pada diri manusia biasa akibat kesulitan-kesulitan yang menimpanya? Apakah kita mesti menerima sudut pandang Fanton yang membuat Olenka tampak seperti benda tak bernyawa dan hanya diberi kesempatan bicara sepanjang beberapa lembar surat?

Olenka, jika dilihat dalam bingkai yang lebih luas, bukan semata-mata sebuah kisah nan kompleks tentang manusia-manusia yang gelisah dan bermasalah, manusia-manusia yang (tentu saja) tidak suci dan murni. Novel ini tidak hanya bercerita tentang orang-orang dengan ego masing-masing, yang berjalan di atas pilihan masing-masing dan menanggung akibat masing-masing. Novel ini, disadari atau tidak, juga merupakan contoh dari cara pandang umum terhadap wanita―bahwa wanita sering kali dipandang sebagai objek (dalam hal apa pun itu, dan sengaja atau tidak sengaja), serta bagaimana “wanita yang tidak baik” dipandang dari “luar” lantaran tak ada yang mengetahui masalah serta penderitaan-penderitaan yang menuntunnya pada hal-hal yang dilakukannya, mengingat ia tidak diberi panggung yang layak.

fiction, review

Fish Soup

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo is a pretty difficult book to stomach. It is not because it’s about women and their sexuality, but because the entire narrative is so unapologetically blatant in describing them. Or, rather, “cruelly” so. It’s like a slap in the face of everybody who believes that women should keep docile, modest and only follow the generational, social rules and patriarchal views in which they should not show their desire, should not be sexually active, or that they cannot be as sexually free as men are. This book wants to tell readers that women cannot be sexually repressed, should not be sexually repressed. And that they should not be punished for being a victim of sexual harassment and/or abuse.

The first part is a novella entitled Waiting for a Hurricane. The opening paragraph truly gives a punch, with the middle of it talking about being in the middle:

The middle was the worst place to be: hardly anyone made it out of the middle. It was where the lost causes lived: there, nobody was poor enough to resign themselves to being poor forever, so they spent their lives trying to move up in the world and liberate themselves. When all attempts failed – as they usually did – their self-awareness disappeared and that’s when all was lost. – (page 7)


The unnamed female narrator is always where she has been since she was born, dreaming of getting out of the place where she is now. She doesn’t care if she’s very smart and could have a “bright future”, she only cares about running away, escaping the small city she lives in. She even dumps her boyfriend because she knows he will never (be able to) bring her out of their hole. And finally she decides to be an air hostess, that way she at least can leave her city even if only for a short time and be back again. She becomes more and more desperate to go away upon seeing her brother marrying a nurse from the US, hence gaining a green card. But after so many efforts she has done, she can only eventually find herself stuck in the middle, in the life that she knows with someone who is also never going anywhere.

The second part of the book, Worse Things, is a mini short-story collection consisting of seven stunningly disturbing pieces. Once again, they’re not disturbing because of the ideas, but rather for how merciless the narratives can be. Like A Pariah might only be a simple story about an old woman in the middle of her recovery after having a cancer, but later it is revealed that deep down she still has her desire and that it is somewhat satisfied by a man so much younger than she is. The question then might not be “what is wrong with her?”, but rather “is it wrong?”

Another “disturbing” piece in this part is the titular short story, Fish Soup. It’s disturbing in a way that Mr. Aldo Villafora always has bad imaginations of his wife while he is in delirium. In his mind, his wife is a “whore”, always having sexual relationships with many different men, always brutally shameless. There’s also a point in his dreams where his wife is already dead, and what is left is only bad memories. The whole narrative clearly shows that Mr. Villafora doesn’t have quite a good impression of his wife, thinking that his wife is a “bad woman”. But then the question is, why? And the next question is, does that impression match his wife’s real character? Seeing that, as it is, the real person of his wife is not presented until the end of the story, and only in a glimpse with an anxiety over Mr. Villafora’s condition.

