A play Nyai Ontosoroh, Synopsis and the context of the story

Nyai Ontosoroh
The story of the struggles of Sanikem alias Nyai Ontosoroh

It was a time when the Dutchmen ruled, with their companies, with their government and with their White Laws.

Whites and natives did not mix, did not integrate. It was just here and there you a found a few Natives allowed into Dutch schools.

There was one group of people in 1898, however, ever, that was close to the Dutch and to Europe, Ironically they were a group most oppressed and humiliated in society. These were the women called the “Nyai”, the concubines of Dutch men. They knew the Dutch household intimately; they spoke and discussed all kinds of things with their “men”: their business, their friends, sometimes aspects of modern science and knowledge and the modern world itself. .

The struggles of Sanikem alias Nyai Ontosoroh

Sanikem. A young girl of 14 was sold by her own father as a concubine to a Dutch man. The story of Nyai Ontosoroh is the story of the struggles of Sanikem, How did a young girl from village Java confront so intimately European civilization in the time of the Dutch East Indies? And how did she overcome her humiliation at the hands of her own father and of her society?

Sanikem alias Nyai Ontosoroh is the story of how a woman, a victim, metamorphoses into a survivor, indeed more than as survivor the mentor for an educated, young man, a native who people called Minke.

The story of Nyai Ontosoroh was first told by Pramoedya Ananta Toer in the prison camp on Buru Island. He told the story to try to raise the spirits of the prisoners who were becoming demoralized after a wave of killings and torture. What is it in this story that could raise the spirits of these prisoners, away in exile on Buru Island?

Character building

A young woman from Java, uneducated and ignorant, faces the great ogre of European civilization. The bitter experiences of the girl Sanikem drives her stand straight and tall and come to possess strength of character using the knowledge she takes from her enemy to grow and develop. From this we learn what drives character building, a lesson that gave spirit to the prisoners on Buru, and a lesson of great value to us here today as well.

This is also the story of the family politics in the household of Nyai Ontosoroh and her struggle inside that family. She faces her man, Herman Mellema, her daughter the rose of Surabaya Annelies, and the son full of bitter resentment at all Natives, Robert. Into this family arrives a new, “adopted son”, the young Javanese native that people called “Minke”. A rare Native student at an elite Dutch high school, he is conquered by the mother and captivated by the daughter. This struggle within this family teaches us much about the hypocrisy of Western civilization, as well as about the strength that flows from holding firm to principles.

Sanikem faced a struggle against colonial power not only inside the family. She had to face the system itself and the real power of the Dutch colonial rulers. A Nyai depended on the protection from “her man”. What was to happen if that man left her? Or died? Or was killed? What would be the fate of a Nyai and her family? Would her familiarity and close ties with European civilization help her? Would all that she had learned about explaining the values she had absorbed from European civilization, and learned better than those wielding colonial power, be enough to enable her to defend herself?

In the end, this woman Sanikem, who had been turned into a concubine, a Nyai, had to stand before her Dutch masters, judges of the European Court, to defend her rights as a mother, It was from the mouth of this nyai that words of great truth were to come forth.

The story of Sanikem alias Nyai Ontosoroh, the concubine running a big dairy business in Surabaya, who lived in a dark and imposing house as if it were the house of a powerful witch, is a story of resistance.

She resists her fate as a young girl sold as a concubine; she resists the hypocricy and injustice inside her own family; she resists the injustices of the colonial system itself. For Nyai to resist injustice is itself a principle, separate from whether one will triumph or be defeated. To resist injustice is itself an honorable thing, if carried out honorably.

It was this that she taught also to her “adopted son”, Minke, the young man in love with Annelies. Minke, like Nyai, had become intimate with European civilization. He was a Native at a school for the children of the Dutch elite. But he was not a purchased slave like Nayi Ontosoroh. He was from a family with an elite Javanese background. Even so he had started to question the traditions of Java. He too was now challenged to resist colonial power and, indeed, his ties to traditional culture, his own background.

Minke must learn how to use two new sources of power: his pen, and the power of his own people. He writes in Dutch but also in the language of his own people in order ot defend his family. His own people are the “Melayu” – the Malay people – and it is they who lend their solidarity, led by a fighter from Madura, called Darsam,

Is such a story relevant to us here today? Is the issue of character building still an issue for us living through the period of reformasi? Do we still face a foreign power, bringing both hypocrisy as well as world of new ideas? Is there still such a thing as colonial power? For women today, are there still things to be learned from the example of the struggle of Sanikem, alias Nyai Ontosoroh?

It was out of this arena of struggle against oppression, – oppression at the personal and family level as well as in the form of unjust laws and wielding of state power – that developed a character building process that in turn produced the soul for the country born and given the name: Indonesia.

(Faiza Mardzoeki,Malabar, 14 Mei 06)