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Paradise on Earth? The Enigmatic Island1

Of all the lists published by the prestigious travel magazine Condé Nast, perhaps the most tantalising is its ‘World’s Best Islands’ list. Islands seem to occupy a special place in the human psyche. The reasons are complex. It goes beyond the scenery, the climate, the people: it’s something to do with the perceived ‘contained’ nature and the ‘timelessness’ of islands. Condé Nast tells its readers: ‘In paradise, some things never change – the vistas, the culture, the people’.2

But of course change does occur on islands. This essay is a reflection on the idea of the ‘island paradise’, with particular reference to Bali, but drawing some points of comparison with Tasmania (islands that ranked 1 and 2 respectively on a recent Condé Nast ‘Best Islands’ list). In Bali, as in Tasmania, change has been wrought through colonial conquest, through tourism and through brutal acts of violence.3

The great poets clearly grasped the potency of the island as a metaphor for the human condition, while not necessarily concurring in their symbolic representation. While John Donne’s famous line ‘No man is an island entire of itself’4 speaks of an inherent interconnectedness among all humans, AD Hope’s more pessimistic view that ‘you cannot build bridges between the wandering islands’ suggests that, indeed, ‘the mind has no neighbours’.5 Their differing perspectives is not the point here, however; I refer to them simply to support the notion that the island is somehow more than a geographical phenomenon, more than a geological circumstance. The island is also in many ways a state of mind.

Geographically speaking, small islands are pleasing, appealing to a human disposition towards ‘containedness’. It is possible to visualise, in satisfying detail, the coastline of an island, to know where it begins and ends, to picture where you are spatially at a given point in time. That ‘containedness’ seems to invoke the idea of ‘sanctuary’, tapping into a sort of universal human quest for a place that might provide security and safety.

The idea of the island as haven is nowhere better depicted than in The Tempest, the magical Mediterranean island setting providing refuge for its inhabitants – Prospero, his daughter Miranda, the spirit Ariel and Caliban, the native of the island. Here Prospero, exiled Duke of Milan, is able to indulge his love of books, away from the tedious affairs of state. The island both encloses and separates him.

Precisely because they both enclose and separate, however, islands can be prisons as well as places of refuge. Pete Hay reminds us of this in his 2001 essay ‘That Islanders speak and others hear’, where he writes of imagining the island as both Paradise and hell. Sarah Island, for example, was proposed by Lt Governor Sorell as a ‘place of banishment and security for the worst description of convicts’ and developed the reputation as one of the harshest of the penal settlements that were established during the transportation era.

Similarly, Indonesia’s ‘South Seas gulag’, the malaria-infested Buru Island, was used by the Suharto regime as a place of political imprisonment, a place where prisoners had to clear forests, pave roads, establish and work their own rice fields and build their own living quarters, while suffering the debilitating effects of malnutrition, illness and torture.

The place of Bali in the Australian imagination was immortalised in the words of Redgum’s 1984 song ‘I’ve been to Bali too’:

You’ve been to Paris and you’ve been to Boston
You’ve been to Fiji and you’ve been to London
But you can’t impress me, ’cause I’ve been to Bali too

Almost twenty years later, among the scenes of horror and grief emerging from Bali during the days following the October 2002 Kuta bombings, a young woman, skin tanned and hair in tiny plaits from her holiday in Bali, stepped off the plane in Darwin and asked, ‘What’s going to happen to our beautiful Bali now?’ Within that question were contained two ‘truths’: Bali is beautiful and Bali is ours. They are truths that were reinforced in news reports across Australia in the following weeks, with headlines screaming ‘Terror hits home’, ‘(our) Holiday isle defiled’ and ‘Terror on our doorstep’. Indeed the strange map published in The Australian gives the impression that Kuta is somewhere in Australia and that Bali and Australia are an amorphous mass with Indonesia hovering irrelevantly to the north.

Anyone who has been to Bali can understand its appeal. The island is undeniably beautiful. But that is not all it is, and I want here to touch on five stories, stories that reveal aspects of Bali that do not sit well with the ‘paradise island’ fantasy.