Something We Never Were is an attempt to reverse the male-female point of view on men-women (sexual) relationship. It is very often that we see men having free sexual relationships with any woman they like without maintaining ties while women have to bear whatever consequences there are. But here we see Salvador yearns for a “normal” boyfriend-girlfriend relationship with Eileen while the girl only wants sex and nothing more. The differences between them do not stop there. Eileen is too well-read and too broad-minded for Salvador that he cannot catch up with her train of thoughts, cannot understand her. And while he feels more and more in love with her, she doesn’t seem to have the same feeling at all. And when Salvador finally wants to break up with her, Eileen just cannot get, “what is there to break?”

The third and final part is another novella, Sexual Education. Well, it is, in part, about sexual education in which young girls in a school are encouraged to refrain from having (free) sexual relationships, seeing that so many have ruined their own future by having babies so early and being married off in such a young age. But, of course, some students do not just be quiet and comply with the teachings. Particularly Dalia, the narrator’s close friend, who has no qualms whatsoever about revealing her thoughts about women’s sexuality and doing sexual activities freely and openly with her boyfriend. But our narrator is so sick of her friend’s behavior and her way of (sex) life, though she herself doesn’t seem to agree with her teacher.

The story doesn’t have any end, as it is opened and is not concluded in any way. It even ends up displaying “another story” where one of their schoolmates is being raped by several boys and that she cannot get justice, cannot even spread the news about her tragedy because the editor of the newspaper is a relative of one of the rapists. And the boys, of course, are spared from any punishment.

Generally speaking, all stories in this book do not have any specific end. They all do not have any conclusion. It is as if Robayo wants to show that women’s problems, whatever they are, never have any solution. Women keep being hit by patriarchal views and practices, and especially, sexually. Fish Soup may not be a breakthrough in itself, but it is definitely a statement, a harsh statement, that those patriarchal views and practices against women should stop right now, that women should get justice when they are being the victims of sexual misconduct done by men, that there should be an end to it.

Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup is both fascinating and unsettling at the same time, in a way that it’s so true and blatant that readers might want to stop and take a breath and admit to themselves that this is what happens, what always happens, in our society, even up to this day. It wants to wake us up by pouring cold water right to our face, making us shocked and see the reality immediately. And it doesn’t feel sorry for it, because that’s the least that it can do.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Joyride to Jupiter

Quietly vibrant, or brimming with subtle emotions―perhaps that is the way to describe Nuala O’Connor’s Joyride to Jupiter. It may sound like a collection of nineteen dull short stories with flat tone at first, but once readers get deeper into each of them, striking characters with heart-wrenching stories and clever narrative-handling are there to be found. O’Connor indeed tell them matter-of-factly, no flowery words or anything―she doesn’t seem to feel the need for―but the result is some knocking effects and restlessness banging in our heads.

The banging is loudest in some, like in Consolata, where Helen brings her new boyfriend Matthew to see her mother at her old house. It has been a long time since she came back home, and distant, somewhat bitter memories slowly open up before the reader as she’s thinking of her past, her late father, and Sister Consolata. Helen knew her when she was still a child and they were friends. But as layers of secrets unfolded unexpectedly, that friendship unfortunately―painfully?―had to fall to pieces.

Family bitterness also appears in Tinnycross, though in a different form and on another level. Oliver and Bernard are trying to divide the estate they inherit from their mother. Olly wants a half of the estate value, but Bunny denies him that, still blaming their mother’s death on his brother for never coming home to see her. Though Olly finally gets the amount of money he needs from Bunny’s wife’s own share, but deep inside, there’s a pain he never shares―pain coming from the attachment he never ceases to have to their family estate, to his childhood home.

This family theme seems to keep repeating, more so in Mayo Oh Mayo and Storks. But Mayo Oh Mayo is not the type of family story people usually have in mind. It’s more of how the writer, or the characters she creates, see the family bond. Is it more than anything that a passionate, brief affair cannot throw it off the cliff any minute? Or is it something that you can crush under your feet so easily? Apparently, the male character here doesn’t only think that Dublin and everything in it do not suit him, but also that a fling is a fling, and nothing about that can disturb his family life―though Siobhán, our female protagonist he’s having an affair with, thinks the otherwise.

