Curiosity #91: Negotiating Mother’s Milk

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

“I could break you,” Pak Heli said, rising from his chair and pointing a finger at the man at the foot of the far table, quiet as a fish. The room lacked motion, apart from the groom’s uncles who stroked the old man’s thighs (to calm the man down, although such a breach of personal space would incentivize any Western man I know to bite a hand off). The groom’s family watched Pak Heli’s body pulse in fury. Despite the fact that he, as the advocate for the bride’s family bloodline, was outnumbered 20 to 1, his authority thundered into the senses of the bulky men and their mothers who crowded the living room.

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(Above: The start of the meeting, before tensions rose. Pak Heli sits in front of the red stripe on the wall.)

The bridal price was to be decided that day, or blood from both clans would be left to curdle, potentially splash, until an agreement was won.  

In the Eastern Indonesian region of Nusa Tenggara Timur, bridal price or “belis” remains a focal point of identity. The bridal price secures the departure of the bride, spiritually and physically, from her birth family. Her husband’s ancestors become her ancestors; his family becomes her burden. For such a transition, the bride’s family demands a price.

Depending on the man’s ethnic lineage, “payment” varies. In Ende, central Flores, the demand can be a fleet of horses. In Sumba, a water buffalo. In East Flores and Lembata, brides’ families demand ivory tusks, multiple for women who are highly-educated.

What happens if there are no horses or elephants left in this region of Indonesia, and the region’s economy already rubs the mass-majority of faces in poverty? Do old requirements still stand?

Tough: there’s no disappointing the ancestors in a place where departed spirits package the prayers of the living; and ancestors, like most old folks, tend to like the same old thing.

Now younger generations work to negotiate bridal prices to align with existing resources (ex. families discuss ivory as a symbol, while the fruit of the exchange comes in the form of a pig or sheep, or even cash). This works in response to global demands to educate children rather than thrust them into debt. In most urban parts of NTT, locals trust that ancestors—sympathetic to their own blood—will warm up to the times. Hell, the youth still have to get married, and there’s enough trouble already with younger generations pumping out babies out of wedlock.

But some bridal reps refuse to budge from dated demands. The island of Adonara is famous for its exacting requests; women from Adonara commonly ask for 3 tusks of ivory, with negotiations only flexible regarding time-until-delivery. A woman’s bridal price might be fulfilled 30 years after vows are stated. So much for saving for post-retirement by the pool. 

Pak Heli, back in the living room in Adonara, identified proudly among the intractable reps. “This isn’t the price of an item we’re negotiating in a market,” Pak Heli stated. “This is our mother’s milk.”

The “mother’s milk” in his family, of the Kedang region (Eastern region of the island of Lembata), demanded a gong. A gong, a simple metal ritual instrument, might require a year of the groom’s savings. But Pak Heli wasn’t satisfied with his own milk; he wanted the groom’s, passed down among the Atodai people of West Lembata.

Ivory. To acquire a meter of ivory (which must be imported from outside Indonesia), pocket-fishing could reach $10,000 deep, which—we’re talking Indonesian salaries, here—would shove the groom’s entire family of drivers and laborers into decades of I-owe-yous.

The first response had come from the groom’s youngest uncle, guardian of the “traditional house” who spearheaded the negotiations before the wedding. “Where were you before the wedding?” he had asked Pak Heli after initial demands were made. “If you intended to make demands outside your own tradition, we should have known about it before the vows.”

First mistake: Never directly challenge an elder, especially during deliberations perceived as sacred.

Second mistake: Never argue from an emotional state, especially if the family we aim to represent hasn’t had the chance to regroup.

The manifestation of these two mistakes by the groom’s youngest uncle sent Pak Heli flying, and not in a charming way.

Pak Heli’s skeletal face, his cheeks that caved in like eye-hollows, captured shadow as he pointed his chin at the uncle who false-spoke.

The anger, rolled and powdered, was almost impressive with the poetry it unleashed.

“I have been trusted for decades because I have CHARISMA! It has been passed down for generations from fathers to fathers. You, listen! I am not a young dud, like you! I am not drunk, like you! I am smart and you are stupid! I am an old man, wise! I’m generous and give with class, unlike you who only think of yourself!”

The groom’s other uncles, who sat on either side of Pak Heli, continued to pet the old man’s limbs. “I have the charisma, I say!” he barked. “I could ruin you!”

