Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Bali Echo Magazine, January 1996)


Made Wijaya arrived in Bali more than twenty years ago – in those days he was called Michael White, and probably had as little idea of his fate as those around him. Unlike many expatriates, he immersed himself in the local community and culture, reinventing himself in the process. His insights brought about a collaboration with the Bali Post staff and from 1979 until 100 his columns appeared regularly. The Complete Stranger in Paradise has just been launched, here Made offers us one of his favorite pieces from the collection.  

Everyone is humbled by the awe and spectacle of a Balinese royal cremation―the towering floats, black velvet bull sarcophagus’ and casts of thousands. For me death in Bali is not so much spectacle but miracle: the composure of the bereaved as they go about the myriad chores that company even minor rites in Bali, the willingness of local community to stay up all night with the immediate family playing dominoes, “to ward off bad thoughts”, they verve and dignity with which the body is washed, blessed, hoisted through the village in riotous musical “IN MEMORIAM” and then confined to ashes.

During the seven years I lived with a Brahman family in the rural hinterland of South Bali I developed various theories about death in Bali:

*Suppression of grief breeds a lack of compassion (the Balinese have fatalistic bedside manner, and carry grudges to the grave).
*Re-incarnation is a Balinese birthright (!): often death seems like forfeiting one’s chips and starting with a fresh hand.
*Its better to be wiped out by a speeding lorry that be really uncool and look in your Honda’s rear vision mirror.

In Bali, the Brahman caste (descended from Hindu-Javanese priests, themselves descended from Indian pilgrims), have important roles during cremation rites and in general are society’s custodians and purveyors of the quasi-glib rationale related to death: “Ya can’t take it with you” sort of thing. My Brahman’s “brothers” would tease me, as I have sentimental soul! It was years before death touched my immediate circle:

• • •

“Dewa dies today at tengai tepet: Balinese high noon, when – the sun now rising in the north east – the road to the heavens is deemed “most clear”.
Since he fell into coma three days ago, he had been “just waiting to be called”, as his brother put it. He worked for me for the last year and a half and, as the younger brother of the wife of my landlord, the good Mr. Nik, was very much a part of day-to-day life here in Kepaon. He was the sort of person Somerset Maugham describes as “thoroughly good”. Always beaming goodwill, never losing his temper or even showing he had one, he was a shining product of the rural dream machine which is Bali. Sigh!
I remember the day at Sanglah Hospital when he suffered the enormous humiliation of being put in a wheelchair and pushed through the atmosphere of peak hour “Out Patients”, and the pathetic look of reprieve after each blood transfusion, only to have to endure the infinite torture of watching his fingertips grow whiter by the day.

I was convinced that his marrow had stopped producing red blood cells and his family was convinced that he had been hexed by the old hag who sells eggs in the market. “I’m bored of living”, he said bravely toward the end, in an attempt to save his friends and family more trouble.
It is the first time someone close has “gone out” on me, and I felt sure that my Balinese facade would crumble at the body-washing. The family asked me to be the photographer, stipulating colour film.
I had stayed away from the death-bed, scared that my “Ben Casey” up-bringing would prompt me to drag Dewa to the Red Cross for another extension. His many cousins had kept a constant vigil, reporting back on various hot or cold flushes which might signify his start on the final journey.
In the packed funeral courtyard I fought back tears as the angklung started, and do so again now as I write. “How unfair it seems”. But to the Balinese there is only duty: “If you share the good times you must share the bad”. The body was washed in petalled water, Dewa’s hair was combed beautifully as one brother ran his hand through the crumpled beard, and another scraped his fingernails.
Dewa’s father sat chewing beetle nut and entertaining friends as the family fought to wash the corpse and wrap it for the last time in Balinese ceremonial dress: a yellow sash rather than white, as a sign of his ‘single’ status.

Dewa’s girlfriend from Denpasar arrived giggling (she hardly knew him) with a gaggle of friends” embarrassed at the futility of her role and at the squalour of the house. Silly girls dressed for the movies.
A grandmother gasped to see the hemorrhage scars on Dewa’s stomach. “Sucked by demons”, she murmured, as the priest stuck a ruby ring in the corpse’s mouth.
A beautiful joli pyre was fashioned overnight out of the coloured paper and bamboo, the whole village turning out to accompany the riotous funeral procession as it racketed down the hill to the village cemetery.
That afternoon, as all lay exhausted on the cemetery grass, a young man absent-mindedly tapped out a gamelan phrase on his brother’s discarded coffin.

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