Earth Dance

Earth Dance, Oka Rusmini, 2000 (translated by Rani Amboyo & Thomas M. Hunter)

  • Indonesia, #13
  • Borrowed from SF library (interlibrary loan from UC Riverside)
  • Read July 2017
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Recommended for: scheming social-climbers and their hapless daughters

There had been an epidemic in the village and all the balian, spiritually powerful healers, had received a ‘whisper’ from on high that told them that a temple must be built in the village as an offering for the gods of the dance. People said that the village had once had an extremely beautiful form of dance. At last, a big temple was built. People were amazed at the speed at which the construction had been possible, despite the fact that the village was by no means wealthy. One of the temple priests had said: ‘This must be a gift from Hyang Widhi, and the god of the dance has surely helped us too.’

After the temple had been dedicated and officially opened, young girls who had previously not been able to dance at all could suddenly dance beautifully. They could also sing the old songs in ancient Javanese. ‘The spirit of our ancestors, the past dancers of the village, have surely come home,’ someone whispered. Poor, sickly Kambren was also suddenly able to run to the temple and sing beautiful songs; and she could dance beautifully.

I almost stopped reading this book after the first chapter. The writing is curiously hyperbolic and static at the same time, like a story written by a middle-schooler who is entranced with adjectives and learning to use action verbs (but isn’t quite adept). I stuck with it mainly because I didn’t have any other books from Bali (all of the Indonesian books I’d read to this point had been set either on Java or Sumatra) and I wanted to get a perspective on Balinese culture. I’m glad that I did. It’s not that the writing got better, nor did I warm to it exactly, but it stopped bothering me and I was intrigued enough by the story to plow through it in two days.

Los Angeles, 2005

Although, to be perfectly precise, there isn’t really a story. It’s more of a series of character sketches that explore the intersection of gender and caste in Balinese society. The linchpins of the narrative are Ida Ayu Telaga and her mother, Luh Sekar, both dancers who marry out of their social class. Sekar marries a nobleman and must cast off her entire identity, becoming Jero Kananga (“Luh” being a form of address for a common girl; “Jero” is the title a common woman takes upon marrying someone from the upper castes). She is scheming and manipulative, but all her machinations only succeed in making her life miserable. Her unsuitable marriage traps her between two worlds:

Ni Luh Sekar, the sudra woman, no longer existed; she had been reincarnated as a person of royal blood. And when she died her soul would come to inhabit the body of a brahmana.

She was no longer permitted to pray at the sanggah, her family’s temple. She could no longer eat the fruit that had been offered to her family’s ancestors.

At her mother’s home, she is a brahmana; her mother and sisters have to use polite language to address her, she can’t eat their leftovers. But in her husband’s family’s home she is treated like a sudra, no one can eat her leftovers, and she can’t even share a drinking glass with her own daughter. Her daughter outranks her, and Kenanga’s mother-in-law forbids her from taking Telaga to visit her other grandmother, afraid that exposure to commoners will cause her to lose her “royal glow.”

Los Angeles, 2005

Her daughter, Ida Ayu Telaga (Ida Ayu is the form of address for a noblewoman born rather than made), is the repository of all Kananga’s ambitions (this passage, incidentally, is also a good exemplar of the style in which the book is written, and perhaps you can see why it bothered me a bit):

‘You’re my beautiful, living doll.’ Jero Kananga took a deep breath. She repeatedly tried to suppress her tears. She felt like kneeling down at the house shrine, thanking her ancestors, the gods, and Hyang Widhi, for giving her the most beautiful girl, just as she had dreamt. It was as if Kenanga was forced to look at her other ambition. She wished that someday an Ida Bagus from a respectable family would ask for her daughter’s hand. There would be a grand marriage. The man would propose to Telaga and the entire clan and community would join Telaga in the marriage procession.

She hires a private dance teacher to mold Telaga into the most beautiful woman in the village (beauty, in this book, is not an innate characteristic, but something that is developed through dance and with the favor of the gods). But Telaga betrays her by falling in love with a commoner and, in the end, renouncing her noble status to be with the man she loves. Nor does her story end happily; her in-laws detest her for making their lives more difficult, her family effectively disowns her (not because they want to, but because it’s required by social custom), and her husband dies after only a few years, leaving her a single mother with no means of support.

The book offers an in-depth exploration of the rigid hierarchy of Balinese society, with sidelines into western exoticism and fetishization of Balinese women, the history of Balinese dance, transgender issues, and mother-daughter relationships. Even though it didn’t grab me at first, it was definitely worth persevering.

Los Angeles, 2005

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