“I expect Jim and Peter will think I’m dead by now,” she thought to herself, “and I hope they do. Because, in a way, I am.”
Unless it is a biography, I would usually avoid reading books that depict darkness and pain. But I could not resist turning each page of this book by Patrick Sweeting, a former humanitarian worker who has been living in Asia, including in Indonesia, for more than three decades.
Set in the 1950s, “Jaipong Dancer” tells the painful story of the ill-fated Yahyu, a young Javanese woman who migrated to Sumatra with her family in search of a better life.
Described as a woman of great beauty, Yahyu decides to follow her dream of becoming a classical Javanese dancer. At the dancing school she enrolls in, she quickly establishes herself as an outstanding performer, possessing a level of class that other dancers can hardly match.
Given her perfection — lovely face, alluring figure, admirable artistic talent — Yahyu could live a beautiful life. But fate has something else in store.
It all begins when she starts a romance with a young Dutch man from a rubber plantation she meets at a performance. Tempted by the idea that marrying a foreigner would open the door to wealth that could make her impoverished family happy, Yahyu gives in to him, crossing the boundary of the so-called good woman. But in a classic turn, she gets pregnant and the man runs off without her, leaving the poor, confused girl behind.
In many of Indonesia’s cultures, getting pregnant before marriage is shameful for one’s family. Things are no different for Yahyu. Because her baby needs a father and her family needs money, she is nearly forced to marry a rich old man who already has two wives.
Instead, Yahyu refuses the proposal and leaves her village, hoping that she can eventually find a way to pay back the money her family has spent on her dancing school. She thus sets off for a gold-rich area where one of her uncles has gone to live, thinking she may be able to find some gold herself.
Here is where the darkness begins. Shortly after beginning her journey Yahyu is raped by a cousin. Devastated, she continues on, encountering some other unpleasant things before eventually meeting a foreign man who takes her under his wing. The man brings her to the tea plantation where he lives and works. He feeds her and looks after her and she becomes well again.
The two develop feelings for each other but Yahyu knows she has something in her, quite literally, that might make him change his mind.
She decides to leave him, mainly to save his reputation among the people who work for him at the plantation. She knows that because they have been spending so much time together, people would think he was the father of her child.
The kind man doesn’t let her go so easily. He searches her out and finds her. The two get back together and commence a happy life.
But that’s not the end.
Just as she starts to think she’s found her “gold,” life deals her another harsh turn. The story takes place in the 1950s, at a time of a movement in Sumatra for independence from Jakarta. As political unrest grows, Yahyu again becomes separated from her loved ones against her wishes.
She is forced into sexual slavery at a brothel where she also has to perform as a dancer. Not the classical Javanese dance she trained in, but rather the jaipong, a popular traditional Sundanese dance often considered erotic for its movements, mainly the swinging of hips.
“Jaipong Dancer” reveals a lot about life in Indonesian societies. Things are seen through the lenses of good and bad, and right and wrong, as determined by others. The need to please others, seemingly a prevalent sentiment in Indonesia, often leads to one’s discontent and frustration.
Author Sweeting knows how to put that into words.
By Patrick Sweeting
Published by Monsoon Books, Singapore
Available in major bookstores in Indonesia