Ketut’s father is sick. The Balian, a traditional Balinese healer, is consulted. “How is Bapak?” I ask him the next day.
“Same-same,” is his reply. But there’s more to the tale and once again I listen in amazement to the complex interrelation of medicine, magic, and mystery that surrounds the lives of the Balinese. This is the story as told to me by Ketut.
One of his father’s ancestors a long time ago was a Balian and he had a book that had been passed down in the family for seven generations. The book (lontar) contained the collected wisdom of the healing arts, required rituals, recipes for medicinal cures, instructions for auspicious marriages, and all that the community needed to know to thrive. But it also contained the opposite, an operations manual for black magic.
When that Balian died, no one replaced him. The book that had been cared for, consulted, honored with offerings and placed in a special position of prestige, was ignored. It was kept in a cabinet in the father’s sleeping room.
“The Balian say book angry,” Ketut tells me. “My father sick because book want house.” I pepper Ketut with questions and learn that construction on a house for the book is underway. I’m trying to wrap my head around this but the concept is elusive.
A few days later I ask Ketut how construction is coming. “Not yet finish,” he says. I get the same answer as weeks go by. I’m picturing one of the small tower-like structures that I’ve seen in temples all over Bali. That, I assume, would be a fitting house for a book. But why is it taking so long?
The day comes when the new house is finished. “Is the book already inside?” I ask.
“Oh no.” Ketut answers many of my questions this way. “Not yet good days,” he says. “Manku make ceremony when good days.” So this is a bigger deal than I thought. I should have known. The book can’t be moved until the holy man finds an auspicious day. Then the priest will be hired to come and officiate. Mountains of flowers, fruits, cakes, and chickens will be purchased or cooked and prepared as offerings.
“I want to come to the book ceremony,” I tell him. He says of course and he’ll let me know. Weeks pass. “Book ceremony soon?” I ask.
“Not yet, maybe three month.”
“Three more months?” I’m shocked. His father hasn’t gotten better. But this is Bali and the mills of the gods grind slowly.
As mid-April approaches I’m told that the day has been decided. It will be on Purnama Kedasa, the full moon celebration April 14th, an auspicious day indeed.
The long-awaited morning dawns bright and clear. Outfitted in temple clothes, my neighbor Julie and my visiting friend from America, Jan and I are ferried up the mountain to Ketut’s village in a decrepit mini-van. As we chug and cough along Pasek, who is with us, gets a text from Ketut. The priest hasn’t yet arrived. Pasek invites us to his house to wait.
Not many foreigners come to this remote, mountain village so we are studied with wide-eyed wonder by the small children. The adult women wrap us in warm hugs. The adult men smile and shake hands or hang back. Teens whisper and giggle.
After the feast we wander to the temple where a rug is spread outside. We squat or crouch in our tight sarongs awaiting the blessing.
It’s mid-afternoon and we’re still with Pasek’s family. Ketut comes to find us. The priest has not yet arrived but Ketut is ready to take his turn with us. “Want to see book?” he asks. Of course we do! We all pile back into the rusty bucket. This time our route can barely be called a road. The jouncing and jiggling are fierce and I’m surprised my dinner behaves as well as it does. I’m worried about Jan. Her stomach was a little unsettled earlier. But she says she’s fine. It’s a miracle.
From Pasek’s house we move to the home of another relative. A tour of the premises brings us to the outdoor kitchen where Ketut and our driver model the woven cones that are used to steam rice over boiling water.
Moving from one mischief to the next, these two decide to pry open the bee house and check for honey. The bees they’re disturbing look like overgrown fruit flies. We’re told they don’t bite, but they swarm around Ketut’s head as he violates their stash.
He extracts some of the honeycomb and a little nectar for us to taste. The comb is dark brown and the honey has a tart vinegar-y flavor. It isn’t an instant hit.
Ketut’s father appears and greets us. He is much better. He leads us to a room with a cabinet and takes a seat on a raised platform. This is the room where the lontar is stored. A footed offering plate holds several of the volumes. With utmost care he opens one of them and shows us the script that was cut into the palm leaves hundreds of years ago. Very few people can read the old Balinese writing. The modern alphabet is completely different.
We lean in close and Bapak says it’s okay to take photos. The inscription is faint but legible. There are dozens of the bound packets of hardened palm leaves. Ketut tells us that the leaf is dried, then soaked in hot water, then dried again and it becomes hard. The writing is done by carving each letter with a knife.
But there are new developments. The book no longer wants to be in the new house. The ancestral weapons, the kris, must go there first. Later if the book wants to be with the kris, it will tell the priest. But for now, the book stays where ‘she’ is and the swords will take up residence in the new house. How was this communicated? “The Mangku he know,” Ketut tells me later.
Ketut has heard from the priest. Many blessings are scheduled for the full moon and he’s much in demand. It may be hours before he arrives, “Or maybe tomorrow,” Ketut says.
The sun set a while ago. We still have an hour-and-a-half ride down the mountain before sleep. With the timing of the ceremony uncertain, and the adventures of the day already enough to fill us to capacity, we opt to take our leave. As we bump along the ridge, the lights of the villages lining the shores of Lake Batur shimmer through a gauzy mist of cloud far below.
The island of Bali is another world. But the places we’ve been today could be another galaxy so far removed are they from what we might consider normal. And yet it works here. It fits. And I doubt that I will ever outgrow the amazement and wonder at the vast differences that feel so familiar.