The groom’s grandmother, a sharp woman with a lazy eye, sat with her sons and leaned also towards Pak Heli. She mumbled apologies under Pak Heli’s tirade, saying “my youngest son was drunk when he spoke. He should have talked with the family first, our apologies.” She repeated this like a mantra. 

The bride, too, sat there, facing the representative of her bloodline while surrounded by her husband’s family, voiceless.

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(Above: The bride (in white) rising from her chair after sitting silently for hours to the discussion of her “worth”)

“Don’t you dare think you’re greater than other people!” Pak Heli barked,  still glaring at the groom’s youngest uncle. “I have been trusted by the people of Kedang to officiate bridal negotiations all over Nusa Tenggara Timur! Kupang, Manggarai, East Flores, Timor, you name it! I’ve seen it all, and never have I been so humiliated as I am today!”

He slapped a hand on the table. The whole house reverberated.

“Words are sharper than a blade,” he said.

Those of us listening were silent. The women in the room slipped out and reappeared with coffee and siri pinang (areca nut functioning as a sedative).

At last the groom’s youngest uncle placed his head in his hands and wept. Pak Heli’s jaw cracked down on an areca nut. “The wound has been made,” Pak Heli said. “Jesus could place a hand on a wound and recovery would happen in an instant. I’m not Jesus; I’m hurt, and I’m embarrassed. I leave tonight.”

At this point, the afternoon had carried us into the evening, and the number of people listening grew less and less as family members catered to reception guests who danced and fed on pork beneath the front-yard tent.

If we left the discussion at this point of tension, the future might look downright unsafe for the newly-minted couple, who had already borne a child. Everyone waited for a miracle, and for Pak Heli to suffer a change of heart.

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(One of the uncles steps outside the living room to breathe)

The groom’s distant relative, Pak Bol, a public education monitor in Lembata and a man closer to Pak Heli’s age, seized the opportunity for diversion. “This lady here is interested in our culture,” he said, nodding his head in my direction and smiling. She must think this is all pretty interesting, eh?”

I swallowed. For the first time, Pak Heli looked directly at me. It was like watching a T-Rex turn its head.

“Do you have this kind of talk where you’re from?” Pak Bol egged on. Without an explicit cue I knew it was my turn to play along.

“It’s different,” I put in, trying to find the right words. “Traditionally in many parts of Europe and the United States it’s the woman’s family who pays a dowry, but times have changed.” I hesitated, but no one interrupted. “Both women and men have freedom to work and demand equal wages, so dowry is less important than investment in the future: towards educating children and self-sustainability in retirement.”

Pak Heli spat. “Women pay the men, ha!” He looked to the men around him as if, for the first time, they were all in on something. “Future!” His teeth clacked again on a nut, and I saw that the sedative had turned his dentures red. “Well we’re the opposite,” said Pak Heli, narrowing in. “While the West thinks about the future, we survive on our past.”

The groom’s father came to the rescue. Dinnertime had come and I was invited to bathe and enjoy the rest of the wedding reception, which already neared its end.

When I came back from a late meal and line dancing, I found Pak Heli on the living room floor, fast asleep next to one of the uncles. The younger man’s bear snores shook the room. Ivory or no ivory, they slept like empty pots. The groom’s grandmother came up behind me and ushered me to sleep.

“I’m glad he stayed,” I told the grandmother, looking over my shoulder and nodding towards Pak Heli.

“It will all be well” she said, letting her good eye settle on her temperamental guest. We have 100 days to deliver the ivory, and if we don’t…If we don’t, the negotiations will continue next year, when we can hope for more input and better favor. Although the hurt might always be there.”

I wondered how much wounded pride could be slept off, and—if it managed to contaminate “mother’s milk”—that milk could be spoiled for good.

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(Above: the newlyweds after the church ceremony. Their four-year-old daughter is in pink.)

2 thoughts on “Curiosity #91: Negotiating Mother’s Milk

  1. One of your best-told stories, Ms. Julie! The tight structure around the wedding negotiation allowed you to create a wonderful cast of characters. The setting itself was a great window into understanding the culture of this island community. Loved descriptions like ‘turning his head like a T-Rex’ to capture the high emotion in the room. Let me know if they need to start a new tradition by having aging, Yiddish wedding singer rev up the reception!! (I also do Indonesian bar mitzvahs.)
    Looking forward to reading the next chapter about your next island adventure.
    Love, Dad

  2. What a fascinating, and sad, story, Julie. Sad for the groom’s family, sad for the beautiful young couple and their child, and sad for endangered elephants everywhere. I can only hope this tradition continues to evolve. Beautifully told.

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