Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, January 2004 )


The people of South Bali are in a state of shock. Their beloved liege lord, the ‘King of Denpasar,’ Cokorda Pemecutan, now wallows in prison charged with the brutal murder of his step-brother.
I received the news in Sydney via an ‘SMS’ from a Balinese friend. The unfortunate victim was “skewered on a Samurai sword”, my friend reported. (The Balinese are never shy when it comes to descriptive language).
Apparently there had been a family meeting about a courtyard wall at the sprawling Pemecutan palace in Denpasar. During this meeting the Cokorda’s son had become engaged in a squabble with his uncle. The Cokorda, reacting to defend his son, joined the melée and was pushed, by his body-builder half-brother, into one of those grotto-like fish ponds found, sadly, in most Balinese palaces. The large man,  humiliated and enraged, and almost ‘satayed’ on a cement crane, sprang from the pond and grabbed the nearest long sharp object (tragically all too easy in the Pemecutan palace) and drove it through his step-brother. He then surrendered himself to the police.

Since 1980 this column has run many stories on Cokorda Pemecutan or ‘Ngurah Manik’ as he is affectionately known to his some 15,000 relatives across South Bali. My adoptive Balinese mother was a cousin of Ngurah Manik and I was presented at court as a Balinese-speaking novelty item during the cremation rites of our village prince’s second wife in 1976. I was terrified - his charisma is awesome - but managed to grovel respectably; South Bali is also still very feudal. I have repeated this act often over the years, at various ceremonies, to the delight of the court, and grown to love Ngurah Manik.
Known for his babe-magnetism, the Cokorda was also famous for his devotion to his family and his people. I can’t remember an important cremation or temple festival which Ngurah Manik did not attend. His arrival always prompted a swell of pride in the collective heart of the family or the corps of temple priests.
The Pemecutan family’s deified ancestors are the village gods of most of South Bali’s temples and are worshipped daily. Allegiance to one prince or another is almost mandatory.
Nearly all the palaces of South Bali’s Badung Regency -  which includes Seminyak, Sanur (Jero Singgi) and Suwung, Kepaon - are pecahan (breakaways) of the Royal House of Pemecutan (est. 1712); Bali’s most machismo.
I have often used Ngurah Manik as a shining example of a Malay prince when confronted with the grovelling, glitter and glitz of some of the archipelago’s other sultans. Only the anniversary rites for the coronation of the Susuhunan of Solo, Paku Buwono XI (See November’s column), can rival the Pemecutan family temple anniversary, called Ngedasa,
on the tenth full moon at the Pura Penambangan Agung temple near the Pemecutan palace (see ‘Stranger in Paradise’, 22 April, 1979).
Ngurah Manik was, for years, also head of Bali’s ruling Golkar party during the Soeharto Era, head of Bali’s radio intelligence (ORARI), and, most recently, a gubernatorial candidate.
His fall from grace changes the face of feudalism in South Bali.
Now read on ……………

14 November 2003, Sheep station, ‘Wollogorang’, near Golbourn, New South Wales,  A private screening of the latest Bali film.  
Two films on the Bali bomb have emerged from the twelve month joint production between Padi Productions of Jakarta and Taman Sari Productions of Canberra and Ubud. In Australia I catch Taman Sari Productions’ effort, ‘The Healing of Bali’, which was aired on SBS Television on the eve of the first anniversary of the Kuta Bomb. (The other film, ‘Bali Cry’, will be reviewed in next month’s column).

Directed by John Darling, of ‘Lempad of Bali’ fame, ‘The Healing of Bali’ follows a slice of South Bali life during the post bomb period.
The film starts with shots of pedanda high priests at a beauty-filled placating ceremony in Kuta, three months after the bomb, and moves, shockingly, flashback style, into harrowing documentary footage of the night of the bomb.  The bomb sequence is movingly narrated by local (Kuta) village elder Haji Agus Bambang Priyanto in whose arms 25 people died that terror filled night. Priyanto, a Kuta Muslim, is the son of Pranoto, the Javanese proprietor of Kuta’s first ever Juice Bar and surfie salon. The film then introduces various experts - local hero police General Made Mangku Pastika, Dr. Denny ‘Feel Good’ Thong of  Bali’s Psychiatric hospital, John Forsyth of Bali’s Mobile Eye Hospital among them - to explain Bali’s reaction to the bomb. These interviews with experts, plus the bomb footage, serve as a quasi-narrated prologue for the films main topic, which is a moving expose of the extraordinary grief management of the Balinese community, as portrayed through the stories of a handful of widows and survivors

The star of this main segment is Sydney-born Nathalie Grezl Joniadi whose Balinese husband, Made Joniadi, died at the Sari Club that night (Nathalie’s father has been military attaché at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta for some years). We see a pregnant Nathalie as she calmly relates the story of her post-bomb life. We see her, first, with the Balian
paranormals (some incredible footage), and next with her Balinese family as it cauterises the gaping wound left by the bomb, through ritualistic activity. The testimony of all the other widows pales in comparison to that of this brave young woman whose mettle has been tempered by immersion in the Balinese way of life and death.

