Fri, 24 Jan 2003

Oka Rusmini's pen breaks tradition

Susi Andrini, Contributor, Denpasar, Bali

Ida Ayu Oka Rusmini feels restless. She witnesses unjust treatment toward her fellow women, yet she is powerless. As a writer, she can do something, expressing her dissatisfaction, unhappiness and anxiety via the written word.

Oka is one of a handful of Balinese women who have embarked on a career in the literary world. Her short stories, poetry and novels mostly center on the lives of Balinese women and how they cope with strict societal codes, a rigid caste system, customs and traditions of the patriarchal Balinese family.

To read her inspiring work is to delve into her own life in the open, honest and sometimes in a vulgar way. Born to the highest caste, the Brahmana, Oka dared to speak out her strong stance against gender discrimination within Balinese society.

"I have seen so much injustice against women taking place in my family and my community," Oka said.

A Balinese woman, according to Oka, should adhere to regulations set by her community.

Despite changes and reforms, the Balinese Hindu society still regards the caste system as important. Writer Fred B. Eiseman Jr. explains the caste system in Bali as a complex system of social stratification which was originally based on social functions which became entwined with Hindu doctrine. Bali has four main castes: Sudra the lowest caste; Weisya the workers; Ksyatria, the rulers; and the priestly caste of Brahmana.

The regulations regarding the caste is complex and elaborate involving various prohibitions, rules regarding the treatment of superior to inferior caste, marriages and much more.

A woman from a Brahmana caste like Oka is not allowed to marry men of lower caste or she will be "exiled" from her family. Not only that, she would also become part of her husband's caste while her son could not bear a Brahman title.

"I think, we are all human beings, with equal rights and opportunity," Oka said.

This reality, however, is something that the Balinese people are too reluctant to discuss and to deal with it, she added.

All this time, her struggle against discrimination has been channeled through many of her novels and other literary pieces, short stories and poems.

Married to a Javanese poet and writer Arief B. Prasetyo has enriched Oka's life.

"He has helped me get through all the troubling things in my life. He has been my intellectual friend with whom I can discuss my work," Oka said. The couple have one son.

"I was a lonely kid. My parents got divorced when I was just eight," she recalled.

At that time, little Oka had managed to overcome her loneliness by expressing her feelings and emotions in her diary. "My best friend was my diary," she said. But strangely, everytime she celebrated her birthday, she would tear up and burn every page of her diary. "That was how I wished my self a Happy Birthday. It was kind of a ritual for me because nobody sent his or her birthday wishes to me," she reminisced sadly.

Oka acknowledged that she had never had a parental model, especially a father figure.

"My childhood was so sad, chaotic and traumatic." Coming from a broken home has made Oka oversensitive and protective especially when it comes to her only child.

"I value my marital life and my family above anything else in the world," she said.

A child's personality is strongly shaped and influenced within his or her family. Oka admitted she was so frightened to hear the word "divorce".

"It will never enter my vocabulary," she said in a trembling voice.

A happy and fulfilling family, she said, would fully support a woman's career. "None of us can create anything worthwhile within an unhappy home," said Oka, who left to the Netherlands and Germany on Jan. 12 to represent Indonesia at the Winternachten Poetry Festival.

In the coming months, Oka will release her novel Kenanga (Cananga), which previously appeared in Tempo daily. The story again focuses on a family conflicts.

"I wrote that novel when I was 23. When I read it recently, I felt so immature," said the 36-year-old woman, who was born in Jakarta but now lives in Bali.

After a long and winding road, Oka gained a lot of experience, which honed her insights. "How can a writer express a marital conflict when she or he is not yet married. How can she feel the pulse of a baby when she has never borne a child?" she asked.

At times, Oka has never felt ashamed of conveying subjects as contentious as sexuality and eroticism. In one of her novels, Sagra, she writes: "Don't you want to touch me in your dream? Do you ever feel like you've lost your shadow? Do you know that I often steal your shadow and ask it to explore my entire body until I scream and sweat in ecstasy? Have you ever dreamt of me? Or you will silently ask me to elope while I am hungry for a man's touch...."

A prolific writer, Oka's short story Putu Menolong Tuhan (Putu Helps his God) was translated by Vern Cork and it was included in a book Bali Behind the Seen, published in Australia. Another short story Pemahat Abad (the Sculptor of the Century was named best short story in the period of 1999 and 2000 by the respected literary magazine Horizon.

Together with 12 other Balinese writers, Oka contributed a poem in a book entitled Bali Living in Two Worlds, edited by Urs Ramseyer from the Museum der Kulturen Basel in Switzerland.

At present, Oka divides her time between job as a writer- journalist and her family. She decided she would never write anything before her son, Pasha Renaissanse, fell asleep.

"I only turn on my computer late at night," she said.

Story ideas never run out in her bright mind.

"In this way, I can overcome my shortcomings," said Oka, who suffered polio when she was five-years-old, leaving one of her legs shorter than the other.

"In my life, I have never felt inferior because of this," she said while pointing at her legs. Instead, she finds her physical shortcoming has boosted her energy and creative process as a writer.