Girl from the Coast
By Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Published by Hyperion
August 2002; 0-786-86820-1; 208 pages
She was only fourteen at the time, a wisp of a thing. Her profile, the line of her nose, was nothing extraordinary, but she was attractive, nonetheless, with honey-colored skin and slightly slanted eyes. In her fishing village outside the regency seat of Rembang on the north coast of Java, she was the flower of the town.
The girl's life, her soul, was each day filled by the sound of the waves and the sight of the small fishing boats that set off at dawn and returned in the late-afternoon or early-evening hours to the river's estuary. There the boats set anchor, unloaded their catch, and waited until the next morning when buyers would come from the city for the day's auction.
She had left the nineteenth century behind and entered the twentieth. She was leaving childhood behind. Even so, the coastal wind that whistled through the tops of the casuarinas trees that fronted the shoreline did little to hasten her growth; and despite the passing of days, she remained a person of slight stature, the wisp of a thing she had always been, the girl with the bright and gleaming eyes. But unaware to her --- enveloped as she was by the unceasing sound of the waves, the whistling of the wind, and the coming and going of fishing boats --- there was a man who had taken note of her and informed his employer in the city of this village girl's beauty. One day, the man returned to the village and paid a visit to the home of the girl's parents. No more than a few days later, the girl learned she had to leave her hearth and home behind. She had to say good-bye to country ways, to her hometown and its salt-sea smell. She had to put out of her mind the nets she repaired each week, the tattered sail that hung in her mother's kitchen, and even the odors of her native home.
She was taken to the city, where her body was wrapped in lengths of batik cloth and her torso cloaked in finely embroidered kebaya she had never before dreamed of owning. A gold necklace encircled her neck, its thin strand pulled downward toward the cleft of her small breast by a golden, heart-shaped locket.
The day before, she had been married, in proxy manner, with a dagger representing her husband-to-be. At that moment, she had become aware that she was her father's daughter no longer, that she was not her mother's baby anymore. She was now the wife of a keris, a dagger standing in for a man she had never seen.
The bridal procession consisted of just two carriages carrying, besides the girl and her parents, two uncles, several relatives, and the village chief. Their provisions were equally spare: a few lengths of cloth, homemade cakes, and food the sea had provided since time eternal - seaweed and several kinds of fish.
As the convoy made its way from the fishing village toward Rembang, the girl's mother found herself constantly having to repair her daughter's makeup. Time and again she checked her daughter's face, only to find that the powder on her cheeks was scored by tracks of tears.
"You mustn't cry," she scolded her daughter. "You're now the wife of an important man."
The girl didn't understand. Neither did she know what lay ahead. All she knew was that she had just lost her entire world. Why couldn't she live where she wanted to, she asked herself with fear and apprehension, among the people she cared for and loved, in her seaside world of pounding waves?
"Don't cry," her mother repeated. "Starting today you'll be living in a big house, not in a ramshackle hut like ours. When you have to relieve yourself, you won't have to do it on the shore. And you won't be mending sails or nets, either. In the city, you'll be sewing and silken thread. So please, don't cry anymore."
She was only fourteen years old, and the thought of objecting to having to relieve herself on the beach had never crossed her mind - except when there was a full moon, that is, which drew the snakes from their lairs to the moonlit sand. She was afraid of snakes.
"Stop your crying, child!" the girl's mother demanded. "You're the wife of a rich man now."
But the girl could not stanch her sobs, and finally, she began to wail. She had never ever thought of herself as being poor.
The sight of the shoreline that paralleled the road, dotted with clumps of seaweed and knots of scraggly brush, where sea lizards skittered across the sand and crabs warmed themselves in the sun, scarcely held her attention. She was hardly conscious of the rhythmic clopping of horses' hooves on the roadway, but when the carriage suddenly stopped, she raised her head momentarily.
She watched as her father stepped down from the lead carriage and walked back to the one in which she was seated.
"Are you going to shut up or not?" he asked.