Her story of finding her husband’s legless body, as predicted by the paranormal, five days after the blast, is the too real Bali moment around which the whole film is draped. I say draped because the film, with its message of healing, and of continuity, is essentially a montage of documentary moments. It presents a strong message but I was left wanting more; more about the notion of Bali as a ‘soft target’; more about the imbalance in the skala (visible) and the niskala (invisible) worlds often alluded to by Darling in conversation during the filming and by the very priests running the rituals in the film. The ugliness and in-fighting that swirled around post-bomb Kuta, for example, is alluded to only in footage of the charity gala and with fashion models sporting third degree burns scar make-up.  Intentionally missing from the film are interviews with local rabble-rousers, heroes and pundits of all origins: Darling has obviously chosen to represent the period through a medley of vignettes and a theme of healing.  Even the footage of the Denpasar trial, held six months after the bomb, with Amrozi, the hated bomber, listening to witness Priyanto’s tearful testimony, is offered with a message of tolerance, and not revenge.             
Interviews with Mangku Darma of Kepaon, an unusual but poignant choice, from the village home of the five taxi drivers who died in the bomb and offshoots of various Kepaon village banjar, enforce the viewers’ perception (despite some creative translating) that Bali’s healing powers are mighty. Bali is working its magic.      
The film is a tribute to Bali’s healing powers rather than the story of Bali during those extraordinary 12 months. I’m sure that, amongst the 178 hours of documentary footage which hit the editing room floor, there are the makings of the film that I’m waiting for; the real story of Bali in the post-bomb era!
As the film’s essential message unfolds through subtitles, it must be noted that the translation are sometimes off mark (‘SBS’s fault’, says co-producer Sara Darling), which grates in a film of this style and in a country where so much gets lost in the translation.             
The film’s contemporary rhythm sometimes comes across as hurried; some bits seem to have been ‘patched in’ to complete the message.
It is an excellent film, nonetheless, with loads of Darling’s signature poetic touch. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house after the screening; not many documentary film makers can do that. “It is the only film that we’ve seen that shows the Indonesian side of the story”, one Sydney-based pundit explained. That would be the ultimate accolade for Ketut John Darling of Ubud.

15 November 2003, On board a GARUDA plane bound for Bali.  
Almost on cue, as if to address the lack of ugliness in John Darling’s film, I find a fascinating editorial entitled ‘Bali’ by editor Emma Woodhouse in our beloved sister journal ‘Jakarta Kini’.
Ms. Woodhouse writes, “Like so many, all of my teenage rites of passage were realised in Sari Club, through to University when Paddy’s opened.”
“One night a girl, who had too much jungle juice, was sick in the sink” she continues “but the toilet paper had run out so she asked if anybody had any. We all shrugged, concerned and grossed out. Finally, the girls in front of us took some tissue out of her bra in a long string, like a magician, and handed it over. In its fabulous vulgarity the deed was the best example of altruism.”
Perhaps, also, Ms. Woodhouse needs to do a film called ‘Bar Flies for a Better Bali’ or ‘Harlot Niskharlot’ (Bali’s seen and unseen slag world).

*                            *                            *

 Later in the day, straight from the airport, I visit the Royal Sidakarya Scrabble Club to discuss the Pemecutan incident with my Balinese friends.
“The Cokorda had already done his ‘mabihiseka ratu’ ceremonies”, one Brahman friend reminds us, “and as a supreme leader had already achieved medwi jati status, (as an enlightened soul. Ed.). Such an outbreak of rage should not be possible.”   
“But there have been three previous family tragedies of this kind in that palace”, another friend reminds us. One more friend chips in, “It was the time of day, sandi kala, evening, when all the kala (demons) are at play.”              
Later we all go to the Pura Desa Sidakarya temple for evening prayers and to say good bye to the most beautiful shrine in Sidakarya (see photo left): this week the shrine is being demolished and replaced with a boring black  andesite model, at the behest of the temple elders; all fashion victims. Is it the Bulgarization of Bali? Fashionistas against fantasy architecture? Sigh!
It’s sad to witness the homogenisation of the world’s most stylish architectural model. Hopefully there will be a realization of the value of these treasures before it’s too late.

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