“Cigarette Girl” by Ratih Kumala

Cigarette Girl.jpg

The unusual title caught my attention as I was browsing in a bookshop in Bali. I picked it up. The book’s central character is a cigarette rolling, cigarette smoking girl, Dasiya or Jeng Yah, who remains an enigma right until the story reaches its climax. The tale begins when a cigarette tycoon utters her name on his deathbed to the utter amazement of his three sons and the utter disgust of his wife. Soeraja’s appeal is heeded by his sons – Tegar, Karim and Lebas – who set out on a wild goose chase to find the mystery woman, much to the anger and resentment of their poor mother.

“As if the Angel of Death was casually stopping by his room, taking a little piece of him each time it visited, and along with it pieces of his memory as well.” This is how the author describes Soeraja’s slow descent into oblivion. She says of Lebas, the youngest of the three brothers: “He had been a Bob Marley follower for eight months, until some lice decided that his dreadlocks made a nice and cosy nest.”

There is pathos and humour and suspense. But far too much about cigarette smoking and cigarette making to attract a non-smoker. Djagad Raja clove cigarettes, Lady cigarettes, Mendak medicinal cigarettes, Independence cigarettes, Proclamation cigarettes, Red Sickle cigarettes, Djojobojo klobot, and what not. Frankly, I disliked the portions where much is made of the “flavour,” “feel” and “formula” of the weed. The cost, the weight, the texture, the smell, the taste – all these were enough to drive me mad! I felt myself going up in smoke – and almost lost my grip on the story.

The family drama is interesting though – and the language simple and sweet. Rivalries, jealousies, and human struggles spanning three generations, the liberation brought by the Japanese, followed by unexpected repression, the coming of Independence, the brutal suppression of communist groups, the danger of political activity and its deep impact on the daily lives of common people – all form part of this pot-boiler. The cigarette ads are totally hilarious. Lady cigarettes: inhale just once and the lady of your dreams will appear before you. Garwo Kulo cigarettes: the cigarette for the man who loves his wife.

The tale is set in Java, Indonesia. We are reminded in rare flashes that the country once had a Hindu legacy. “But her husband had pulled her way cruelly, like Kurawa who had won Drupadi from Yudhistira in the Mahabharata.” Idroes Moeria and the scribe’s daughter, Roemaisa, Soedjagad and his desire to win the same woman, the American education of Soerja’s sons and its influence on Lebas in particular, the conformism of Tegar and the bohemian lifestyle of Lebas, Pak Djagad and his daughter Purwanti, the search for the elusive cigarette girl and the final unexpected twist to the story are all laid out in fascinating detail. How I wish it had been about some herbal product instead of cigarettes! The characters have one thing in common – they all enjoy smoking! No, I’m not joking. (And yes, I did get away before Mt. Agung erupted.)

Overall Assessment: Not bad.

Cigarette Girl
AUTHOR: Ratih Kumala
PUBLISHER: Monsoon Books
DATE OF PUBLICATION: 2017 (First published in 2012 in Bahasa Indonesia)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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