Saturday, November 8, 2008

Tales From Bali- A Death in the Village

Death in the Village by Uma Anyar

Death in Bali is like life in Bali- communal. Everyone is intertwined with family, banjar, village and God and nature.

One morning last week I came into the kitchen and heard Made talking to her husband on our phone. Even though I did not understand what she was saying in Balinese, I could tell by the tone of her voice that it wasn’t good news. When she turned her tear streaked face toward me it registered like a smack. I opened my arms and she fell into them. I stroked her tangled dirty hair and breathed in her suffering, her exhaustion. A month ago Made’ terminally ill mother–in-law had been sent home from the hospital to die. Nothing more could be done. So, Made got the caretaker’s job while her husband became very busy and unavailable. She sobs several times and then inwardly gathers her will to do the next thing. Grief has shrunken her small frame and she feels like an overwhelmed ten-year-old child in my arms.

Pity wrenches my heart. Made is a pleasant person to have around. She is polite, a competent cleaner, and speaks good English. Like most humans she has her weak points but in the spirit of Balinese customs I won’t talk about them. Somehow everyone accommodates everyone else. Today we are dealing with big stuff and all I can do is hold her and pat her hair while grief grips her.

“My husband in Ubud, I call him to come back. His mother die. My telephone no good.” The memory of her phone not having calling minutes in a time of need sends her into a second spasm of sobs.
The phone rings bluntly, disrupting our bond. It is her husband. The call is brief. “I go now. Putu alone in house”.
Putu is Made’s oldest child. The shy, twelve year old girl will become the main babysitter for the two younger children when Made’ is working or at the temple or the banjar. Grandparents are backup child rearers in many Balinese families.
The news gets around the village and everyone in the banjar knows they will be helping the family wash and purify the body (nyiramin in Balinese) this evening. Preparations for the burial are the oldest son’s responsibility. The offerings, foods, holy water and special white cloth needed for wrapping the body are women’s work.

The rest of the staff understand and take over Made’s duties without a word from me. No one talks much. A serious but not depressing mood settles over our kitchen.

Paul and I have been to many cremation ceremonies. They are colorful events that cannot be compared to a Western funeral, as they occur many years after the actual death of a family member. Cremations are expensive and time-consuming events, which sometimes deplete families’ finances. In recent times many village banjars have organized collective cremations. This saves individual families from the sole burden and cost. It is not unusual to attend a ceremony where twenty or more funeral piers in the form of bulls or lions are set on fire, their papier-mâché bellies holding the dead person’s bones which have been excavated from the burial and wrapped in cloth. The occasion is solemn but also rather festive because the family is fulfilling its responsibility and demonstrating its love in helping the deceased spirit free itself from the body. It is a religious spectacle and a public ceremony which any one, even outsiders like us, can watch as a cultural phenomena.

Some Bules have mistakenly surmised that the Balinese don’t show strong emotion. Some have gone so far as to say the Balinese don’t feel loss the way Westerners do. This is absurd. True, they do not wail like the Russians I know and they do not hire professional keeners as some Irish families do. The Hindu belief in reincarnation helps but it doesn’t obliterate the feelings of loss.

Death in Bali, like all other life passages, has a set of prescribed ritualistic steps that must be carried out. Things have to be done properly in accordance with the customs and traditions of the village and the region. Every village seems to have several ‘Pak Mangkus,’ low cast holy men and every region has higher cast and more holy ones, ‘Pedandas’. These holy men train and prepare for years to perform the sacred duties of the community. Their lives are at risk from black magic forces that will particularly test holy men because they want to assimilate their power. These forces are acknowledged and offerings are made to them. By doing this the Balinese believe they can achieve a balance between the negative and the positive in their spiritual and secular lives.

At five o’clock Kadek reminds me to put on my sarong and kebaya for the nyiramin. I consider taking my camera but something in me resists the idea. Even though I know this is an opportunity for a unique photograph I leave the Cannon in the closet. This is not a tourist spectacle. It is a real family event, or at least it as close to an extended family as I am going to get in my modern, scattered and segmented, Western style life. Paul is wearing his ceremony sarong and is walking up the hill with Wayan, Gede and Kadek. I gaze at them, as they pause to notice the ducks in the parit (small stream) and suddenly I feel so much love for them, for everyone and everything that I can hardly breathe. The emotion is so sweet my teeth ache and my heart swells. Tears well up out of nowhere. I am not sure if I am happy or sad.

A sudden gusty wind blows through the palm trees; Paul turns around and waves to me to hurry up and join them.

