Translation Tuesdays: An Excerpt from Nayla by Djenar Maesa Ayu (UWRF Feature)

Nayla saw that her mother was no different than a monster.

Excerpted from the novel Nayla by award-winning Indonesian writer Djenar Maesa Ayu, this piece continues our series, A World with a Thousand Doors—a showcase of contemporary Indonesian writing. This showcase is brought to you in partnership with this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, where Djenar will be appearing as a guest. For more on the ethos behind A World with a Thousand Doors, read our preface to the series, and stay tuned for further installments.

Choosing the Perfect Safety Pin

Nayla looked closely at the safety pins neatly arranged on the table in front of her.

In the past, whenever Nayla saw these sharp objects, her body would tremble in fear. She would remain quiet for a long time until her mother eventually forced her to pick one. Her frequent hesitations led her mother to reach out and slap her hard across the face to force her to choose.

In the past, whenever Nayla saw her mother strike a match, her body would shake in terror. Her mother would take Nayla’s chosen safety pin—obviously the smallest one—and burn it long enough to rid it of bacteria. Once Mother was satisfied that the pin was sufficiently sterilized, she would plunge it into Nayla’s groin. Nayla would squirm and squeeze her thighs as tightly as she could, attempting to minimize the pain. She would cry. She would struggle against her mother’s actions, which made Mother even more furious.

Now, there was no safety pin in existence that could make Nayla tremble. Nayla would even pick the biggest and sharpest pin to defy her mother. She would sit calmly as Mother heated up the pin, and even prepare herself by spreading her legs as wide open as possible. Nayla no longer cried. She no longer struggled. Her calm demeanor infuriated Mother even more. Mother started to pierce not only her groin area but Nayla’s vagina as well. Nayla remained quiet. She no longer felt the pain in her body. The pain had moved to her heart, which was pierced with an unspeakable sorrow. Nayla was no longer afraid. Now she felt a toxic mix of raging emotions.

Even though Nayla had grown accustomed to her mother’s assaults, her mind was filled with questions about her predicament. She wondered why she still wet her bed every night despite being almost ten years old. She wondered why her mother insisted it was laziness that led to the bedwetting. She wondered what the cause of her bedwetting could be, since she tried her utmost to wake up in the middle of the night to pee. Most of all, Nayla wondered why her mother was thoughtless and heartless enough to punish her so severely, thinking it would solve the problem.

How could piercing a girl’s vagina with safety pins possibly stop her from wetting her bed at night? Even if Mother’s explanation was right, and she was too lazy to wake up to pee, why would any girl continue to wet her bed knowing she would have her vagina pierced in the morning?

Aside from her vagina, Nayla’s heart too was pierced with deep pain. Nayla saw that her mother was no different than a monster. All she wanted was for Mother to be like the mothers she saw waiting at the school gate or in the doctor’s waiting room. She wanted her mother to be a normal mother, one who gasped in shock and horror upon seeing their child fall down and scrape their knee, red with blood. Instead what Nayla got was quite the opposite, a mother who caused shock and horror as she pierced Nayla’s vagina with holes, red with blood.

Nayla longed for a mother. Just not hers. If she had to choose, Nayla would rather do without a mother than have one who forced her to choose the perfect safety pin.

Choosing Mother Over Father 

You’ll never know, my dearest daughter, how much your father hurt me. First of all, while you were still in my womb, he denied being your father, which was hurtful for us both. Secondly, he abandoned us all of a sudden, without bothering to think about your care. And after the divorce, he did nothing to provide for you. Who then, was the one who looked after you right from the beginning, without any help at all? Who was the one who raised you single-handedly without support? I provided for you financially. I gave you a roof over your head. I bought clothes for you to wear and food to nourish you. I made a promise to myself that I was going to succeed and prove to your father that I didn’t need him.

You owe me, my girl. You owe nothing to your father. So why can’t you be more sensitive to my feelings? It’s almost as though you don’t know what I’ve suffered so I can look after you properly.

Do you think I want to treat you badly? If I’m harsh with you, it’s because I need you to grow up. This world is a tough place to be in and you need to develop into a strong woman to survive it. I’m doing it for your own good, so that you don’t become a lazy, useless, spoilt brat who doesn’t understand the value of hard work.

Tell me where I went wrong, girl? I sent you to an expensive, prestigious school. To get there, all you had to do every day was sit your ass down on a soft leather seat, in an air-conditioned car. You never had to miss a single day thanks to your very own driver, paid for by me.

And what about food? You never had to worry about that either. All you had to do was open that mouth of yours and delicious nourishment came pouring down your throat. What else could you possibly ask for? I anticipated your every need and provided for them all. So how come you continue to be so lazy that you can’t even wake up in the middle of the night to pee?

It seems that nothing I do for you is right. Faithfully providing for you ended up turning you into a lazy bum. But if I were to neglect you, then what good would all the money be that I earn from my hard work?

I really don’t know what to do anymore, girl. You act like you don’t care, when I’m trying to teach you a lesson. This punishment is supposed to cause you to reflect, but instead of feeling repentant, you act tough. This is your mother you’re being stubborn to. The only one in this whole world that you can rely on. Why are you acting like your father, trying to hurt me instead? And why did you inherit so many of his useless character traits, instead of adopting the attitudes and values that I taught you?

Understand this: if I didn’t care about what happened to you, then I wouldn’t bother to correct your laziness. Then you could be as pampered as you choose. You could be a kept woman, letting men look after you instead of standing on your own two feet. But I don’t want that for you. I want your entire being—your soul, your mind, your body, to attain a higher form of intelligence. Only then can you conquer men.

