My name is Shakuntala.
My father and my sister call me a whore because I've slept with a number of men and a number of women (even though I’ve never asked them to pay). My sister and my father don’t respect me. I don't respect them.
For me to live is to dance and dancing begins with the body. God gives breath on the fortieth day after a speck of flesh was formed by the union of egg and sperm, so the spirit is indebted to the body.
My body dances. Because dancing is an endless exploration through my skin and my bones, with which I feel pain, hurt, chill, pleasure, and, one day, death.
My body dances. It submits not to lust but rather to passion. Passion that is sublime, libidinal. Labyrinthine.
My name is Shakuntala.
What is the difference between dreams and reality?
It was 1979. My father sent me off to a strange new city. It was a vast place, like a jungle, so when I set off for school my mother always gave me two bread rolls. One to eat. The other to tear into little pieces so I could leave a trail of bread to follow on my way home. I learnt a lot from Hansel and Gretel. They had evil father too.
The school I had been exiled to was housed in a very peculiar building surrounded by a river so deep that ancient fish inhabited its depth. Nobody knew how many of them there were; they had been there for hundreds of year and nobody ever seen a dead fish floating on the water. The fins of these fish gave off phosphorescent glow as they swam in the dark crevasses and gullies of the river. But when they reached the surface of the water, their fins would get caught on the algae, sluggish and black with age, rather like a forelock of hair. They rarely surfaced and when they did it was only for a second or two, leaving a fleeting impression of ripples and shadow. Green water. Green moss.
The gates of the school could be raised and lowered with an iron chain that was greasy with oil. When it was lowered the steelspiked wooden palings formed a bridge. When all the pupils were lined up ready to go in the principal would rotate the lever until the gate shut with a loud boom that made your hair stand on end. Any student trying to escape would fall into the river, and those ancient creatures would devour him with more relish than an eel eating a fat, fresh, warm turd.
I used to weep because I wanted to go back to my quiet little town. But there was no way I could escape. It was impossible.
And so I danced.
My body danced. It twirled and writhed like a flower bud cut by children from its stem and then set on a course in a stream. I saw them following me everywhere I went: children following their dancing flower bud from the dikes. When I had finished they would clap their hands.
“Hey new kids, where are you from?”
“I’m descended from the nymph.”
They laughed so hard it knocked me off my feet.
I am descended from the nymphs. I lived in a women’s compound where all the children danced. All around the compound were hills inhabited by giants: the ogre with a protruding jaw, the ogre with flaming hair, the green ogre, the eggplant-nose ogre, the carrot-nose ogre, the radish-nose ogre. Ferocious ogres. Buto-buto galak, solahmu lunjak-lunjak. They were both the enemies and the butt of jokes by the knights, who dismissed them scornfully as weird, insignificant fugitives. But I fell in love with one of them.
Because the ogres would be killed as vermin if they set foot inside the compound, which was behind the knight’s quarters, I used to meet him secretly under the kepuh tree. We wound about each other like a royal serpent nagagini making love to a common snake. But the gardener caught us and told my father. He gave orders for the knight to capture my lover and I was exiled to this town. Here he would tie me to my bed at night and drill me in the first rules of love. These were his lessons: First. It is the prerogative solely of the male to approach the woman. A woman who chases a man is a whore. Second. A woman shall give her body only to the right man, who shall support her for the rest of her life. That’s what is known as marriage. Later, when I had grown up a little, I decided that marriage was nothing more than a hypocritical prostitution.
In this alien city, every day at sunset my father would give the orders for me to be tied to my bed. Because I was descended from the nymphs. But what he didn’t know was that each night I would learn to enjoy the pain. In the morning I would take pleasure in stretching my limbs when the chain were taken off. During the day I did my lessons at school. Mathematics, science, social science, the state ideology Pancasila, and handicrafts.
The other students sneered at me and one by one began avoiding me. Only one girl would listen to what I had to say. I never knew if she believed what I said or just liked my stories. But she stood by me. Her name was Laila. She’s been my friend ever since.
