If he chooses the former, his version would be just like five earlier versions of the story. If he opts for the latter, he will be deviating from the standard plot that has prevailed for the last 250 years.
""I'm confused now. Should I kill Dasima or let her live at the end of the story,"" said Rusdi, now busy preparing for the performance of Nyai Dasima as a musical drama with the very metropolitan title Madam Dasima.
Dozens of EKI dancers and actors, including H. Sujiwo Tejo, Rudi Wowor and Rusdi Rukmarata, will appear in the performance, which will also be highlighted by the presence of famous singers and TV stars like Vicky Burki, Indra Savera and Maharani.
Madame Dasima, rehearsals for which have to date been going on for over a month, will be performed on June 27 and 28 at Graha Bhakti Budaya in the Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) arts center in Jakarta.
For the Betawi people -- the indigenous residents of Jakarta -- Nyai Dasima is a very popular play. A folklore expert at the University of Indonesia, Dr. James Dananjaya, said that this legend, which is about Nyai Dasima as the mistress of a Dutch gentleman, was often performed during the Japanese occupation, which one performance lasting the entire night. Recently, as pop culture sweeps across the country, the play has often appeared on television in condensed form as a lenong performance or a film.
Also, state radio station RRI Jakarta uses the characters of Dasima (appearing in the radio program as Mpok Dasime) and Samiun (as Bang Samiun), as well as the sound made by his two-wheeled buggy, in a program in which the two chat about all things topical in the capital.
Two versions of Nyai Dasima were written during Dutch colonial times. One was written by G. Frances (1896) in Batavia Malay and was set in the year 1800. The second version was written in Dutch by A. Th. Manusama (1926).
Other versions of the legend were written by SM Ardan (1965) in the Betawi language, Chitra Dewi (1970) as a film script and Ali Shahab (1995) as a TV serial.
Generally, these five versions end with the death of Nyai Dasima.
Squeezed in Life
One of Indonesia's prominent feminists, Julia Suryakusuma, is anxious to see Rusdi's version of Nyai Dasima. In the meantime, she gave her opinion that Dasima should be allowed to live in this new version.
Any reason for wanting Dasima to live? After two failed marriages to two husbands from two different cultures and with different values, the Dasima of the reform era and the postmodernist age will not opt for suicide. ""She will leave her house to study at the university, graduate as a nuclear physicist who will later gain recognition in her field without having to depend on a man.""
""As for Nancy, Dasima's daughter from her marriage with a Dutch husband, she may turn out to be a TV star, or a star for a soap commercial in which a Eurasian face is generally a favorite,"" she said in a discussion on Nyai Dasima at TIM. Also speaking were Firman Ihsan, a photographer, painter and lecturer at the Jakarta Institute of Arts, and James Dananjaya, a professor of anthropology at the University of Indonesia.
Julia was not joking. As a feminist, she was defending Dasima in the present context, in addition to making up for her disappointment over the five earlier versions of Nyai Dasima.
According to Julia, in the two versions of Nyai Dasima written by male authors of the colonial elite, women are victimized to produce a story illustrating colonial relations. The stress is on race, not religion, in defining group identity.
The other three versions were written by indigenous writers: SM Ardan and Ali Shahab, both men, and Citra Dewi, a woman author. They depict the nyai (mistress) as a woman who, despite being victimized, continues to maintain control over her life. ""Because the play is a melodrama, the female figure must die tragically. This, however, happens among the indigenous and any relationship with a Caucasian or a non-Indonesian will be rejected,"" said Julia, who is married to actor Ami Prijono.
A nyai (as a character in the play), she said, is the manifestation of a more extreme figure of a woman in a relationship that favors men. This relationship has, since the earliest of times, been in favor of men even if the men and the women are from the same race. The mistress wishes for a better future, but as circumstances do not allow this to happen she is led to her tragic death.
In all versions, an Indonesian woman who agrees to be the mistress of a Caucasian, she said, is depicted as someone with a noble mind. She is calm, faithful and passive. She is invariably suffering and victimized. She has become an ideal type (a prototype) which emerges repeatedly in a literary tradition beginning with the stories from the Ramayana.
From the viewpoint of a feminist, Julia sees this ideal type repeated in stories about the Javanese palace. It also finds expression in Dharma Wanita and the Family Welfare Movement (PKK), which applied it as the idealization of obedience and dependence. This graceful passivity can be contrasted with Srikandi, a shadow puppet figure, and fighter Cut Nyak Dien.
""At present, the manifestation of the figure of Nyai Dasima can be seen in the practice of contract-based marriage, a symbol of an Indonesia being squeezed between the forces of globalization and Western values and neoconservative Muslims in their attempt to maintain an indigenous identity,"" said Julia, the daughter of a diplomat who spent her childhood and much of her adult years abroad.
Another speaker at the discussion, Firman Ichsan, said as a legend Nyai Dasima is a fiction dwelling on a long journey in search of self-identity. Dasima is the personification of the gray area itself in the sense that this figure represents the search for self-identity, not only as a grand narrative but also as a private person.
Nyai Dasima, as complicated love story, and later fictions in the same vein like Salah Asuhan (Wrong Upbringing), he added, always end with the death of one of the characters. This used to be our characteristic way of finding a solution to the Western-Eastern cultural conflict, he said, adding that this conflict never left room for compromise. ""Or in other words, when you encounter foreign elements, you must take this option (death).""
Obviously, this solution calls for questioning at a time when the nation is undergoing drastic changes, including the process of democratization and globalization, a situation shared by other nations. A solution like this cannot simply be accepted, especially in light of the spirit of emancipation that RA Kartini, a pioneer in the struggle for women emancipation in Indonesia, fought for throughout her life, a spirit now finding momentum.
Aware of all this, Rusdi Rukmarata, a Buddhist priest, appears to be taking care to use a contemporary approach with Madame Dasima. Rusdi, for example, organized the discussion involving Julia, Firman and James Dananjaya to help him find a solution to the problem of whether to ""kill"" Nyai Dasima or ""let her live"".