The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Sun, 07/01/2001 7:37 AM | Life
A short story by I Nyoman Darma Putra
Luh Puri yawned as she grated the coconut. Her eyes hurt, and as the afternoon went by she felt increasingly tired. She hadn’t slept well the night before. She never had much time for rest and last night’s sleep was even shorter than usual; if it wasn’t mosquitoes, it was the nightmares that kept her awake.
Yes, she was exhausted, but she still had half a container of sweet potato compote to sell. The street was deserted and the food stall empty of customers. Her neighbors said she didn’t have the knack for trade. They did, however, acknowledge her gift for dance when she appeared on stage. There, people said, is where she could really express herself, but every day found Luh Puri at the food stall trying to sell her wares.
While husking another coconut, Luh Puri recalled a minor incident that had occurred two days before. Perhaps it was because of that incident, she reasoned, that Nyoman Kartu hadn’t stopped by the food stall for his usual bowl of compote that day. Yes, that was probably it; he was offended by what Putu Kajeng, her husband, had said to him.
The problem with Putu Kajeng was that he had strictly forbidden his wife from speaking about dance or art. He wasn’t in the least sympathetic to her feelings and was forever getting angry when she brought up the subject of this or that kind of dance form. And it was Nyoman Kartu who kept pressing her to quit her job at the food stall and to start a new janger dance group. Sadly for her, she always had to tell him, “”Out of the question. You know how my husband is. He doesn’t appreciate dance. So you just have to stop thinking about it.””
Not that she could stop thinking about it. And this is what made Luh Puri feel so very uncomfortable. Whenever the subject of dance came up, her husband was sure to make a fuss. But let him talk about gambling, she mused, and he could go on for days.
Before they got married, when she was younger and much more attractive, he had been different. At that time he had promised to let her dance until she was old and gray if that was what she wanted to do. “”Your dancing is fine with me. What’s important is that you love me and want to marry me. What man wouldn’t be proud to have a famous dancer for his wife?””
Yes, that’s how it had been when Putu Kajeng was courting her. But ever since their marriage, he had forgotten his lofty promise. And whenever he came to the food stall and found her talking to a customer about dance or drama, he was certain to get angry.
And that is what happened that day when he found her speaking to Nyoman.
“”I don’t want her dancing,”” he told Nyoman straightaway.
“”But why?”” Nyoman protested.
“”Because there’s no money in it,”” Putu Kajeng argued. “”Have you ever seen a rich dancer? Artists are always poor – which is why I’m asking you, Nyoman, to stop trying to get my wife to dance again.””
But for Luh Puri, of late, the need to dance – the dance spirit, as it were – had begun to grow stronger inside her. For five years she hadn’t danced. She missed dancing and longed to get back on stage. But still her husband forbade her. Why? She wanted so much to oppose his wishes.
“”People keep telling me I’m not fit to be a trader,”” she argued with him. “”They keep asking me why I don’t go back to being a dancer. ‘Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you have to give up dancing.’ I don’t know what it is,”” she added wistfully, “”but there’s something driving me to become a dancer again.””
Her words must have offended him. He rose from his seat, grabbed his plate and smashed it on the floor. He then left the stall, leaving Nyoman Kartu sitting there with a shocked look on his face. Luh Puri, too, was agape with surprise. “”No matter what,”” she said to herself, “”he shouldn’t have done that.”” But anger, it seems, does not recognize time or place.
As Luh Puri picked up the pieces of the plate, Nyoman Kartu fished from his shirt pocket seventy-five rupiah and placed it on top of the peeled coconut. He then left without saying goodbye. Luh Puri felt that her hopes were as shattered as the plate. “”I have to be patient, more open minded,”” she said, trying to calm herself.
At home in their bedroom one night, Luh Puri said to her husband, “”I want to talk to you about something.””
“”What about?”” he asked, not giving her a chance to continue. “”The harvest? Or the land in Kintamani I’m going to sell? Once those matters are settled I’ll be able to buy a television so that you can watch all the dance performances you want at home. As long as we have a television, it doesn’t matter where the performance is, we can watch it from home.””
“”No, it’s not about that,”” she said while refastening her blouse.
Putu Kajeng stole a glance at his wife’s full breasts. Their sight instantly cheered him.
“”I’m afraid you might get upset.””
“”Why is that?””
“”It’s about that dream that keeps bothering me.””
“”What dream? Of being a janger dancer again?””