When I was nine I was not a virgin. People didn’t consider a girl who didn’t yet have breasts to be a virgin. But there was something I was keeping secret from my parents:
When they got wind of the fact that I was secretly meeting an ogre, my mother revealed a big secret: that I was actually made of porcelain. Statues, plates and cups made from porcelain come in hues of blues, light green, even brown. But they mustn’t be allowed to crack, because if they do they will be thrown on the rubbish dump or used as tombstone ornaments. My mother said I would never crack as long as I kept my virginity. I was taken aback: how could I preserve something I didn’t yet have? She told me that there were three openings between my legs. Don’t ever touch the middle one, she said, because that’s where it’s kept. Later I was disappointed to discover that I wasn’t special. All girls are the same. They might only be teapots, bowls, plates or soup spoons, but they were all made of porcelain. And as for boys? They were ivory: and all ivory cracks. When I grew up I found out that they’re also made of flesh.
When my parents discover that I was going out with an ogre from the forest, the gave me their second piece of advise. Virginity is a woman’s gift to her husband. And virginity is like a nose: once you lose it, it can’t be replaced. So you must never give it away before you get married, because then you will be damage goods. But the day before I was sent to this foreign place I made a decision. I would give my virginity to my lover the ogre.
On that last night, under a purplish moon, I crept out to the pavilion and tore it out with teaspoon. It looked like a red spider’s web. I put it in a wooden Jepara box and gave it to the dog. He was in fact a courier between me and the ogre.
I have become increasingly skeptical of the notion that most ogres originated from India; rather they boarded ships from Europe seeking spices in the East Indies. They had matted hair and sunripened skin because from the West the sun baked their bodies on
the decks. And the salty air. This infidel ogres were accompanied by their priests, who were also infidels and ogres, and in the islands of Java and Bali they met brown maidens dancing naked in the river. Girls and older women bathing and washing. In fact
slim brown men also bathed naked in the rivers, but the eyes only beheld what was chosen not by the eyes.
I could not possibly know what was in the minds of the ogres if I had not acquainted myself with one of them, who ventured deeper into the interior and spied on me dancing without a thread on my breast in a ditch by the hills. But I knew what was lurking, and because of that I sat down on a rock. Then he emerged from the clump of leaves and confronted me in amazement because I did not gather a cloth to cover my breasts.
“Who are you?” he said.
“People here bathed twice a day,” I replied.
Then he sucked the tip of my breast, unendingly, and told me his story. It was the first time he had sailed so far east. So far that he did not believe he could return to the West, even as the seas made you believe that the earth is round. In his country people thought that those in the East lived according to strange customs. Their men attached decorations to their penises, on the surface or within the skin. Their women, without shame, aroused the desire of their men and also of strangers, since they indulged in sex without any sense of taboo. Then he handed me a journal:
IN THE LAND WHERE OUR LORD IS NOT YET KNOWN THE RACES WORSHIP THE LEWD. THEY CREATED MANY CONCOCTIONS FROM ROOTS IN A CAULDRON PURELY FOR CONTEMPTIBLE PLEASURE, ERECTING STATUES OF BODILY UNION. AVERT YOUR GAZE IF YOU BEHOLD THEIR WOMEN BECAUSE THEY POSSESS POWERS OF MAGIC. THEIR MEN ARE FORCED TO MUTILATE THEIR GENITALS WITH TERRIFYING OBJECTS—BEADS FROM BONES AS WELL AS THE FURS OF ANIMALS—TO FULFIL THE THIRST OF THEIR WITCHES FOR INCUBUS. BECAUSE THERE IS NOT A SINGLE BEING IN THIS WORLD WHO POSSESS A PENIS AS LARGE AS THE DEVIL’S. THE GIRLS BARE THEIR BREASTS WITHOUT SHAME, SUSPENDED LIKE TWO PAPAYAS, A FRUIT THAT I WILL BRING BACK TO EUROPE FOR ALL OF YOU. THE SKIN OF THAT FRUIT IS SOUR. BUT IS FLESH IS SWEET. SEEDS LIKE NIPPLES. (V D C, SERVANT OF OUR LORD WHO JOURNEYS, 1632)
I doubled up with laughter.
“Why?” he asked. “Didn’t you possess me with your nakedness? And your breast are like chocolate milk.”
Then he removed his trousers. Then I knew that the sun had baked his waist, chest and arms. And I told my story:
In my country people speak of your land and our land, your people and our people. We are the noble people of the East. You, the depraved of the West. Your women wear bikinis in the streets and have no regard for virginity. Your school children, boys and girls, live together out of wedlock. In my country sex belongs to adults through marriage even if they were married at the age of eleven and regarded as already mature. In your country people have sex on television. We do not have sex on television. We have the decent foundation of the great East. Your customs of the West are not noble.
