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Most of Oka Rusmini’s prose works explore the constraints into which the socioreligious practices of caste place all members of society, but most especially women. Both of her novels tell of a woman’s abandonment of her brahmin caste status as the result of her marriage to a sudra. The title of the poetry book, Patiwangi, refers to the ritual practice by which this degradation is confirmed, and the poem which gives the book its title bears the footnote: ‘Patiwangi: pati = death; wangi = fragrant. Patiwangi is a ritual that is performed on a noble women in her Village Temple to remove her noble status as a consequence of having married a man of a lower caste. The ritual often has a serious psychological impact on noble women’ (107). In both novels, and many short stories and poems, their loss of status brings enormous scorn and hardship to the major woman characters. Nevertheless, as we shall see, stepping outside patriarchally-dominated caste ties may also provide an ambiguous freedom for any woman who is positioned to take advantage of the opportunities which the modern, potentially secular, nation state of Indonesia, offers her.
In this paper, I am interested in the way in which the short story, ‘Cenana’ (Sagra, 270-318), uses a traditional myth to deal various cross-caste transgressions in contemporary Balinese society. The story draws on one of the foundation myths of medieval Javanese history, the story of Ken Angrok, founder of the dynasty of Singhasari, East Java, in 1222 AD, and his consort, Ken Dedes, the wife of Ken Angrok’s predecessor. To my knowledge, although the myth has been the subject of a number of modern literary works, Oka Rusmini’s is the only account by a Balinese woman. Through its focus on the transgressions committed by strong female characters of all caste backgrounds, and dissolute male characters, Oka Rusmini’s narrative in ‘Cenana’ allows for a revision of conceptions of feminine agency in a society based on respect for high caste men and marriage to them.
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