ON BALI: four pieces (2 poems, 2 essays).


Green, deep green
Chlorophyll blinds the eyes keen
Black earth, brown aches
Sticky mud between toes cakes.

Tears irrigate the picture
painted under the labouring harvest’s stricture
Paddy, palms, coconuts, frangipanis
Creations of peasant hands canny.

Rice sold and eaten
Suffices to keep deep want beaten
But for the future there are no savings
School, culture, dignity unsatisfied cravings.

Green beauty massages the soul
A rested spirit is the tourist’s dole.
The holy dollar has bought the view
Aching fingers sculpt paradise for the few.

Melbourne, 2010



That brustling whoosh of the running river’s flow,
the yellow and the white butterfly escape the lizard on the tree bough,
statue stillness of the great green leaves,
And here sit I, one of Bali’s new beauty thieves.


FARMERS AND FESTIVALS: Looking back at Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Bali, Indonesia

October 30, 2009Edit

Probably more than 500 people registered to attend the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival(URWF), held in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia in October. I think there were at least 100 writers also making presentations, participating on panels, and launching books. Included among the 100 writers were around 20 Indonesian writers, representing a steady increase in the number of Indonesian writers participating.

This UWRF was the first I had attended so I cannot make comparisons on the past, except for what people told me. Certainly, the increase in Indonesian participation, was development. Another was the evolving of fringe activities, including the holding of some forums and discussions with young Indonesian writers held at Udayana University, the state university based in the capital of Bali, Denpasar.

There was a mix of writers attending, beyond the 20 Indonesians. Featured most prominently was Professor Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian playwright and poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986 – the first African to receive this award. He appeared on the first panel of the conference, accompanied by Indonesian writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma, author of many short stories, including several that focussed on East Timor during its period of violent occupation. However, there was a lively mix, ranging from Antony Loewenstein who writes on Israel and Palestine; Fatima Bhutto, an outspoken critique of the status quo from Pakistan, as well as novelists, short story writers and poets.

The artists of Bali

Bali is physically beautiful, at least those parts that have not yet been scored by the “growth without development” tumours of crowded buildings, shops, hotels, bars and car-jammed roads. There seems to be a higher grade chlorophyll seeped into the growing rice plants as well as every other kind of growing flora. Even the moss, carpeting the stone fences and gateways built in the style of the traditional temples and aristocratic residences, greens the stoney greyness. The green is deep, and lush, and, if you stop and look closely, more beautiful and soothing than the initial gaze from a moving car, or even a slow walk, admits.

The wonderful, as well as ironic, and also challenging reality is that none of this beauty is natural. It is all man and woman made by the hands of unconscious artist: the Balinese rice farmer. There are a few small valleys here and there that may be untouched by the human hand, but almost every other square inch has been crafted by the farmer. The engineering wonder and genius that allow hundreds of square kilometers of paddy fields to be irrigated without a pump also created an incredible beauty. The tiered carpets of rich chlorophyll green, oozing a calm but strong life, punctuated with exclamation marks made of coconut tree clumps or palisades of banana trees, both of whose plumage adds new shades, and textures, of green. It is all the product of bent backs and strained fingers. The genius of the naturally watered paddy fields divides them into smallish terraced squares that defies the tractor. The farmer, man or woman, feet lodged in the near black mud, bends, grasps the stalks and cuts, now with scythe but in the past with the little bamboo scissors, stalk by stalk.

The Balinese painter and traditional Balinese paintings are famous now, with a globalised fame assisted by tourism. Over the last two decades, millions and millions of foreign tourists, almost all from the rich countries, have visited Bali. The colourful and intricate traditional painting, detailed in its fealty to Hindu religious narratives, have become well-known. More contemporary innovations as well as perversions are also making their presence felt.

Yet the most beautiful pictures are those framed, not by the gallery’s carved wooden picture frame or by the whiteness of a gallery wall, but by the window in a hotel, or a cafe, or even a stopped car. The pictures captured in those frames breathe their beauty at you. As with any painting you must stop, wait, look, think, gaze, and think some more. Perhaps the greatest artistic skills in Bali are those of the architect who knows where to place a window.

