Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the NOW! Bali Magazine, October 2013)

Balinese he-man bearer at Nini Geria’s cremation.

Coming Out in Paradise

Last week, on Facebook, a popular young Balinese male model posted this:
‘Sorry, but I think it's totally wrong if you are gay but then you marry a woman and have kids but you are still having sex with guys. Maybe it is OK if your dad is gay too.’
‘Why apologize?’ I asked. ’What's Dad being gay got to do with it? Do you think that gayness is hereditary? Or that deception is OK if it is hereditary?’
I went on to explain that, in my experience, some of the best fathers and husbands in the world have sexual inclinations they keep under wraps, or live in ’open’ relationships (not too different from arranged marriages).
For most Asians sexuality is separate from the vital  obligations, I continued, such as adat/family obligations; obligations to ancestors; the obligation  to have children who will take care of your re-incarnation ceremonies, and put your spirit  back in the family house temple when the time comes.
It seemed that, from the comments I received, that many sexpats regard all this as just voodoo; but to all Balinese it is their way of life.
A fractious discussion broke out on the Facebook page. One rainbow warrior (Western) suggested that the Balinese sense of obligation to ancestor spirits was responsible for the spread of HIV!
Another well-born Melbourne media celebrity said that she totally agreed with the male model's statement, and that loyalty to the life partner overrides all else; she just couldn't get her head around the notion of intense filial piety as the force that one day turns the gay boy not gay.
‘The kids seem modern: how can they suddenly turn medieval?’ is the general consensus amongst the clubbers. They forget that the Balinese are masters of disguise, especially when it comes to emotions.
'It's an Asian thing,' one pundit wrote.

Balinese Nancy-boy at the Yak magazines ‘Back to Motown Night’. (Diana Ross a perennial favorite
in certain quarters of Seminyak).

The newly formed rainbow community is based on the Taylor Square (Sydney)/Castro San Francisco) model, and has its rules and  admirable cohesion (kerukunan). Like many such communities — see Queer as Folk (UK, episodes 1 to 5687) — it is as shallow as a Delhi duck-pond in summer.
Surely, this late in the game, the twenty or so long-term permanent non-Balinese members couldn’t be deluded by notions of loyalty in the kuching/husband-for-rent marketplace.
Readers will just have to take my word for it that the Balinese place ancestor worship and filial piety above all else, even their own sexual identity.
Their allegiance is to the extended family unit — oftentimes over allegiance to life partners, who are disposable and not blood relations. This sounds a bit severe to Western ears, I know, but it makes for a harmonious environment and the perpetuation of ancient feuds within house compound walls.
Many long-term non-Asian residents seem oblivious to this basic truth. They, the expats and the sexpats on the West Coast, think that, by introducing Gay Pride and lip-synching, things will change. Some get suicidal when their local lover is forced, by family pressure, to abrogate his sexuality and settle down. For most Balinese it’s just like flicking a switch, really, because it’s only sexuality. It’s nothing serious like becoming a Muslim or quitting the banjar.
 The Westerner feels deceived and distraught: the Balinese finds it odd that the Westerner hadn’t realized such a transition was on the cards.
In Java, the ‘jilted’ lover often stays on as a sort of uncle: the fact that the once-gay man may sometimes revert to his former ways is overlooked by wives, family, and community, as long as he is discreet, and as long as he fulfills his role as provider to his wife and children. The gentle Javanese are perhaps less confrontational and kinder than the dynamic Balinese.
To the Seminyak sexpat this smacks of hypocrisy and betrayal and is the sign of a sick society.
More and more young ‘gay’ Balinese — many of whom have huge egos, and sex drives to match, and are engaged  in Western lifestyle — are ‘coming out’ to parents who don’t have a clue what they are talking about.
There is a back story (sic) to all this confusion. Most Balinese parents let their children do whatever they want, even to the extent of letting girlfriends stay the night. Boyfriends are not counted. Even daughters can have boyfriends sleep over, as long as they are sort of engaged. It’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and it has worked well for a long time.
Personally, I wish gay pride hadn’t come to Bali: for centuries the Balinese have had compassion and understanding instead. Many Hindu gods are androgynous; transsexual priests abound; the Balinese culture even has a calendar for hermaphrodites! Girly-boys are just that.
But leather-grannies in the lumbung? No way!

A Balinese barman (20) from a very very remote rural East Bali village recently told me — just after I had written the above — that he had admitted  to his Mum that he was bisexual.
‘Why would you do that?’ I asked, ‘She won’t have a clue what you are talking about.’ ‘Because she had a dream that I was sleeping with men’, he said. ‘Bullshit,’ I said, ‘she probably heard it from her hairdresser. What was her reaction?’ I asked. ‘Well, I told her I still liked women, and that I would get married in a few years. But she acted really pissed off and wouldn’t talk to me all day. And she didn’t even sweep the courtyard, or ask me to pray with her in the house temple as we usually do every morning,’ he continued. ‘But yesterday she rang and said that she now understood (Mum obviously got the low-down on the go-down from the hair dresser. Ed.) and that all would be fine as long as I got married in a few years’ time.’
 ‘I won’t tell Dad,’ she had added.
The young man then told me how he’d come out (as not quite homosexual) to his buddies and that one of them had said, ‘Jesus, Nyoman, does that mean you fancy me?’ (This speaks to the popularly held theory that if you put any two gays in a room they will have sex.)
He said that it’s a great load off his mind; and that, somewhere out there, there might be a white Daddy with a fat hairy stomach for him.
‘But won’t he feel deceived if you suddenly marry a girl?’ I asked.
‘Let’s see’ he answered.