Then I handed him a copy of the newspaper that I had used to wrap my panties. It reported on the opinions of bureaucrats about the danger of Western culture through films and consumer products. And also tourists on Kuta beach. Kompas, 1995.
He looked bewildered. “Where are we?”
I said, “Aren’t we in the 20th century?”
He was still puzzled. “This is a very strange place. How could I possibly be in two eras at the same time?”
I said, “Time is a curious thing. How can it separate us from the us in the past?”
And East-West is surely a strange concept, since we were discussing decency while stark naked.
(translated by Pam Allen)
My name is Shakuntala.
Often I feel that there are two persons in me, a woman and a man who share a name that they’ve never chosen.
I don’t recall when was the first time that I knew I’m a girl, exactly as we don’t recall anymore when was the first time we remember things. I suppose my father and my mother told me continuously—you are a girl—ever since I didn’t talk. How was I to argue when I didn’t talk?
But the man-in-me appeared one day. Nobody told me and neither did he introduce himself, but I knew he was the man-in-me. He turned up when I was still very young. I was dancing like a top. I twirled like the dancing dervish until my skirt ballooned like a bellflower and my genital a clitoria ternatea. Acceleration elevated my body so I rested on the tips of my toes. Light as a seed of mahogany. Then I flew and felt something fall off: him. The man in me, the man of me. He loved me. He kissed me on my forehead and he didn’t go away.
I had a brother. He was the first
child of my father and my mother. My parents believed that men tend to be rational and women tend to be emotional. That explained why men lead and women love. Men build and women maintain. Men make children and women give birth to them. My father taught my
brother to use his brain to control the world and the body. I was never forced to do the same exercises because he was sure that I was not made for such things. ‘Women were created from ribs. Therefore they tend to bend so that men should straighten
them back.’ (Letter XIV, 1266)
This was my father’s first lesson. He quoted: women’s urine stinks much more than men’s urine. (NS, 1987). Do compare their toilets. But their shits smell the same. Therefore, son, the ogres can scent the smell from the distance. Like sharks they can detect the smell of a virgin like the way they recognize the direction of a piece of flesh.
This was my father’s second lesson to his first son. He asked the boy to climb a palm tree. My brother was not yet nine. Father took him before a coconut tree that he had planted when he was young. Now the tree was fifteen meters high. ‘A man’s place, son,’ he said, ‘is on the top.’ He pointed his fingers towards the bunch of coconuts. ‘Before a soldier becomes a commander, he should become a guard in the tower. Now, my knight, take this coconut tree as your tower where you will protect your sisters from the ogres who sniff from the distance.’
My brother cried because the tree was so tall. ‘Let the girls take care of themselves!’ he shouted. The wind dropped a coconut leave, causing it to fall off and slam onto his head. His cry intensified because he believed it was a sign that if he climbed up he would surely fall down and die. And he would then turn into a ghost who has only a head that looks like a coconut. My father raised a rattan stick and hit the boy’s behind, leaving marks of red lines. ‘Crying is for girls. Yours is courage!’
‘I don’t want to turn into a ghost!’ he cried.
‘Ghosts don’t exist. But ogres exist.’
His crying had not stopped when my father tied his hands around the tree on his back. He threatened the boy that he would let him stand there until darkness brought about the ogres and the giants who eat the moon. Since the moon won’t appear tonight those creatures would gnaw at a child’s flesh or suck on his soft brain. The gnomes would sing as they were approaching you. The ogre with a protruding jaw, the ogre with flaming hair, the green ogre, the eggplant-nose ogre. Ferocious ogres. Buto-buto galak, solahmu lunjak-lunjak.
My brother trembled. My father softened his voice. ‘If you yell to yourself, son, continuously, “stop crying, stop crying, stop crying….” then you’ll stop crying. If you yell to your self, “be brave, be brave, be brave…” then you’ll get your courage.’
My brother obeyed. He recited the courage even though tears were still dropping from his eyes. Father unfastened his hands and he started to climb up. I heard his voice, ‘be brave, be brave, be brave…’ until he got very high and I hardly could see him. Until he was covered by the swinging coconut leaves. He didn’t move anymore and I was so scared that he might have disappeared or that he was actually continuing climbing an invisible bean tree up to the sky. Now and then the wind made the leaves sway.
After some time my father asked him to climb down. I saw him descended slowly. But I heard his mantra had changed. ‘Doesn’t hurt, doesn’t hurt, doesn’t hurt…’ On the land I saw a gecko was biting his ring finger. It was bleeding. But he had stopped crying.