Window view

Through the window frame

The window is just the frame however. It is what the window frames that is beautiful. Did the farmer build the paddy fields and plant the coconut trees and banana trees with crafting a new beauty in mind? Probably not, even though there could be little doubt that despite the pain and weariness of planting and harvesting, he or she would stop and wonder at how beautiful it was.

If the chlorophyll deep green speaks life, it is also the life strength of the farmer that we see.

The distortions of Bali

So we ask: what are the royalties that the farmer receives each time the tourist stops to appreciate the panorama? Will they receive something material, along with the photographer, each time their handiwork is reproduced and printed in magazines and brochures around the world?

The per capita income of the agriculture based population  in Indonesia, including in Bali, is unlikely to ever be above US$2 or US$3 per day. Whatever taxes from the tourist industry the Indonesian national and Balinese provincial governments may collect from tourism it has not lifted this figure all that higher than before, even after millions of tourists. Tourism is organised on capitalist lines and the profits go to those who invest capital, rather than those without capital who expend labour.

Even less will go to the farmers who created and keep creating Bali’s physical beauty and thus to its attractiveness to tourism is never recognised.

In fact, the economic distortion of tourist Bali is fundamental. Mass tourism to Bali is only possible because the Balinese are poor. A higher standard and living and the higher costs that would go with it, would make the cheap package stays at 2, 3 and 4 star hotels impossible as well as the even cheaper backpacker holidays.

A literature festival in the middle of a philistine distortion?

Attending the URWF, one could not but be haunted by these distortions. Enjoying the farmer-created vista through the window of a hotel whose comforts outstripped those of a farmers house a million times over and then departing to a discussion on the novel, or the state of Pakistan or whether there was such a thing as Australian literature seemed anomalous, er even just wrong.

Should there be no festival? Well, should there be no tourism?

No, the festival should go on, even if one of its stated goals is to promote the tourist industry. Mass tourism, organised along capitalist lines, will go on until there is something else to replace it. And capitalist organised mass tourism will only be replaced within an Indonesian national economic strategy based on solidarity, rather than exploitation, and which can mobilise the whole population to find the ways to raise productivity. Meanwhile, the name of the game is intervention.

In the cultural sphere: be there and speak out! If the URWF is a contradiction, it is because so is Bali. It is an advance that it takes place and hopefully both its organisers and its participants will keep it going and keep it open to all ideas – indeed broaden further its spectrum of thinking.

In the political economy: be there and organise! (Indonesian, including Balinese, farmers and tourist industry workers need unions and their own political organisations.)


Bali, 1969, 1972


 26 October, 2007

I have heard them referred to as “Hindu eyes” presumably a reference to some distant Indian originating Aryan genes. His eyelids were bigger than most peoples, kind of half shutting down over the eyeball. But they didn’t droop at all, it was just how they were. Steady half shut but big and focused eyes looking at you, or staring at you. There may well have been Indian blood somewhere in his ancestry. After all he was Balinese and Bali was the last Hindu enclave in Indonesia. And way back seven or eight or nine hundred years ago the rulers of the day, all through Sumatra as well as Java and Bali had invited Indian Brahmin to their courts to teach religion and writing and reading. But I haven’t been to India, so I can’t vouch that those strange eyes are indeed Indian.

They added to his force of presence. He was taller and heavier than most Balinese but it was personality and his actions that were the real basis of that presence.

How did I meet him?

It was back in 1969. I was at the end of my first year at university and was visiting Indonesia for the first time. I had been planning the trip for a long time; my first foray outside Australia. I had been excited all year. I lived in the western suburbs of Sydney, Fairfield, but had sustained myself for a long time on the escape of the novel and the movie. Mystery and adventure had a grip on a somewhat inexperienced seventeen year old. I would be taking the common late 1960s backpacker route to Indonesia: to Darwin by bus, then by light plane to East Timor, then Indonesian Timor and then Bali. But planning the trip I had decided to try to make some interesting contacts before I left Sydney.