18 August 2013: My Balinese Mum’s Cremation
In 1973 I adopted a family in a village near Kuta — not knowing where it would lead.
In fact it led to 35 years of these columns: my documenting the village goings-on in the column’s first incarnation in the Sunday Bali Post was my entrée into polite society, you might say. Living with ‘the Ida Bagussies’, as my real Mum used to called them, gave me a great sense of belonging in Bali, even if it was to someone else’s relatives and religious beliefs.

There were two mums in my Balinese compounds, Biang Ayu and Biang Agung. They were like chalk and cheese. Biang Ayu, a glamorous former legong dancer to President Soekarno, was from a wealthy Denpasar family. Biang Agung was plain, a ‘salt-of-the-earth’ offering-maker born into an impoverished palace family. Together they fed and comforted me during my foundling years in Bali: through various sicknesses, ceremonial rites de passage (tooth-filings; mawinten junior priesthood ceremonies) and career changes (from tennis coach to landscape designer, to exotic dancer). Basically, they were always there for me, and I kept eating their food, and feeling very, very happy.

Biang Ayu

Aji Gede

Now Biang Ayu (92) sits all day long near her little bungalow — almost fully deaf and blind — with her recently widowed eldest daughter. They weave offerings as they amuse a courtyard-load of grandchildren with their banter.
For the last three years Biang Agung, after a fall, had been bedridden, the reins of her now thriving offering-making factory having been, since her accident, handed over to her daughter-in-law and ladies-in-waiting.
From her sickbed she would keep track of events in the village and the goings-in our courtyard; she always surprised me by being fully informed of current family and village affairs, and impressed me with her homespun wisdom.
One western friend commented that Biang Agung was the most tranquil woman she had ever met. She never complained about the pains that racked her legs, or the boredom of confinement.
She went quietly, just as she had lived her life.
Biang Agung had for some 50 years been chief field-marshal at our village’s temples and for this she is today being afforded a riotous send-off.

Images from Nini Geria’s Cremation, Kepaon, 18 August 2013

Brahman cremations are always polished and joyous: Balinese Brahmans are experts at the arrangements and masters of grief management.
Today, Nini Geria, as Biang Agung became known, was given the express lane to re-incarnation, as we all want her back, and soon.
The family measured the success of today’s ceremonies by the size of the crowd: three pedanda high priests had turned up for the body washing; 600 villagers had accompanied her body on its final journey; and a convoy of 20 cars took her ashes to the sea at Benoa Harbour, where they were sprinkled under the bow of a $300,000,000 private yacht belonging to a Miss World promoter.

Lovers of Balinese cremation ritual can watch the video I made of this day on:

9 September 2013: Mass cremation on the Gianyar Coast
For 35 years I have been going to cremations in Ketewel, the classical coastal village east of Sanur now popular as a dream home option for villa-nistas.
Today I am invited to my friend Dewa Oka’s mother’s cremation, and to that of 20 or so of his relatives plus 800 other souls.
Taking part will be eleven banjars, fifteen bade towers, 25 gamelan marching bands, and two Japanese tourists in beachwear.

The Ketewel village cremation ground on the morning of the Ngerit mass cremation.

The ceremonies are in full swing when I arrive early morning; in the vast field I find row after row of lembu sarcophagi, camp after camp of tight family units guarding offerings, and hundreds of villagers fashioning spirit effigies to be used later in the day.
I have missed the igniting of Dewa’s Mum’s white sarcophagus, but am not made to feel late: one of the wonderful things about the Balinese is that they never make you ‘feel late’; there’s always a few hours of ritual to go whatever time you arrive.
I hang in for the bone-gathering, the forming of the first astral body, the pray-in, and then the mini-procession to the nearby beach where the ashes are dispersed.

In between ceremonies I entertain a party of buff ‘body-burners’ (professional incinerators) at a food stall, chat to the high priests, including Dewa’s uncle, a begawan, whose brother’s grand cremation was reported in this column earlier this year, and I case the Pura Prajapati temple where another of Dewa’s uncle’s is broadcasting kekawin legend stories with one of his mates.

For the video of the ceremonies see:

The atmosphere is dense and dusty: a few thousand duty-bound villagers start pouring down the road at noon in a fantastic procession of funeral biers, gamelan marching bands, and long lines of golden spirit-effigies.


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