Farming, puppeteers and treating children like plants

After reading Tiger Stone, my friend Helen gave me a biography of Nyi Njatatjarita, a female dalang (puppeteer) who was born in Java in 1909. Helen saw something of Kancil’s spirit in the dalang, who had a difficult childhood but through determination and charm became a highly sought after performer.

As a child, the future dalang Nyi Njatatjarita was known as Sudiyem. She suffered from a debilitating skin condition and couldn’t walk. A sickly child did not fit into the busy performance schedule of her parents (her father was a dalang and her mother was a musician) so they left her in the care of neighbours who worked as farmers. Although this sounds, on the surface, like abandonment, the biographers point out that there is a tradition that some Javanese hold that says parents who lose three babies in a row should adopt the next born out, even if the adoption is in name only. Presumably, this is a way to protect the child from bad spirits who have it in for the parents. Sudiyem’s parents had lost seven babies in a row before Sudiyem was born.

My main creative projects right now are writing a sequel to Tiger Stone and coaxing a fruit and vegetable garden into good health in an environment better suited for growing gold. So when I opened Nyi Njatatjarita’s biography last night to do some research, my attention was diverted by this little snippet about Sudiyem’s adoptive parents:

“As farmers, they did not have the minds for educating, but they did have the minds for caring. They treated the sickly Sudiyem like a plant that was under pest attack, and thanks to their patience, Sudiyem’s health improved and she was able to walk by herself.”

Ok, it’s a little demeaning to farmers’ intellects but leaving the Javanese class system aside for a moment, it’s a sweet image. And it’s lucky for Sudiyem that she was born before the green revolution so her adoptive parents used patience rather than insecticides to fight pests.

Biography of Nyi Njatatjarita: a group report by Suratno (chair), Harijadi Tri Putranto, Sukardi Samihardjo and Sudarko (members), Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia, Surakarta, 1993

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