We believed that a gecko will keep biting until thunder blasts. Because this was not yet rainy season, father took the son to the kitchen that smelled of ash. He put the boy’s trembling fingers on a wooden tray. He struck with the knife. It hit three millimeters from his fingertip, cutting the reptile in two. No one screamed. Father smiled, full of satisfaction, because my brother had stopped crying. (Maybe he stopped crying for the rest of his life.)
Since that moment he believed that the mind prevails over the body. Will power overcomes the body.
When he reached adolescence he formed a new habit. At least twice a day he would exercise his erection. He would go to the bedroom, or to the bathroom, stand or lie down, and recite this: ‘stand up, stand up, stand up…’ And he got his erection. In the beginning he did it with the assistance of his hand. But he knew that was not good enough while he was supposed to be a knight. In the second year he was able to command his penis only with words. The next exercise was to control the duration of the erection. There were three classes of duration: short, medium and long. He learned to master all classes. The advanced exercise was a series of weight lifting. He hanged a weight on his penis and added weight from day to day. His achievement was to lift our gate bolt. I knew it because I liked to peep through the keyhole or the ventilation. He continued the practice until he grew up and his bodyhair darken and thick.
One day, I could stand no more, I came to him and said, ‘You’re really great! You can become a gigolo.’
‘How can you know?’
‘I know it because I like to peep on you.’
He was not angry. But maybe he also became a gay.
What is the difference between
illusions and reality?
My mother was also called Shakuntala. She danced too, maybe before the sultans, or maybe in her solitude. She was maybe a nymph who forgot things.
It was 1977. My brother was now eighteen. He was handsome, courageous and a lot of women fell in love with him. He bought himself a one million rupiah Suzuki GT 380, several pairs of Levis—eighty thousands rupiah each, two pairs of Clarks—twenty two thousands rupiah each. I was sure that he got the money from the women whom he slept with. I never envied him even though no one ever gave me presents for sleeping with me.
In accordance with his upbringing my brother did everything to the limit. After he finished high school he decided to travel around Java with his new motorbike. And of course he died. The motorbike crashed into a military truck in front of a military complex in Serang. His body was sent in a sealed coffin with a note suggested we not open it. And a piece of an autopsy report. His motorbike had slipped underneath the truck and he had forgotten to fasten his helmet. That was how my brother died according to their report. But they didn’t send back his motorbike. And maybe he had not paid attention to the twinkling lamp of the military complex.
My mother was crying a day and a night. She had opened the coffin. The day after she stopped crying and said, ‘He didn’t die.’
‘How come, Mother, he’s been buried.’
‘He’s not dead.’
‘Mother, you’ve opened the coffin, haven’t you?’
‘He’s not dead.’
Finally I couldn’t stand my mother anymore. I told her, ‘Mother, there are some facts. First, he’s dead. Second, in fact I’m also a boy. Third, God doesn’t exist.’ Enthusiastically I mentioned the second fact.
My mother was stunned for a while, and then laughed. ‘He’s not dead. God exists. And you are a girl, dear. And you are pretty.’ Her smile is full as a moon.
I gave up. All right, mother. I won’t argue with you any more if that’ll make you happy.
What is proof for? All parents believe that their children are beautiful and that makes them happy. But it is my mother who lives in her illusions, not me. Because I know for sure that there is a man in me, and it doesn’t make me happier either.
My brother had died. My mother didn’t want to believe it.
Neither would she believe that I am also a boy.
I didn’t want to share this secret with my father.
So I danced like a top one late afternoon when my father was not yet home. The sun was already down in the west and the shadow turned me into an adult in the east. I swirled alone, hoping that he would split from me so that mother could meet him. The man in me. The man of me. My shadow guided me. If I could still see it as a dark line it meant that I had to spin faster. And, look, my speed blurred the shadow and made it look like a dusting of ash. But the man in me didn’t turn up. Like a decelerated top I lost balance and fell down onto the gravel. He still did not appear when the wind was gone. I was disappointed. It was the first time that the man in me hurt me.
As time went by I knew that there’s no way to convince my mother. Every time I told her: Mom, I’m also a boy, she didn’t even ask for a proof. She didn’t want to take it, and it made her happy. She didn’t want to believe me and neither would I be sure that if she believed me that would make me happy.
(Translated by Ayu Utami, with editing by Kirk Coningham)