The compound is full of local villagers, their dogs, chickens and children milling about. The women cluster together and tend to small children. I notice a eight-year-old boy wearing a faded black tea shirt with the words ‘Fuck Terrorism’ stenciled on the back, a tell tale sign that the shirt is a hand me down from an older brother who acquired it after the first Bali bombing and wore it, like many other teenage boys, as a defiant political statement. No one is paying the slightest bit of attention to this odd choice of funeral attire, but me. I bow and put my hands together and repeat Om Swastiastu, over and over to several tired looking women who are my neighbors. They seem pleased that we are attending a local ceremony and reply in kind. A mangy dog sniffs my leg and growls menacingly. Immediately a village woman shoos him away. I look around taking in the scene, trying to be aware but not intrusive.

The men sit on one end of the dirt courtyard smoking kreteks (clove cigarettes) and the women sit on the other end near the heaps of varied hand made leafy offerings. People squeeze in wherever they can. Two boys stand against a cement wall; one of them has his arms around the other boy’s shoulders. The other boy leans into him tenderly. This would be a sign of a gay partnership in the States but in Bali it only means the boys are good friends. It is not an uncommon site. I think it is one of the reasons Gay men choose to reside in Bali, as it is a place where male gentleness is encouraged as opposed to the macho toughness of the West.

I am offered a plastic glass of water. I puncture the lid with the sharp end of the straw then suck the tumbler to the bottom. Sweat drips down the back of my neck. I swab at it with a paper napkin. Is it nerves or just the heat that is making me perspire so much? Made thanks me for coming. She sits beside me while a group of men move the deceased grandmother's body from the Bale and onto a grass mat on a bamboo pier bed. Made joins her family. Tears run down her cheeks, her husband looks scared but the others proceed with the designated task at hand.

Suddenly I am looking at a very old naked dead woman exposed to the late afternoon light and the sight of everyone in the village. A priest is pouring holy water on her gray hair; flowers are being placed on her eyes, in her ears, nose, and mouth. She is being rolled up in a silk white cloth and tied with yellow silk sashes. Then the Pak Mangku chants sacred words and rings a small bell over her head. The designated helpers turn the tiny body this way and that carefully until she is enclosed in a new grass mat. She looks like a human burrito. More twine and palm grass is twisted and tied around the body. She is ready for her last trip out of the village and into the cemetery, the Pura Dalem. Later there will be a small ceremony as she is put in the grave. Not everyone is required to attend this part of the ceremony. We are expected to witness her spiritual preparation for departure. It is only polite and respectful.

Kadek nudges me and says we can leave now. I am still in awe of the stark suppleness of a dead body. Only her right arm and hand sticking up like a rusty garden claw makes me cringe. I am impressed that the children are not shielded from the ceremony and marvel at the sight of two village boys helping wrap and carry the old woman’s leathery body along with the men. There are no professional morticians to mollify death with make up and pomades. It is not hidden in closed caskets. Death is there before you and everyone else in the village, just another stark but ordinary fact of life.

We head back to our house. Kadek and Wayan are whispering as they totter down the gravel path in their heeled sandals. I hurry to catch up to them.
“Are you all right?”
“We are afraid because the dead bring out many spirits and we have to drive through here later tonight.”

I have long ago stopped trying to talk them out of such notions. This is Bali where ghosts, layaks, and spirits fly about causing chaos and woe to us if ceremonies and attitudes are not maintained properly. There is no point telling a Balinese that there is no such thing as ghosts as some do in America, because in Bali, they do exist.
“Paul will walk up the hill with you when you leave tonight so you won’t be alone.”
“Thanks Mum.”

Where does spirit go when the body is worn out? Where is the most important aspect of us? Is there a pure consciousness that connects with everything else at some super sub-atomic level?

The Balinese Hindus believe in the Sekala and the Niskala,or the seen and unseen worlds, the physical and spirit realms. Both exist and must be balanced.

Currently there is a big stir in the physics community. Parallel worlds are being discussed openly. We can’t see them but mathematics leads rational unreligious people into other dimensions. Places we cannot even fathom with our limited minds. Parallel universes where it is possible that another version of this story I’m writing is taking place. Another version of your story is occurring even as we speak. Is the Sekala /Niskala the Balinese version of this astounding new mathematical postulate?

I like to think so.


Adrienne said...

beautiful. thank you. Adrienne

Lynne Beclu said...

Thank you Tamarra for your keen and sensitive observations of death and life in a Balinese village. What particularly stays with me is the comment about the two young Balinese boys helping to wrap and carry the old woman's body. Such an image of a way of living where everything is part of the whole.....
I am currently giving my 27 students, aged 6-7, lessons each week on Bahasa Indonesian and life in Bali....tomorrow their young lives will be enriched thanks to your story.