I wrote several letters describing how I was a first year student at university studying Indonesian language and history and that I wanted to meet Indonesian students. I sent the letters off addressed simply: Chairperson, Students Council such and such a university. I sent them to universities in Jakarta, Bandung, Jogjakarta, Surabaya and Denpasar – the latter being the capital of Bali, which has the status of a province. And it was the Vice-Chancellor of the university in Bali that answered my letter, not the student council chairman. He met me at Denpasar airport when I finally arrived on a flight from Kupang, west Timor.

Smiling, striding, in dark trousers and a white shirt, he escorted me across the parking area to his car, an old style American Jeep.

The jeep drove through rice fields and small clumps of village housing along the asphalted road to the suburb of Sanglah. He and his family lived in a small house in the housing complex at Sanglah Public Hospital, the largest hospital in Bali then. It was a small house. It had four bedrooms but all were quite small. The front room, the ‘guest receiving room’, had been turned into an office. There were files standing on many shelves. It was very orderly. Along the top of the various cupboards were rows of files of the newspaper “Suluh Marhaen”, the newspaper of the Indonesian National Party (PNI).

He invited me to sit down on a rattan chair, while he sat down behind his desk. On the desk was a wooden name plate with gold paint spelling out his name: Wedastera Suyasa. Actually, in accordance with Balinese custom, his full name was I Made Wedastera Suyasa. The “I Made” indicated that he was of the lowest Hindu caste recognized in Bali, the sudra and that he was probably the second born son. He could have been the fifth or the ninth but Balinese families were not that big.

I can’t remember now what we talked about. It wouldn’t have been about much. His English was poor and so was my Indonesian. After awhile, he suggested I take a rest and I lay down on the bed in one of his daughter’s rooms. He had two daughters and a son. I would eventually meet them all. A small room, it had one window looking out onto the neighboring house. There were pictures of American popstars on the wall and the back of the door. And school books piled on the desk. Not much different from a teenagers room in Australia, I thought. I woke up an hour or so later. There was nobody in the front room so I moseyed out the front of the house to take a better look at the street.

All the houses were the same, small and simple, but very green. There were dense shrubs and hedges of lush green plants of some kind or another. Almost every house had a jacaranda tree and at least two banana trees. You couldn’t see into most of the yards because the trees and shrubs acted as shields. But it felt nice. It was quiet too. Occasionally a bemo, the three wheeled motorised mini transport, could be heard in a nearbye street. Their crummy little engines, straining to carry six or seven passengers, made a harsh, machine noise, disruptive to the green and quiet. The only other noise was the birds and the regular seller of this or that, crying out his or her wares while walking along the street. But there weren’t all that many of them either, mostly selling icypops. It was so hot, so I bought one. It was my first real introduction to Indonesian taste buds: sugar syrup!

Just inside the gateway to the house and off to the left of the pathway was a small shrine. The family were obviously practising Hindus.

At that time, all I knew was he was the vice-chancellor of a university: the Marhaen University. I didn’t know much about this university, only that it was not the main state university in Bali, which was called Udayana University. I had written to the Marhaen University rather than Udayana because I had heard a lecture by its Professor of Law at the University of Sydney during the year, 1969. His name was Professor Ernst Utrecht, a man I got to know quite well later. It turned out that Professor Utrecht was never to return to Indonesia after his visit to Sydney. He was told he would be arrested, or worse, if he went back. I knew, of course, about 1965 in Indonesia, the coup and the mass murders, which had particularly bloody in Bali, but I was young for a seventeen year old in the sixties and the full reality of what had happened had not registered with me. I did know that the Marhaen University had some political affiliations, with the Indonesia National Party and I knew what Marhaen meant.

