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

Radio Australia


I grew up with Radio Australia. When I was little, my family tuned in to hear the news from ‘home’ on the radio in our lounge room in Lae, Papua New Guinea.

Back in Australia, as a teenager I did work experience in the Indonesian section of Radio Australia at its headquarters in the Melbourne suburb of Burwood. That’s me at the desk in the photo. I can’t remember the name of the gentleman with me but I remember him being very patient and speaking Indonesian really slowly for my benefit.

I spent most of my work experience week timing B sides of singles (it was the 80s – the world was analogue). One record I had to time was a Monty Python single. The A side was ‘I like Chinese’ and somebody had scrawled across the label “banned in Indonesia – don’t play”.

As an adult, I discovered Radio Australia’s ‘Asia Pacific’ program rebroadcast in Australia on ABC’s Radio National. It moved around the grid from late at night to pre-dawn and I chased it, as I know many loyal listeners did, hungry for news from the Pacific – so close and yet seemingly invisible to most media outlets in Australia.

The advent of the podcast made everything simpler – in the morning I would download the previous evening’s episode and listen on my way to work. It made me smile to hear Sen Lam wish me ‘salam sejahtera’ as my train hurtled through the box ironbark forest of country Victoria.

‘Asia Pacific’ was cancelled about a month ago. I still have the last episode on my phone, unplayed. I can’t bring myself to hear the end.

And then, the first mention of my novel, Tiger Stone, in the media was on Radio Australia websites: on the Indonesian language page of Australia Plus in August and then in an English language article last week on the Radio Australia website itself.

I hope that doesn’t complete the Radio Australia circle for me. I hope that Radio Australia recovers from its funding woes. One day soon I’ll be ready to search for a replacement for ‘Asia Pacific’. I hope I find it on RA.