It’s 8pm on a full moon night in October and the spray of the huge waves shoots above the barricades and drizzles us from time to time. This is a village on the Balinese coast, a day before the writers’ festival begins. When the sun is out, the sea is postcard-stunning. It looks just like what someone who has never seen the sea might imagine it to be like. At night, it is this: vivid, histrionic.
We’re a table of a dozen, half of whom are too far away to politely shout at over the sound of the waves. We have come from all over the world – one of the coordinators mentions that a writer called in tears from an airport somewhere between here and Mozambique. This is the calm before the storm: by the time the festival starts, 110 writers would have arrived here.
I’m fascinated by the kind-faced educator from New Zealand and the playwright who lived with AIDS orphans in Burundi for a year during the early 90’s. The American who sits down across from me turns out to be John Berendt, the author of the acclaimed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I give him my book. To my surprise, he asks me to sign it for him.
It is the day after the anniversary of the 2002 terrorist attacks on this island, the ones that confounded the world, because who in their right mind would bomb paradise?
We talk about temples. Bali is over 90% Hindu, practicing a highly ritualistic and animistic variant of the religion with a profoundly philosophical bent. The agricultural system, for instance, is based on the notion of “Tri Hita Karana”: the three causes of happiness are good relations with God, other people and the environment. Incidentally, “Tri Hita Karana” is the theme of this year’s festival.
I am menstruating and will not visit the temples: there is nothing taboo about doing so based on what I believe, but I will not violate those of a place I visit. Besides, I know from experience that even the ruins – no, especially the ruins – possess immense power. Last year, at another festival elsewhere in Indonesia, we were reading at the 11th century Borobudur stupa. The vibrant local dance closing the evening came to an abrupt halt – one of the dancers was possessed. She could be heard screaming and crying as she came out of her trance.
Jean Bennett, the educator, speaks of the psychogeography of elevation: you can read the spirituality of any place based on what stands at its highest point. Around the world, there are the pilgrimage points of cathedrals, and then there are those of capitalist gods. We manifest what we worship upon our landscapes.
Driving into Ubud town the next day, where the festival will be, we pass two striking statues. One is of a Durga unlike any I have seen. She looks like a Kwan Yin riding snakes. The other is a dramatic Arjuna standing atop an elephant’s back. Bali is unapologetic about its spirituality. It’s neither a place that trumpets its ways of life militantly, nor does it suppress it under the guise of progress. This is not a place that ever deserved a terrorist attack, let alone two.
The festival is about to start. The literati will descend on Ubud and turn it, for a few days, into an artistic nucleus. I have a new book, a brand new batch of business cards, the validation of being a guest of this prestigious event. I’m a poet in paradise. I cannot wait to see what I will come bearing back to the world.
An edited version appeared on Saturday in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.