Marhaen was the name of a farmer in Sunda, the western third of the island of Java. We know about him because Soekarno, Indonesia’s first president and the most popular leader of the anti-colonial movement before independence, wrote about him. Writing back in the 1920s, when Soekarno himself was a young man, he told of how walking through the paddy fields, he had observed a farmer working his fields with a buffalo. The farmer was clearly poor and lived in misery. Soekarno spoke with him and asked him if he owned any land; did he own the buffalo. Yes, said Marhaen, who had also told Soekarno his name. In Soekarno’s eyes, the majority of Indonesians were like Marhaen: poor and exploited by colonial capitalism, but still owners of “the means of production”, a tiny plot of land and a buffalo or a plough. He wrote what became a famous essay “Marhaen and Proletarian”, where he argued the Marhaen as well as the Proletarian, but mostly the Marhaen, would provide the social force to drive through the anti-colonial revolution. The PNI adopted this idea, Marhaenism, as part of its ideology.

I didn’t really know what it all meant then. I knew it was supposed to be unMarxist, or my teachers had said, although none of them were Marxists: it was against “class”. I didn’t know. But I was to get a glimpse of what it might mean as I traveled around Bali with Wedastera that year and again in 1972. Of course, it meant more than just poor and exploited peasants; it had also to do with how they related to leaders and to politics.

Wedastera’s university was a bit of a Marhaen university in terms of its material base, that was for sure. On the first night I was in Bali, he asked me to come to the university and answer questions about Australia. We drove there in the old khaki jeep. I stared out the window as much as I could trying to take everything in. It didn’t take long to get to the university – except it wasn’t actually a university. It was an impoverished, barely furnished, poorly lighted neighborhood high school, deserted by its students in the evening, and made available to UNMAR. There was a sign outside facing the street: Universitas Marhaen, also indicating that its students could sit for the state university examinations. Twenty or so men sat on the benches, while a lecturer introduced me.

And that was what Wedastera was about, partially anyway. He was a doer. He had set up the university, using whatever was available, no matter how little. He could mobilise people. They followed him when he did things. Not everybody, of course. He was a leader of the PNI on an island where the population had divided pretty much 50-50, PNI versus Indonesian Communist Party. I found out later that he was hated by the PKI. He had been the lead campaigner for his party before 1965; the founder of UNMAR and a host of other smaller projects. When I traveled the villages with him, I visited many a village home that had pictures of both Wedastera and Soekarno on the wall.

Was it just those penetrating eyes, with the lids half way down over them, that subdued his followers, just with a stare. Well, his physicality could subdue people. One day I was sitting next to Soeharto, a messenger boy and typist for Wedastera, on the cement fence outside the Sanglah house. We were chatting when suddenly we heard the raised, angry voice of Wedastera inside the house. It wasn’t clear what he was angry about or who he was angry at, but Soeharto began shaking uncontrollably in fear. Nothing happened: the angry voice went away and Soeharto relaxed.

Bali was then, and had been for a long time, a very totalitarian society. Without that totalitarianism, Bali would not have been so beautiful. Bali’s beauty is not natural, it is man made. It is the luscious green of the terraced mountain rice fields or the green ocean of paddy stretching forever before you, or right up to the sea, or to the base of dark, bluish mountains that strikes wonder into the heart when you first see it. And then later when you find a place to sit quietly and gaze at these sights more leisurely, the beauty soothes you.

Terraced paddy fields are the product of human effort and very organized human effort. To cover Balinese countryside and mountains with terraces, needed extensive and intricate organization. The whole society was one big organisation or conglomeration of organizations. Everybody belonged to at least one organization based on control over water or land and everybody’s place in that organization was defined. Everybody belonged to a caste. Nobody was allowed to use their personal name.

“Good morning, Made”. “Good afternoon, Putu.” “Goodbye, pak Ida Bagus.” No Jims, or Marthas or Roberts, just the fist part of the name indicating caste, gender and whether you were a first, second, third or fourth born child. So there shouldn’t been any, “hello pak Wedastera.” But there was and, amazingly, people called him even “pak W.”

He had broken out of the totalitarian structure.