The first story starts with a shipwreck. But let me begin with a quote from Vicki Baum’s 1937 book A Tale from Bali:

It must, I think, have been in 1916, a time when Europe was too much preoccupied to remember the existence of a little island called Bali, that I came by chance into the possession of some very beautiful photographs. …I kept turning again and again to these pictures of men and beasts and landscapes, whenever the horrors my generation was exposed to – war, revolution, inflation, emigration – became unbearable. A strange relationship grew up between these photographs and me; I felt that I should one day come to know those people and that I had actually walked along those village streets and gone in at those temple doors.6

Vicki Baum ‘discovered’ Bali well before the arrival of the European artists and anthropologists of the 1930s, but – despite the fact that she depicts idyllic Bali as a refuge from all that is horrific in war-torn Europe – her tale is in fact not one about the ‘beautiful Bali’ that Western tourists and travellers have since appropriated. Rather, it is about an incident known as the puputan or ritual suicide that occurred in Bali in 1906, an event that sat uncomfortably with even the most ruthless of the Dutch colonial administrators but which is unknown to virtually all contemporary visitors to the sleepy village of Sanur where it occurred.

Under Balinese law a grounded ship became the property of the local king, the Raja. In 1906 the Raja of Bandung invoked that law to confiscate a Chinese ship, the Sri Koemala. The Dutch, eager to complete their control over the East Indues by adding Bali to their dominion, used the Raja’s act as grounds for intervention. Fierce fighting ensued, with the Balinese ruler and his nobles choosing death over surrender. When Denpasar fell, the Raja, along with his family and followers, wearing regal costume and armed only keris (wavy swords) advanced towards the Dutch army. When the Raja was shot dead, his wives stabbed themselves. The rest of the court marched on to inevitable death. Vicki Baum describes the scene:

Gun- and rifle-fire swept the Balinese as they came round the … turning and charged straight for the Dutch troops. The lord was the first to fall. The rest ran on over his dead body in a wild onset and when they fell, still more came on. A mountain of wounded and dead was piled up between the puri and the Dutch troops. Meanwhile the gateway disgorged more and more of them, all with kerisses in their hands, all with the same death-frenzy in their eyes, all decked out and crowned with gold and flowers.

Three times the Dutch ceased fire, as though to wake these frantic people from their trance or to spare and save them. But the Balinese were set on death. Nothing in the world could have arrested them in their death-race, neither the howitzers nor the unerring aim of the sharp-shooters, nor the sudden stillness when the firing ceased. Hundreds fell to the enemy’s rifles, hundreds more raised their krisses high and plunged them into their breasts, plunging them in above the collar-bone so that the point should reach the heart in the ancient, holy way. Behind the men came the women and children, boys and girls with flowers in their hair, mothers with infants in arms and old slaves with white hair and girlish breasts. They were all decked out with flowers whose scent mingled with the smell of powder and the sickly odour of blood and death that soon filled the air.

The raja’s wives had gold crowns on their heads, on which flowers of gold nodded and their hands and arms were loaded with jewels, which they tore off and threw to the soldiers with a look of contempt … Some of the officers turned their heads aside or put their hands over their eyes, unable to endure the sight of men killing their wives and then themselves, and of mothers driving a keris into their infants’ breasts.7

The appropriation of Bali by the West had begun. And yet now, a hundred years later, there is nothing in Sanur to remind us of the way in which it happened.

My second story begins on 30 September 1965 when an abortive coup took place in Jakarta, a coup that was associated with but by no means orchestrated by the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party. In the next few weeks a wave of anti-Communist

fervour spread across Java and Bali, fuelled by reports of PKI atrocities, and supported by the military under Suharto, the Javanese commander who had been given the task of suppressing the coup. Anti-Communist groups took it into their own hands to destroy the PKI.

By the end of February 1966 Bali was a landscape of blackened areas where whole villages had been burnt to the ground, and the graveyards could not cope with the numbers of corpses. The wave of killings was spread by youths from the Indonesian Nationalist Party, of whom army general Sarwo Edhy said, ‘In Java we had to egg the people on to kill Communists. In Bali we had to restrain them’.8

The military distanced themselves from the killings by simply going into each village and giving a list of Communists to the village head to ‘deal with’. In most cases villagers carried out this indirect order because they were afraid that if they did not they could be accused of being Communist sympathisers.

After the initial fervour the killings took on a more detached tone. Those who had been identified as PKI dressed in white and were led to graveyards to be executed, puputan-style. The estimated death toll was 100,000.

My third story is about the caste system, which is generally regarded as being a relatively relaxed and simple system in Bali. A different story is told in a 2002 novel, Tarian Bumi or Dance of the Earth, by the Balinese writer Oka Rusmini. This tells of four generations of Balinese women whose lives are dominated primarily by two yearnings: the desire to be beautiful and the desire for a Brahmana (high-caste) husband. An important characteristic of Balinese hierarchy is that a woman should not marry someone of lower caste, because to do so lowers the status of the whole family. But when the novel’s protagonist Luh Sekar finally meets and marries her Brahmana husband, her world changes irrevocably:

She had to get used to a new name, Jero Kenanga. … Ni Luh Sekar, the commoner woman, was gone. Now she had begun her reincarnation as a noblewoman. When she died, her soul would reincarnate in the body of a Brahmana.

