Villagers and a Slender Virgin


Once upon a time … There was a slender virgin, a princess, who was wooed by a man who did not please her. She commanded him to build a great temple: if he could finish it in one night, she would accept him. The man worked in a frenzy and as morning approached, he had almost finished. In desperation, the slender virgin ordered that the drums which signalled dawn be beaten early and the suitor was confounded.

He was so furious that he turned the virgin into a stone statue of Durga, Siva’s consort, and there she stands today; the temple of Prambanan is known as ‘Loro Jonggrang’, Slender Virgin. The temple dominates the small town of Prambanan. Around its walls, is the Ramayana story, carved in relief, illustrations in stone with the immediacy of pen work.

By the gate, under wide coolie hats, crippled beggars huddle close to the ground. They chant a sad song and they endure. We were with Rormon, the tukang becak from Jogjakarta. His home is in a village close by and he had invited us to his brother’s wedding.

`Do the people of Prambanan come to the temple?’ l asked him.

`Only me’, he said, `And that is only because I am with you’.

At the cattle market of Prambanan, whips were cracking, beasts were bawling and there was a smell of fresh dung. White cattle were tethered beneath neat lines of trees. Men walked between them with the slow cattleman’s swagger and, like cattlemen everywhere, squatted on their heels to smoke and talk. But I have been a stockman too, so I borrowed a whip just to try it out. It was short, made of cane and fibre and it cracked sharply. Straight away, a man in a conical hat, black jacket and sarong swaggered slowly up to me and, while he gave me a long, hard stare, he cracked his own whip three times. I bowed my head slightly and he swaggered away.

We looked the cattle over. We watched a blacksmith beating out farm tools. Betty and Rormon sat in a warung and ordered tea; I squatted outside to draw. When I had taken out my pen and paper, all I could see was a ring of brown faces looking down at me.

Strolling musicians sang a good song for Betty. Rormon tried to look cynical. He hired small motor-bikes to take us to his village and we hurried along narrow roads passing the old temples, Sewu and Plaosan. We came into small lanes between low stone walls and we had arrived in the village of Grogol.

There were simple houses with walls of plaited bamboo, roofs of tiles, floors of mud. There were old women to greet us, taking our hands gently between their own, and Rormon’s wife, Saikem, smiling uncertainly. There were children by the dozen.

I started to draw the children almost immediately. They were shy and, though they stood before me to be drawn, when I looked at them they hid behind one another as though my eye were evil. When I had finished drawing them they hung over my shoulder and laughed and laughed. Rormon’s boy, Suradi, was certainly not shy. He postured with a cigarette. He was fourteen, too young to smoke, as I had been at fourteen, but would not believe me when I told him so. `What can you do?’ said Rormon.

Little girls gazed up at me and plaited their fingers and entwined their legs. Surani and Surati, Rormon’s tiny daughters wore identical dresses, a bright pink, which looked strange against their brown skins. A school girl in a drill uniform and selandang was pushed forward. She came to an abrupt halt and stood still. As she gained courage, she gained pride, even an air of defiance. She stood and looked at me as the cattleman had done, as though she defied me to understand and draw what was really her. And like the Javanese landscape, there were undercurrents and hidden forces; Javanese mystery with something sullen and resentful. Though she submitted to being drawn, she did not look at the finished drawing until I held it out to her; nor did she smile.

A young boy carried a baby, slung in a selandang. The older one was happy to be drawn, but the baby threw quick, frightened glances, then turned his face into his brother’s shirt. Saikem, Rormon’s wife, had gone away a little to sit alone and very still in the sunshine. She gazed straight ahead of her. Saikem was a worker in the fields and, though small, she was strong. Her soft kebaya and tightly wound sarong could not hide the muscularity of her torso and limbs.

On week-ends Rormon would ride his bicycle twenty kilometres from Jogjakarta to Desa Grogol. When once we caught him looking happy, he said: `1 am thinking of my wife’s massages’.

`My poor house’, he said, when we sat inside at the table. There were two rooms and, as well as a table and chairs, a large, cane, family bed. Rormon sent a little daughter scurrying to find his peci, the black cap worn by Muslems. He put it on solemnly. `This is Rormon, head of the family, when he goes to the mosque’, he said with a trace of self-mockery.

Meanwhile preparations for the wedding ceremony were going on. `Would you like to draw the women cooking?’ Rormon asked me. He could always pick subjects to interest me. One of the houses had been decorated with coconut fronds and banana leaves and behind this was a lean-to with a tiled roof. It was full of acrid smoke. Older women worked at clay cooking pots and black stoves. As we passed they touched us softly and smiled with both hospitality and affection.

One woman had stripped to her brassiere, which was respectable enough. When I asked may I draw her she was delighted. A lot of chaffing went on as I drew one then another. They could speak no Indonesian, Javanese was the language, so I understood nothing but tone of voice. Of course they must look at the finished drawing and they gave me thumbs-up signs. There was something sweetly coquettish about it.

Inside the decorated cottage, the young girls, young men and the old men sat around. The old men were dignified in pecis and long, checked sarongs. They sat behind the younger ones, smoked clove cigarettes deliberately and looked calmly through the smoke. There, we sat for a while and ate soft rice cake that came to us wrapped in banana leaves and we drank sweet soft drink through straws and answered polite questions of the young women.

And for a little while, we walked in the village. Betty and Rormon walked ahead while l became involved with a crowd of young boys. Suradi seemed to be their spokesman and, like his father, he was suggesting subjects. `Would you like to draw some cows?’ he said and led me to a pen which held two cows and a calf. I was pleased with the composition and, because I had Suradi taped as a cigarette cadger, I weakened and offered him one. He refused in a fairly righteous way and I wondered if this was the result of my earlier lecture.

In the distance was the holy mountain, the volcano Merapi, standing up high. Close by were green tobacco fields.

A man came along the lane carrying two great vats on either end of a shoulder pole. Rormon stopped the man, borrowed his load, borrowed his conical hat and struck a pose for me to draw. I never could make a good drawing of Rormon;  I don’t know why.

But now there was activity in the family compound. The bride and groom were coming. They came in procession with old aunts and young cousins. Two black umbrellas added pomp and protected them symbolically. The groom looked about him shyly and proudly. He was dressed up: small turban, batik sarong, a black jacket a trifle too large and a smart bow tie. He looked small and young.

The bride had been bathed and scented and dressed. Her hair was looped carefully and the hairline extended with black paint into three peaks on her forehead. There were flowers and golden ornaments in her hair. Her black coat was flower-embroidered and she wore a fine batik sarong. She gazed downwards to a point just in front of her feet. Not a slim virgin, she; already swelling with a baby. There was a tear below her eye.

They were so young and vulnerable. At the door of the decorated cottage they stopped for ritual. She washed his feet and with his feet he broke an egg. In the doorway was a double ox yoke; they stepped over it into the dim interior. They sat, side by side, and again there was ritual. He offered her rice in his fingers and she accepted it in her mouth. They must sit for some hours; children stood beside them with fans. Happily ever after? I hope so.

A meal had been prepared. We ate with Rormon, sitting under the veranda roof of his house. Saikem sat close by yet seeming far away. In the sunlight, the leaves of trees were of many different greens and on the ground were strong shadow patterns. Beyond the trees were the wide tobacco fields and far away, Merapi.

`It is beautiful here’, I said to Rormon and I meant it. He answered me bluntly: `This is not beautiful. This is just a village. And it is full of poor people’. Poor people, orang miskin. The Indonesian words have the sound of poverty.

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