Thu, 27 Apr 2000

The power of Men Brayut's legacy remains in Bali

By Leslie Dwyer

DENPASAR, Bali (JP):As fact-finding commissions and special investigations work to uncover the truth behind the past 35 years of Indonesian history, numerous crimes are being brought to light.

Those who have felt the pain of violence and oppression and censorship have started -- sometimes haltingly, sometimes more openly -- to tell their stories. But in Bali, one victim's tale has yet to attract the cameras and pens of the press: that of a woman named Men Brayut.

Men Brayut was, in many ways, an ordinary woman. She was not the daughter of a king or the wife of a prince. She was not a dancer, nor was she a painter or a musician or proficient in any of the other arts that have made so many Balinese famous. She was not even beautiful; in fact, most people considered her to be frighteningly ugly.

Traditional depictions of her portray a woman with long, matted hair, a shapeless body and large, sagging breasts. What made her unusual was that in Bali, where maternal and child mortality rates were -- and still are -- extraordinarily high, she defied death, disease and the dark magic that preys upon the vulnerable an astonishing 18 times, bearing strong and healthy children. And so she got her name: men, the title of a commoner mother; and brayut, to cling like a monkey, like her children clung to her.

Although she was not a privileged aristocrat or a fabled beauty, during the days of her fame -- which spanned centuries -- Men Brayut was revered like a goddess. She was seen as an incarnation of Durga, the patroness of death and the gateway to life, whose portals she passed repeatedly in childbirth.

Long lines of worshipers visited the many shrines built to honor her, bringing offerings and begging for her favor. Noted statues of her, such as the one that still remains at the 11th century Goa Gadjah temple near Ubud, would draw childless couples from all over Bali seeking to be blessed with some of her fertility. As a symbol of potency, prosperity, life and love, she was respected like few other Balinese women were.

So why, then, did Men Brayut have to die? And who was her killer?

Beginning in the late 1960s, Bali came under the rule of a regime devoted to, above all else, development. In this new ideological climate, women like Men Brayut began to be seen as indicators of Bali's backwardness, their lives viewed as dirty and disorderly.

And Men Brayut, in particular, challenged efforts to bring Bali into the modern era. Where the state stressed self- discipline in the name of national order and stability, Men Brayut symbolized desire. She was, in fact, nothing like the image of modern motherhood presented by government programs like Family Welfare Guidance or Dharma Wanita (the Association of Wives of Civil Servants).

She did not bring her babies to the local clinic to be weighed and immunized. She did not fill them with vitamins and canned milk guaranteed to increase their Intelligent Quotient, Emotional Quotient and future earning potential.

She did not clothe them in the expensive plastic diapers which, the television ads promise, give your baby a better night's sleep and a more productive experience at playgroup. She most likely fed them bits of rice with her unwashed fingers and let them run naked around the yard.

Indeed, looking at Men Brayut, it seems like she did not have much time to pay attention even to herself. She certainly did not resemble the modern Indonesian career woman stereotyped in the television soap operas, who spends her mornings at the air conditioned office and her afternoons at the beauty salon, her children shuttled from school to computer class to tennis lessons by an army of servants.

Men Brayut's stringy tresses were never creambathed into glossy perfection and her brown skin was never coated with lotions that promised to smooth and whiten. And despite all her powers, Men Brayut's daily life was likely one of struggle. Working from morning until night without the aid of maids or machines, Men Brayut represented Bali's primitive past, which was to be replaced by a new era of progress.

But perhaps even more importantly, Men Brayut subverted state policy by failing to conform to one of Indonesia's most important development initiatives: population control. In traditional Bali, children were a family's wealth, its insurance for the future and a source of labor to help with everyday work.

But in the 1970s, with funding from international aid organizations and under pressure from state policy, Bali became the most successful province in the nation at lowering birth rates. "Family planning motivators" flooded the island, knocking on doors to encourage people to use birth control.

Maps were posted in village meeting halls indicating the "contraceptive acceptor status" of the local inhabitants and couples with more than two children were targeted for "education". Men Brayut's overwhelming fertility was declared by state planners to be no longer a blessing but a curse, a primary cause of poverty, disease and underdevelopment.

And it was not only the bureaucrats and image advertisers from Jakarta who sought to banish Men Brayut, but many Balinese as well.

Hindu intellectuals who were seeking to modernize religious theology and practice considered devotion to her to smack of superstition, hampering Hindu efforts to fit in with the official state creed of monotheism and challenging attempts to standardize and rationalize religious belief and behavior.

And the promoters of Bali's charms, who were riding a cresting wave of mass tourism and luxury hotel construction, did not care much for Men Brayut either. She was nothing like the slim young girls, dressed in colorful sarongs with flowers woven into their smooth, dark hair, who graced postcards and tourist paintings and served welcoming drinks to the foreign guests.

The "traditions" they were seeking to promote in the name of "cultural tourism" were not the daily battles and triumphs of women like Men Brayut, but the delicate moves of courtly dancers, the aesthetic expressions of artists and the colorful pageantry of communal ritual.

Men Brayut, in short, was neither "modern" enough nor "traditional" enough in the eyes of the powers that sought to shape Bali. And so she was declared dangerous. All over the island, statues of her were torn down, her shrines demolished and replaced with state-sponsored carvings of her successor: a slim, stone woman dressed in a neat sarong and kebaya, surrounded by her husband and two children, with a message painted underneath: "follow family planning -- two children are enough."

But although Men Brayut was declared dead and forgotten, in Bali, where reincarnation is an everyday event, some of her power still remains. In cases where modern medicine fails or where desire overcomes devotion to ideologies of order, control, cleanliness and cultural conservatism, people continue to seek her blessing.

In spots where her shrines used to stand, the morning sun shines on ground littered with flower petals and burned sticks of incense, traces of her continuing presence in the lives of Balinese. Men Brayut was a victim, but she is also a survivor.