Meanwhile, Storks throws out all the jokes life has in store. Fergus and Caitríona are on vacation in Spain to relieve their pain after losing their baby (again). It’s so obvious that Caitríona has it worse than her husband, and she just doesn’t want to do anything or say a word or even meet anyone. But unfortunately, she, and her husband, meet Worms Gormley―or Will, as Caitríona remembers him. He is an old friend of Fergus, and an old lover of Caitríona, but nobody knows. It may not be the right time to see a man with his happy family and healthy kids when you have just lost yours, but it’s definitely not the right time to find out that your secret ex-lover was actually your husband’s roommate, or that he’s the one who can actually heal your deepest wound.

O’Connor sort of want to state, however, that there might be one thing which is more important than family, or marriage bond: the bond between women, sympathy and empathy between women. Shut Your Mouth, Hélène doesn’t say that women have to keep mum about everything, but to do it at the right time. Women, of course, are entitled to say anything they like, anything they want, anything they deem proper to talk about; but when a man has sexually abused you and his wife, who was witnessing it, strikes him to death, you probably do not want to tell anybody about it.

It’s not suprising when women write about women, about their feelings, suffering, points of view, unpleasant experiences, their want (and dreams) of freedom, their secret passion and various problems. But Nuala O’Connor has certainly written women’s stories in a thorough way, with a very quiet yet very loud voice. The theme is mostly around family, yes, but she doesn’t hesitate to get deeper into it and dig out the darkest part of it. O’Connor also doesn’t hesitate to claim that there are other kinds of family (in The Boy from Petrópolis and The Donor) and that a family is never okay (Futuretense). That being said, what O’Connor always emphasizes here in this collection is women’s feelings and experiences, and how they see and handle their problems―whether it is with hatred or bitterness, anger or sympathy, sadness or love. Seeing all the female characters in all of the short stories contained, we can see (and be convinced) that women can be different from one another, but rest assured that they have one thing in common: they are free people, they want freedom, they practice freedom, they can be and do anything they like.

The problem with this book is that not all the premises are interesting, and not all the narratives are told engrossingly. Some are just so-so that you might want to skip them, or read them without paying much attention. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, though.

One thing for sure, Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor gives you a wide-range angle on women, various points of view we should ponder about―different ones we should use to look at them.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Subuh

Indonesian edition’s cover

When it comes to Turkish literature, we don’t seem to be able to separate it from its characteristic melancholy. And this melancholy seems to come from, very strangely, matters of bad politics, social injustice, clashes of ideologies and failed romance all at once. At least, Orhan Pamuk has proven so. We might not want to think that Turkish literature is only about the Nobel laureate, but Selahattin Demirtaş exudes apparently pretty much the same kind of atmosphere when writing stories. All of his twelve short pieces in this small and thin collection are dimly melancholic, be it about honor killing, a wrongly accused house cleaner, conflicts and suicide bombings in Aleppo, or a little girl running away from the war in her home country with her mother.

The first issue to be brought foward in the book Subuh (translated from Turkish into Indonesian by Mehmet Hassan) is, interestingly enough, masculinity. Or the way we see it. Laki-laki dalam Jiwa Kami (The Man Inside) looks like a semi-fable where the protagonist is a prisoner who watches everyday a female sparrow building a nest to lay down her eggs, while the male one doesn’t do anything more than staying in guard on the fence outside. One day comes a group of inspectors from the “Department of Nesting Code Enforcement”, charging them with a crime of building a nest without permission. Those inspectors give the pair of sparrows two options: destroy the nest, or give them their brood as compensation. The female, of course, refuses to do so and chooses to fight the inspectors, but the male seems so scared of them and tries to talk it over. At the end, it’s only the female sparrow that fights them alone and fiercely to defend the nest she builds and her offspring.