Use me as your example. I don’t need a man. Look how many men fall to their knees begging to be with me. Look how many of them offer up their everything because they want me. That’s what you need to be as well. A strong, smart woman who doesn’t allow herself to be used and thrown away by men like your father.

I haven’t even mentioned your average looks, my dearest daughter. You’re not as beautiful as me. I pity you. How unfair life is, that you had to inherit his ugliness. So if you insist on following your father’s bad habits as well, coupled with his looks, what hope do you possibly have? You’ll be an ugly, mean, stupid, lazy woman!

Believe me when I say this, my girl, there isn’t a mother on earth who hates her child. I had to punish you because I was becoming desperate. I’m certain God understands my actions and forgives me because He sees my intentions. Everything I’ve done has been for your benefit, including banning you from ever meeting your father. I’m sure God is on my side and will prevent you from ever hating me. I have faith that one day you’ll realize just how much I’ve done for you and how much I love you. At the same time, you’ll see just how little your father loved you, if at all. When you come to these realizations, you’ll finally be grateful that you had me as your sole parent all these years, instead of that man who callously abandoned you. 

Going to the Center for Juvenile Delinquents and Drug Rehabilitation

Nayla awoke to a cacophony of frightful sounds she had never heard before. In the wee hours of the morning, she and the other girls were awakened by loud slamming sounds. It didn’t take long to realize it was the Rehabilitation Center’s counselors who were causing the ruckus, banging on the barrack doors. But instead of knocking with their fists, they were kicking the doors wide open.

Nayla followed along as she observed the other girls spring up and tidy their beds in synchrony like robots. She followed along as the girls got in line and headed towards the bathroom, washing themselves in preparation for prayer, then heading back to their rooms to pray.

As the days went on, Nayla got used to the routines. She started to get used to the place as well. Her initial disorientation gave way to keen observation of her surroundings and its occupants.

The Rehabilitation Center consisted of several barracks, each one housing twelve rooms, six on either side. Every room contained two bunk beds and could accommodate up to four girls at a time. The unspoken rule was that a newcomer had to sleep on a top bunk, while the old-timers or those who’d been to the Center before got the privilege of skipping the climb and sleeping below.

Separate rooms housed at the front of each barrack were designated specially for the counselors. The counselors also had their own bathroom, located at the back of the barrack. Opposite this was the girls’ bathroom. It was a communal one, consisting of five shower areas and five squatting toilets. There were no partitions at all, allowing girls to watch one another while taking baths, shitting and peeing, and washing their clothes. Nayla discovered that as private spaces vanished, so too did people’s inhibitions—some girls would make love to one another while they showered.

The communal dining room was close to where the counselors’ quarters were. There was a steel gate between the dining area and the girls’ rooms that was locked and chained whenever the girls slept, which was twice a day, at night and in the afternoon. Furthermore, the doors to the girls’ rooms were locked from the outside during these times.

The girls weren’t allowed to speak to one another once inside their rooms. They also weren’t allowed to engage in any activity other than those sanctioned by the Center. They couldn’t interact with the outside world. No paper was allowed. No writing instruments of any kind. Television and radio were prohibited. No magazines either.

The Center also didn’t provide any utensils at meals. The girls had to eat with their hands, even when soup and gravy were served. There was no life within the Rehabilitation Center; all that mattered was that the girls obeyed the rules.

Nayla was no exception. Over time, she submitted to the house rules without question. When the girls washed their clothes, she followed along and did the same. When the schedule called for it, Nayla cleaned the barracks along with everyone else.

Once, while Nayla was on all fours scrubbing the floor of the barrack, the two women in uniform who had brought Nayla to the Center appeared. One of them sneered: “Everyone! Look at Nayla moving her body! She’s dancing on the floor!”

The cruel joke punctured the boredom that permeated the early morning cleaning routine, causing all the girls in the barrack to burst into wild laughter. The girls, along with the counselors, had grown resentful of Nayla’s indifference and sullen ways. Everyone took Nayla’s silence as a sign of arrogance.

Despite the embarrassing situation, Nayla kept quiet and carried on scrubbing the floor. For the first time in her life, Nayla was being shamed publicly, in front of strangers. For the umpteenth time, Nayla was forced to submit to an unfair situation that life had presented to her. And once more, Nayla became aware of the extraordinary pain she had to endure, from which there was no escape.

Translated from by Sebastian Partogi

Djenar Maesa Ayu is the author of seven short-story collections and the novel Nayla. Her first collection, They Say I’m A Monkey (Mereka Bilang, Saya Monyet!) was a contender for the Khatulistiwa Literary Award in 2003 and adapted into a film directed by the author in 2008. In addition to being a writer, Djenar is an actress, screenwriter, and filmmaker. Her film hUSh, a collaboration with Singaporean filmmaker Kan Lume, was nominated for Best Asian Feature Film at the Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival 2016.   

Djenar will be appearing at this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. Asymptote readers can save 20% on the 4-Day Pass by entering the code MPAS at the online checkout.

Sebastian Partogi has been working as a journalist for The Jakarta Post since January 2013, covering tourism, arts and culture, socio-economic empowerment, medical issues as well as foreign affairs. He also works as a copywriter for the same publication, writing advertisements for the newspaper’s clients. His translations of literary works include Ratih Kumala’s The Postal Order (edited by Soe Tjen Marching) and Djenar Maesa Ayu’s Nayla (edited by Kan Lumé). Both novels are forthcoming from Gramedia Pustaka Utama.

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