Marah Rusli's celebrated tale of the ill-fated Sitti Nurbaya is now in English.
Sitti Nurbaya: A Love Unrealized
Author: Marah Rusli
Published by: The Lontar Foundation
Translated by: George A. Fowler
The fictional character of Sitti Nurbaya is still, to this day, a household name in Indonesia, and one that is synonymous to a woman in an arranged marriage. The novel has been made the theme of popular songs and adapted into plays, not to mention an extremely well-received television soap opera in the 1990s. When someone says, "So and so's marriage was arranged by their parents," you'll often hear the retort in Indonesian: "How Sitti Nurbaya (Sitti Nurbaya banget)!" It's no wonder. Marah Rusli's novel was among the first to be published by the Balai Pustaka—a publishing house that was meant, among other things, to promote the High-Malay as the archipelago's official language—and to this date, it is perhaps still Balai Pustaka's best-known novel.
Set in Padang, West Sumatra, a little before and during the tax rebellion, the novel tells the story of the ill-fated Sitti Nurbaya, a beautiful young girl forced to marry the scheming and grotesque elderly merchant, Datuk Meringgih. Her marriage is not quite 'arranged' in the proper sense—which makes you wonder if that many people have read the novel at all; Nurbaya, in a heroic attempt, agrees to marry Datuk Meringgi in order to save her father from poverty and imprisonment. Her childhood friend and lover, Samsulbahri, fails to save Nurbaya from Datuk Meringgih's clutches, and winds up taking an unexpectedly tragic turn.
The premise of the novel may sound like a cliche, but consider the cultural implications in the time it was written. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the elite of Padang were juggling three distinct influences: the adat (customary law), conservative Islam, and the Dutch. Both Sitti Nurbaya and Samsulbahri, in the opening scene, are dressed in western attire. Samsulbahri, Marah Rusli wrote, "might even be mistaken as a Dutchman." They are Dutch-educated (both attend Dutch secondary schools). On the other hand, they are subject to their own customs. There is an admiration for European culture and advances everywhere, yet at the same time it is often marked with suspicion and loathing (the Dutch are often referred to as the 'infidels'). The novel largely feels like a discourse on this cultural quandary, which makes it a thoroughly interesting read.
Sitti Nurbaya is not without its weaknesses. The heroine, although described by Samsulbahri's father as a quick-witted character, rarely demonstrates this quality, except for a few memorable instances when she shoos away an indecent boat crew, in Dutch, and when she recites beautiful pantun impromptu. Nurbaya's character feels somewhat flat at first—she is pretty and kind, but what else?—and one can't help but wonder why she has trouble understanding a simple mathematical problem and needs Samsulbahri to explain it. She, like Samsulbahri, do become a lot more interesting toward the end, and to be fair, when the novel begins, she is only 15. The female characters of the novel are somewhat stereotypical: Fatimah the simpleminded, nagging wife of Nurbaya's uncle, for example, and Putri Rubiah, the conniving and jealous sister of Sutan Mahmud. An interesting exception is Alimah, Nurbaya's cousin, who demands that her husband divorce her after he takes a second wife, and vows to remain unmarried and 'free as a bird.' I admit I was hoping to see more of Alimah.
It is the men, for the most part, who take on the observer's role. The dialogs between the men, although often pedantic, are perceptive, and often funny. Alimah's father, Ahmad, in mocking his wife who finds it shameful for a man to only have one wife, says to his daughter, "Aren't you ashamed, Alimah, that your father isn't popular with other women?" Ahmad is clearly intrigued by the western idea of love and marital partnership, something that apparently was far from fashionable in Padang then. The exchange between the mysterious Lieutenant Mas and the Dutch officer, Jan, at the end is also revealing. Marah Rusli proves to be an apt devil's advocate, and it is a good sign that we aren't often sure where the author stood exactly when it came to gender roles. Did Marah Rusli really think women were intellectually inferior and weaker beings? Or was he actually arguing against this opinion? Did women have a place outside of the home?
Apart from the witty dialog there are truly memorable moments, which set this novel apart as a wonderful piece of literature and a classic. The author's ingenious description of Datuk Meringgi, for one, is a clear display of Marah Rusli's talent as a storyteller (the image of the hunchbacked old man obsessively jingling his money box to hear the music it makes is positively one that sticks). This sort of spot-on, well-visualized moment, although not exactly rare, is perhaps the kind of writing that we'd like to see more of in Sitti Nurbaya—although keep in mind when reading Sitti Nurbaya we are actually witnessing the modern Indonesian novel form in its childhood (Marah Rusli was named the first Indonesian modern novelist by well-known, late author, H.B. Jassin). On the other hand, the book's somewhat jagged quality, being simultaneously profound and oddly simplistic, gives it a peculiar, timeless feel, not unlike a fairytale or a folk tale that has been passed on from generation to generation. And the fact that the novel has successfully penetrated today's popular culture shows us that Sitti Nurbaya is still, perhaps lamentably so, a relevant portrait of our society.
No. 36/12, May 02, 2012