Looking at it from a distance, or closer, the piece shows the instinct of a mother and to what extent they would wield their power to protect their children. This is the nature of a woman. Males, quite the opposite, tend to use threats and physical strength to stomp on others, especially when they are part of the authority. On the other side, though, they can also be as lame as the male sparrow when it comes to facing the upper power while as weak as people in general see women, they can be strong enough to fight the injustice.

Speaking of masculinity, the second story Seher (the original book title and the Turkish word for Subuh/Dawn) displays blatantly and brutally how toxic it can be when added to pride and honor. They demand even the lives of women, in the name of the family’s good reputation, despite the women being innocent in any sexual crime or assault or even harassment they have suffered from. For the men of the family, their female relatives are guilty only for losing their virginity, whatever way they lose it, and whether or not they actually want to lose it.

Seher, the titular character, falls in love with Hayri and believes that the man returns her feeling as “he picks her out” from so many other women in their work place. He asks her to go out and meet up after the day of Eid celebration, and Seher feels both anxious and excited at the same time about the meeting that she doesn’t dare to look at anyone in the eye. And so they meet and talk, and when it’s time for Seher to go home Hayri offers her a ride to her house. At this very point, it would be pretty much unsurprising to see Hayri (and his friends) stir the vehicle to a different direction and then rape her in turn. This secret cannot be hidden, cannot be hushed, and cannot be solved in any civil way. Once her father and brothers know it, it’s over for her.

Injustice seems to be penned down everywhere in this book, Nazan Petugas Kebersihan (Nazan the Cleaning Lady) and Salam Untuk Si Mata Hitam (Greetings to Those Dark Eyes) being the most glaring examples. But while Nazan Petugas Kebersihan generally talks about the injustice we often see in legal system, Salam Untuk Si Mata Hitam is more about the huge gap between the rich and the poor, between people with low and high education, and between those living in the city and in the village. In Nazan, we see how demonstrations voicing any dissatisfaction with the government are deemed disruptive that everyone on the street should be arrested and tried for such “crime”, whether or not they’re truly involved in them. In the latter, two illegal child laborers are faced with difficulties when they are trying to get their payment after working on a construction site, building a type F jail in Edirne. This seems to be something which is, surprisingly, common in any unskilled, physical labor. People with money (or, in this case, the government) always want cheap labor to do these things, so they go and hire child, lowly educated laborers who have no insurance or official permission to work, hence no need to pay them high. If anything happens, they can also wash their hands easily.

Demirtaş’ narratives on wars are no less thought-provoking, matter-of-factly yet gloomily elaborating how people try to escape from them and still do not meet a good end. In Gadis Laut (The Mermaid), a five-year old girl named Mina and her mother are running away from their hometown Hama in Syria where war has taken her father’s life. When they don’t have much on them her mother has to bribe the boatmen so they can cross the Mediterranean Sea, but that doesn’t help them at all. The story of Hidangan Aleppo (Kebab Halabi) is certainly not less heart-breaking. Hamdullah is himself a refugee from Aleppo who ran away to Hatay and who has finally had a good life there, opening a kebab restaurant where everyone eager to taste the famous Arab kebab is going to. But he never forgets his friends in Aleppo and lets them stay in his two-story house, including the first love of his life, Rukiye, who was married to another man at 16. Sadly, though, his good life must end there when a suicide bombing ends Rukiye’s and her husband’s lives.

Besides those short stories, Subuh also presents others with different themes such as mundane life (Sesunyi Sejarah/As Lonely As History) minority (Akan Berakhir Istimewa/A Magnificent Ending) and even one with a surrealist style (Tak Seperti yang Anda Pikirkan/It’s Not What You Think), which is looking at imaginary love stories that never once end well. Despite the various themes and diverse styles, all stories in this collection have proven the melancholic tone the writer chooses to use most of the time, melancholy which doesn’t particularly bring tears but is there to make readers feel moved and think about the things depicted in each narrative. It is all because, presumably, Demirtaş wants to show us what is wrong with his country, what is wrong with his society, and that even if life seems so hopeless there in his land there is always hope, at least hope to escape from the misery.