Like a frightened snail, the girl's small body shrank further still. Her father was a fisher and a seaman, a hardworking man who did not put up with whining. She knew well the slap of his rough hand, but the hurt she was now feeling was different. Why did she have to suffer such pain? She buried her face in her mother's lap.
"Let her be," she heard her mother say. A short while later, she felt the carriage begin to roll again.
"Your father is right," her mother said to her. "There is no parent in the world who would willingly throw his child into the lion's den. You know that, don't you? All your father wants is for you to have a happy life. Look at me. Old as I am, I have never in all my life owned a piece of batik as fine as the one you're wearing."
"Then take it," the girl pleaded.
"Just look at the things you're wearing: that batik and kebaya, that necklace, those pretty earrings, and that gold dragon-head bracelet. Your father and I have had to work ourselves to the bones so that you could have such things . . . " Now it was the girl's mother who could not speak. She swallowed, trying to keep the tremor from her voice. "Oh my, I never dreamed my little girl would have such things." Suddenly, the tears she had been trying to hold back burst forth.
"Oh Mama, don't you cry too," the girl uttered amid her own tears.
Her mother turned her head away from her daughter to stare out the carriage window at the sea that had sustained her through her mounting years. She could not tell her daughter that she was crying from the joy of seeing her escape life in the fishing village, of knowing that she would be a woman of high standing who would not have to toil or sweat or run about collecting the sunracks of drying fish whenever it started to rain.
"Starting today. . ." she began to say but then found herself unable to continue this stream of thought and changed tack: "You're lucky to be the wife of a pious man. They say he's made the pilgrimage to Mecca twice already, so there's no telling how many times he's read the entire Koran. When a woman marries bad, life is going to be all the worse for her," she stressed. "But when she marries good, then it's good for her, too. What do you have to complain about him?"
"Him?" Who was this man she had been married to? The girl asked herself. She closed her eyes but could not picture him. Was he a better man than Tumpon, her brother who had been lost at sea in a storm? Was he a better man than Kantang, another brother who, when diving to free a net that had snagged on a coral reef, never surfaced again, and whose only visible remains were a liquid billow of red, and even that, the sea had sucked back in after a shark had torn his stomach in two? Would this man who was her husband give his life for his family as Kantang had?
"He's an important man," her mother continued, "religious advisor to the government, a powerful man the Regent relies on for advice. Even the Dutch Resident is said to visit his house. At least that's what everyone says."
Entering the city, the carriages turned onto a street lined with Chinese shops. The sights that day were similar to the ones she had seen two years ago when she and the other villagers had traveled en masse to the city to attend a night fair. She recalled the stuffed alligator that hung above the door to a shoe store. And the ceramics factory with its many samples of tiles with multicolored flowers. And all the big buildings of the city, with white columns so high and so huge she could not even put her arms around them.Copyright © 2002 Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Reprinted with permission.
In feudal Java, where both privilege and poverty lived side-by-side, women were little more than chattel. Pramoedyas The Girl From the Coast tells the story of a beautiful young woman from a fishing village who finds herself in an arranged marriage with a wealthy aristocrat. Forced to leave her parents and home behind, she moves to the city to become the "lady" of her husbands house. After she becomes pregnant, she learns that she is merely a "practice wife" who will not simply be discarded but will be separated from the child she carries. Pramoedyas breathtaking literary skill is evident in every word of this book, one of his classic works of fiction made especially poignant because it is based on the life of his own grandmother.(back to top)
Pramoedya Ananta Toer is a major figure in world literature and is constantly mentioned as a top contender for the Nobel Prize. His four-part epic, "The Buru Quartet," was named after the infamous island in the Moluccas Sea where he served 14 years in prison for his opposition to the coup that brought former president Suharto to power in 1966. Pramoedya's 30 novels have been translated into 24 languages. Yet in Indonesia, his books have been banned for more than three decades. He has been profiled in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and other major publications; and, is the recipient of numerous literary prizes, including the PEN Freedom-to-Write Award and a Hellman-Hammett Award. He lives in Jakarta.