Putu Kajeng tried to calm the growing feeling of panic in his chest. He studied his wife’s features. She was still a very lovely woman.
Then he thought of how difficult it had been for him to ask for her hand in marriage. It had been tough competition for him, especially with her other suitors being so handsome and well-off while he was poor, so-so looking and of limited education; he had barely finished elementary school. When he had finally succeeded in convincing Luh Puri to marry him, it was the community that had most felt a loss; the local janger group had been forced to disband. Without Luh Puri there weren’t enough dancers for the number of roles. Putu Kajeng could not but be aware that Luh Puri’s marriage to him would ruin her career as a dancer. He must have also known that with her disappearance from the stage, a local idol would also be destroyed.
Putu Kajeng thought of Pekak Tapi, the old shaman who had helped him to win Luh Puri’s hand. The man’s payment: a pack of cigarettes and a sarong Putu Kajeng purchased with money won at the gambling table. Now, old Tapi was in the hospital and he was returning the old man’s goodwill and assistance by helping him with his bills.
When Putu Kajeng finally spoke again, it was with a tight voice: “”So, what do you think? What about me selling the land in Kintamani? We can buy a television that way…””
Luh Puri interrupted him: “”No, I want to talk to you about that dream. Every night it’s like a person comes here looking for me. First, he caresses me to make me fall asleep quickly and then, once I’m asleep, he talks to me. Because I’m asleep I can’t open my mouth and can’t make myself speak. So he just keeps on talking to me. I try to say something, but I’m scared because he’s staring at me with bulging eyes. I pretend not to listen but my ears keep sending to my brain whatever it is he wants to convey. I think he knows that I’m only pretending to be asleep.””
Putu Kajeng rose from his seat and looked outside. He wanted to say something but the darkness of the night seemed to seal his mouth. He sat down again and lit a cigarette.
“”He’s always telling me that I have sinned, that I have gone against my destiny. He accuses me of opposing the All Powerful. He says that I was born into this world to be a dancer, not to sell sweet-potato compote. He says that a life like that for me is a life without meaning.””
“”Does that mean you’re going back to being a dancer?””
Though Luh Puri shook her head, her heart did not say no. She detected a new kind of anxiety in her husband’s features. She sighed. “”The only thing I know is that the dream won’t stop bothering me. In the end, I promised that I would roll up my sleeves and establish a janger troupe.””
“”But, that’s impossible. You couldn’t.””
“”No, he said that I would be successful. But he also said that if ignore his request something terrible will happen to me.””
“”You can’t believe in dreams. Dreams come to you in your sleep. When you’re asleep, you can’t remember anything; it’s like being dead. The brain stops working. That’s why there’s no logic in dreams. What happens in your dreams isn’t real.””
“”That’s it. That’s what I’m afraid of,”” Luh Puri argued. “”The abstract, the unknown. Because it’s difficult to overcome the unknown, it is the unknown that is able to get the best of us.””
Luh Puri studied the palm of her once supple hand. Her fingers were now fleshy and stiff. Her neck, too, was far too stiff for a dancer.
Putu Kajeng tried to make his wife aware of what she was saying. “”You’re afraid of something that doesn’t exist? That’s weird. We’d be fine if you could stop thinking about those dreams. There’s no need for you to be a dancer. Dancers have a bad image, especially women, who are almost expected to have loose morals.””
“”This isn’t a problem of image,”” Luh Puri now said. “”Whose image are we talking about anyway? We determine our own image. We know who we are and what we’re capable of thinking or doing. We’re also able to judge our own actions. All that is real. The more difficult thing is dealing with unseen forces. How can we know their direction of attack? Because we can’t see them we close our eyes to their existence.
“”You’re not saying you believe in the supernatural, do you? We’re supposed to base our thoughts on facts, to trust the things that are real. The unseen is the unseen; it does not and will not exist.””
Putu Kajeng suddenly found himself covering his mouth with his hand. He looked up and around him, as if worried that the things he had said earlier were untrue, that he was completely wrong.
“”You don’t have to believe in that kind of thing,”” he stuttered.
“”It’s when you don’t believe in something that it can become fact and when you believe in something that it doesn’t happen. I didn’t used to believe in shamans or spells but that, as it turns out, is what has ruined my life, preventing from being a dancer, and making me defy the reason that I was born.””
Putu Kajeng was speechless.
–Translated by Jennifer Lynne Kesseler. This story is taken from Menagerie IV, courtesy of Lontar Foundation.
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