Subuh by Selahattin Demirtaş is really a heart-wrenching collection, well written and pretty well translated. It’s small and condense, short yet with such knocking effect on the reader. It is one which people really should consider to read to know, even if not about Turkey, at least about how this world in general doesn’t really work well.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Semua Untuk Hindia

Dalam kumpulan cerpen Teh dan Pengkhianat, Iksaka Banu mengambil sudut pandang “lawan” dalam menceritakan masa-masa pendudukan Belanda di Nusantara, demikian pula dalam kumpulan cerpen Semua Untuk Hindia ini yang terbit lebih dulu pada tahun 2014. Di satu sisi, Iksaka mungkin ingin menunjukkan sudut pandang orang-orang Belanda yang bersimpati terhadap kaum pribumi atau yang tidak setuju dengan pendudukan ini sejak awal, menunjukkan bahwa “tidak semua orang Belanda sama”. Tetapi di sisi lain, hak beliau dan sahih tidaknya sudut pandang tersebut juga patut dipertanyakan. Jika pun benar ada beberapa orang Belanda yang bersimpati dan menentang kolonisasi atas tanah Nusantara, maka (seharusnya) pihak mereka sendirilah yang berhak menyatakannya.

Meski demikian, tidak berarti cerita pendek-cerita pendek yang terdapat dalam buku ini tidak menarik atau tidak dapat mendorong pembaca untuk melihat “sudut pandang lain”. Selamat Tinggal Hindia, yang merupakan cerpen pembuka, menampilkan sudut pandang Maria Geertruida Welwillend atau Geertje, seorang perempuan muda yang lahir dan besar di Hindia Belanda. Ia sangat mencintai “tanah kelahirannya” dan bersimpati terhadap orang-orangnya. Ketika Jepang datang ia sadar bahwa era Hindia Belanda telah usai, dan ia mendukung penuh terbentuknya Repoeblik Indonesia serta menentang NICA.

Rasa simpati yang muncul dari keterikatan dengan tanah Hindia Belanda juga ditunjukkan tokoh Letnan Pieter Verdragen dalam kisah Keringat dan Susu. Tidak hanya lahir dan besar di tanah air, Letnan Pieter juga disusui oleh seorang wanita pribumi. Ikatan ini tak pernah pudar dari hati maupun pikirannya, meski kini ia telah menjadi tentara bagi Belanda. Ketika bersama pasukan yang terdiri atas tentara dari berbagai bangsa Eropa ia berpatroli pada tengah malam di Batavia―mengingat pada saat itu pasca pendudukan Jepang dan terjadi banyak kekacauan menyusul diumumkan berdirinya Republik Indonesia―ia melihat seorang anak muda yang tidak waras mengenakan ikat kepala merah-putih serta seragam, dan lantas dicurigai oleh anak-anak buahnya sebagai tentara laskar dan sengaja menghadang mereka di tengah jalan, sang Letnan melepaskan anak muda tersebut atas permintaan sang ibu―yang mengingatkannya kepada ibu susunya dulu.

Namun bagaimanapun, bagi orang Belanda, atau sebagian besar dari mereka, orang-orang pribumi tetaplah orang-orang terbelakang yang lebih rendah. Pada cerpen Di Ujung Belati, sang protagonis beranggapan bahwa agar orang-orang pribumi hormat dan setia kepada orang-orang Eropa, mereka harus memberi contoh budaya Eropa yang tinggi, bukannya mengikuti budaya pribumi yang rendah atau menuruti tuntutan dan cara berpikir mereka. Tetapi di sinilah letak kesalahan mereka, karena ketika Hindia Belanda diserang oleh pasukan Inggris, sang protagonis diselamatkan oleh mantan mandor yang pernah ia tolong dan angkat derajatnya. Bagi orang pribumi, kesetiaan datang dari balas budi.