In addition, she could no longer pray in her family temple. And she could not eat the fruit that had been given in offering to her family ancestors. Everything had changed. Even. … Luh Sekar’s mother had to treat this child differently from her other daughters. Luh Sekar was no longer the same as them. Sekar was not allowed to eat with them either. She must not be given left-over food. Everything had changed. Everything had to be re-learnt from scratch.9

Perhaps the cruellest thing for Sekar to bear is that, as a woman who has become a Brahmana by marriage rather than by birth, she is treated differentially within the circle of her husband’s family compound. She is not allowed to share a cup, even with her daughter, or to give any of her own food to other members of the compound. She can never truly be a part of her new Brahmana family, but at the same time she is expected to sever her ties with her commoner past. When her mother dies she is not allowed to touch, let alone bathe, the body and she is forbidden from participating directly in the cremation ceremony.

Notions of class and status, observed amusedly by most visitors to Bali as a proliferation of Mades and Wayans representing the naming system of the commoner class, and the occasional glimpse of a Brahmana priest sprinkling holy water on performers at a trance dance, do not in fact sit lightly in Bali. Rather, caste shapes and directs the lives of the Balinese. It is a powerful and potentially divisive presence in ‘our beautiful Bali’.

In my fourth story I want to go behind the scenes of a performance that many visitors to Bali will have witnessed – the Barong dance. The hour-long tourist performances held daily at Batubulan are spiced up with slapstick and bawdy humour that disguises the meaning of the performance, namely the constant need in Bali to maintain harmony between two opposing forces: the benign, beneficial to man, and the malign, inimical to humanity.

Barong, a leonine creature with a long swayback and a curved tail, represents the protector of mankind, the glory of the high sun, and the favourable spirits associated with white (good) magic.

The witch Rangda is Barong's complement. She rules the evil spirits and witches that haunt the graveyards late at night. Her habitat is darkness and her specialty is black magic. Both Barong and Rangda thus possess strong magical prowess. In the legendary past the Barong was won over to the side of humanity, and now fights on behalf of the people against the death force of Rangda, whose atrocities include kidnapping and murdering newborn babies. A flaming tongue, symbol of all-consuming fire, hangs from her mouth and she wears a necklace of human entrails. She constantly stalks the Barong, emitting a terrifying growl. The threat she represents - the danger of mankind succumbing to evil - is a real and constant presence in the lives of the Balinese.

Finally, I want to make mention of fortress Bali. Since 2002 a siege mentality has been intensifying in Bali, with a further hardening since the October 2005 bombings. The catch cry is ajeg Bali ('defend Bali'), a slogan that is underpinned by cultural and religious conservatism. After the 2002 bombings, when tourism dropped to a desperate low and Balinese grew increasingly suspicious and resentful of migrants, especially Muslims, to their island, the local television station Bali TV managed to capture its audience with a canny combination of extraordinarily graphic images of the bombings and conservative Hindu religious programs. Ida Pedanda Gunung, a high priest who called upon the Balinese to strengthen Hinduism and increase their pride in their religion, became the new TV idol. Non-Balinese Indonesians are required to obtain government approval to live on the island, as well as to pay 'deposits' for such approval, in violation of the United Nations Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees citizens of a country the right to move freely within its borders. The Bali bombings have thus been used by some to erect new boundaries between cultures and religions and to spark new fundamentalisms in response to fundamentalisms elsewhere in Indonesia and around the world.

These are all stories of the island of Bali. But if confronted with them I suggest that the tanned young tourist I introduced earlier in this essay would protest, 'No that's not the Bali I meant'. The Bali of my stories is somewhat at odds with the romantic island fantasy that is 'our beautiful Bali'.

1 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the University of Tasmania’s Island of Minds series, Cradle Coast Campus, September 2004

2 Condé Nast 30 Classic Islands 2002

3 My thinking about Bali and Tasmania has been influenced by Lucy Frost’s suggestion that the two islands occupy significant places in the Australian imagination, representing gothic and paradiso respectively (Discussion with Lucy Frost, February 2003)

4 John Donne, ‘Meditation XVII’

5 AD Hope, ‘The Wandering Islands’

6 Vicki Baum, A Tale from Bali, p. vi

7 ibid. pp. 448-449

8 http://www.iseas.edu.sg/viewpoint/ddrjulo3.pdf

9 Oka Rusmini, Tarian Bumi, p. 49