Bias pandangan orang Belanda terhadap orang-orang pribumi pada waktu itu tidak berhenti pada kaum bawahan lelaki, tetapi juga menyentuh kaum perempuan. Dalam cerita Racun Untuk Tuan, seorang nyai (wanita pribumi yang “disewa” pria-pria Belanda untuk melayani kebutuhan fisik dan rumah tangga mereka) dipandang rendah dan berbahaya. Nyai dianggap pencemburu dan menakutkan bila pada suatu saat mereka akhirnya menikah secara resmi dengan wanita Belanda dan “harus menyingkirkan” gundik mereka, karena bisa jadi mereka mati diracun. Tetapi tentu saja, sebagaimana karakter mandor pada Di Ujung Belati, karakter Imah di Racun Untuk Tuan tidaklah seperti pandangan umum orang-orang Belanda terhadap mereka.

Menariknya (dan untungnya) di sini, karakter seorang nyai tidak hanya digambarkan dari sudut pandang pria Belanda, tetapi Iksaka juga menyediakan ruang bagi perempuan pribumi untuk memperlihatkan sudut pandang mereka sendiri. Stambul Dua Pedang menceritakan tentang Sarni, yang berganti nama menjadi Cornelia van Rijk setelah menikah dengan orang Belanda yang merupakan petinggi di perkebunan teh Tanara. Karena tertular hobi suaminya, Sarni suka membaca dan menonton opera, dan dari situlah ia jatuh cinta pada bintang opera Stambul Tjahaja Boelan, Adang Kartawiria. Keduanya pun berselingkuh, lantaran Sarni tak pernah merasa cocok dan bahagia dengan suaminya, walau suaminya sangat mencintainya. Lagipula Sarni tidak pernah merasa dirinya merupakan bagian dari orang-orang Belanda, ia tetaplah orang pribumi yang dipaksa menikah dengan orang Belanda oleh ayahnya.

Meski sebagian besar (bisa dibilang hampir secara keseluruhan) buku ini menceritakan tentang kehidupan dan sudut pandang orang-orang Belanda di tanah air, sebenarnya cukup menarik melihat sekilas sudut pandang orang pribumi menyusup di tengah-tengah dan “dipertentangkan” dengan sudut pandang tersebut. Stambul Dua Pedang merupakan cerita pendek paling menarik di antara cerita-cerita lainnya lantaran memperlihatkan situasi dari mata bukan hanya seorang pribumi yang “dijajah”, yang harus tunduk dengan “pernikahan paksa”, tetapi juga mata seorang wanita yang tidak bisa berbuat apa-apa sedangkan ia sangat membenci penjajah dan tidak bahagia dengan pernikahannya. Perselingkuhan Sarni dengan Adang di satu sisi bisa jadi salah, jika dilihat dari “kesucian ikatan pernikahan”, tetapi bisa juga tidak jika mempertimbangkan hati seorang wanita dan seseorang yang mendamba kemerdekaan.

Namun terlepas dari sudut pandang apa pun yang digunakan oleh Iksaka Banu, sahih tidaknya sudut pandang tersebut dan apakah Iksaka sebagai penulis berhak mengambil sudut pandang yang demikian, pada akhirnya buku ini hanyalah sekumpulan cerita fiksi yang titik beratnya adalah keelokan narasi dan kekuatan karakter. Pada nomor-nomor di mana karakter-karakter Belanda digambarkan bersimpati kepada rakyat pribumi, Iksaka dengan tepat menunjukkan adanya alasan keterikatan karakter-karakter tersebut dengan tanah air, dan bagaimana keterikatan itu kemudian memengaruhi sudut pandang mereka. Ada pun tokoh-tokoh Belanda yang memiliki bias tertentu dalam memandang orang-orang pribumi, hal itu juga dapat dimaklumi lantaran jelas-jelas mereka merasa superior sebagai penjajah, sebagai bangsa yang menduduki tanah bangsa lain. Dua sudut pandang dalam satu kelompok bangsa ini saja sudah merupakan sebuah pertentangan, apalagi jika ditambah sudut pandang kaum pribumi seperti Sarni.

Semua Untuk Hindia merupakan kumpulan cerita pendek yang sesungguhnya menarik, jika pembaca dapat menafikan persoalan sahih tidaknya sudut pandang yang dipakai dalam menuliskan cerita-cerita di dalamnya. Ide-idenya juga menarik, walaupun gaya penulisan Iksaka Banu kurang dapat menjadikannya lebih menarik lagi.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Convenience Store Woman

Not a few novels tell about how it feels to be different and how people are dealing with that feeling, or with “being different” itself, in the middle of society that demands conformity. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is perhaps just another one, but the short book translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori definitely shows a pretty unusual way to tackle general people’s expectations of both men and women. It’s brow-rising and highly questionable, at first, but the twist is just as expected―well, it does make this book sound conforming to the readers’ expectation, though.

Keiko Furukura is more than just different since she was a child. She didn’t cry over and bury a dead bird, she thought she should eat it with her father. She didn’t stop boys from fighting by calling their teacher or even shouting at them, she hit one of them in the head with a spade. She never has a boyfriend, she is not married, has no kids and has been working in the same convenience store for eighteen years. She is not what people see as normal. To the society, and even to her family, she is weird, sick, not merely unable to live up to everyone’s standards. But she is happy with her life, with herself, until one day comes a new worker in the convenience store who turns her path to another direction.

The new worker is named Shiraha, a pathetic man with a pathetic view and pathetic self-pity, taking his rage toward the unfair world and their petty standards on clueless Keiko. They have one thing in common, though: they don’t live up to those standards. Just like Keiko, Shiraha is single and has no kids; but unlike her, he is such a lazy person who doesn’t like working and doesn’t have a certain path of career. All he wants is to stay at home doing what he likes and have someone else earn money for him. This is certainly not what a “normal” man looks like. But this is the point where Shiraha finds some kind of solution for him and Keiko―a solution in which Keiko doesn’t have to be seen as an old spinster anymore, while Shiraha doesn’t have to be criticized by the society again for being jobless.

The character of Keiko and Shiraha and each of their background story clearly show how society put their expectations on both males and females. Single women who are still not married in their thirties is not the only “problem”, single men who have no job and earn no money is, too. They are deemed useless, being laughed at, looked down on as much as unmarried women are. And though his claim that “men have it much harder than women” is very much debatable, he is right when he says that they are (that we are) still living in the Stone Age―where men go hunting and women give birth, and those who don’t fit into the “village” are expelled.

Society is a bunch of people with like mind, like manner of speech, like behavior that anyone with even slightly different qualities will be seen as sick, abnormal, so they need to be cured of this sickness and abnormality. And the only cure for these is to do what (normal) people do. Keiko and Shiraha almost take this cure―this is the both “unexpected” and “disappointing” point of the book―before she realizes what actually makes her happy, meeting the common standards or not.

Convenience Store Woman obviously poses cliche questions we still often don’t know how to answer: should we conform to the society, with all their customs and traditions and thoughts and way of life that have never actually changed since it first existed? Or should we do everything our own way, sacrificing social acceptance, recognition and love and warmth that we need as human beings? What truly makes us happy? Being ourselves and left alone, alienated? Or being someone that the society want us to be, accepted but damaged? Are we sure we know what to choose? Those who dare to pick one over the other must have known the consequences. And Keiko surely knows that.

At last, Sayaka Murata has presented to us something to ponder about. Luckily, the (translated) narrative’s hilarious tone helps us do that without being too stressful in thinking about our existence and its meaning. This book is truly a gem. When will we ever get a chance of laughing at our own predicament?

Rating: 4/5