As a sudra, he had married a Brahmin woman, a woman of the highest caste, He was the first man to do such a thing after the declaration of independence in August, 1945. His wife’s family disowned her.

He had indeed broken out of the totalitarian structure. He was a sudra claiming political leadership, a writer, activist, organizer, seeker of power. In Hindu terms, this meant fusing Brahmin, satria (the warrior ruler) and sudra. He didn’t work through a subak or a banjar, the traditional water and land organizations. He spoke in the name of a party and an ideology, Soekarnoism and not only about Bali but Indonesia. And when he did so, he did using his own name, abandoning age and caste, and staring straight at people with his Hindu eyes.

For him the peasants were not just Balinese, but Marhaen, a political force, who could be mobilized. He often took me to meet them, this majority.


Were we still going today? I thought, that day it rained like I have never seen before or since. It was like there was no space between the raindrops, which fell not in drops anyway but in sheets of pounding water. “Don’t go,” said Wirati, his wife. We were each sitting one of the cane chairs in the office cum guest receiving room. We both were wearing traditional Balinese clothes. This meant a sarong, in woven blue covered textile, a shirt and then a red or blue head band. The head band sat rather unsteadily on my head. It was just a circular band, maybe two inches high, with a little peak at the front. There were silver or gold coloured thread weaving a pattern around the band. We both wore sandals.

The invitation was to a temple ceremony in a village where the PNI and Wedastera had a support base. It would be a chance to talk politics. The first general elections under the dictator Suharto were coming up. While the dictatorship had quashed the Left mercilessly and very effectively, the centre parties such as the PNI, which had been purged of its Left wing, still had a lot of room to move. It was the last election where that would happen. They were trying to stave off a complete takeover by the Army. Wedastera was a critic of army power and had been arrested the year earlier for a few months. (He had been under house arrest in 1965 in Jakarta on Sukarno’s orders for being too aggressively anti PKI, which means he was not drawn into the terrible slaughter of his enemies in Bali. But others in his family were.). That day Wedastera wanted to go and so we left.

There were three of us in the car. It was a bigger jeep-like vehicle. The driver was the only other person in the car. We edged through the rain. There was not a single other car on the street. Not a one! Visibility was just one notch above zero. We moved slowly. It was a bit better once we were outside the town. On each side of the road were only rice fields and just the road before us, with fewer buildings and trees to block what little sunlight made it through the rain. It was an asphalt road luckily. After about half an hour, with the rain just beginning to ease a little, we turned off the asphalt road and down a dirt road that threaded through the paddy. Well, it had been a dirt road. It was a mud road now. We sloshed our way along, slipping and skidding to the left and then the right as we went, but still moving forward.

Then there was a hill. Just a little hill. Maybe it couldn’t even be called a hill – a crest in the mud ribbon, deserted road. But it was enough to do the trick. The whirring engine was not having the appropriate effect, we were stuck. The village was not far ahead, so Wedastera sent the driver off to seek help. We waited. The paddy fields were still a beautiful sight despite their deep green being washed away in the grey sieve of the sheets of rain. Dull instead of bright and strikingly beautiful, but it was a beautiful dullness. It always struck me those days as a naturally beauty, but as I said, it was man made.

About twenty minutes later, a dozen or so men, all in traditional clothes, but quite soaked arrived. Wedastera told me to stay in the car while they all pushed but it didn’t seemed right, so I climbed out,, my sandaled feet sinking into the mud, and joined in the effort. But I chose the wrong spot. I heaved up against the back of the car, just behind the right back wheel. I was sprayed with mud. Rain, mud. Aaagh. And laughter, Aaagh, aaagh. I suppose I must have looked funny, a skinny red headed Australian adorned in Balinese dress, with a big spray of mud over me. Oh well, we got the car up the little hill. As many as could fit in the car got in and we drove on, arriving safely. They cleaned me up. Those who walked arrived a little later.

The ceremony began which seemed mainly to consist of talking and eating and talking. We ate pig. I say pig and not pork, only to emphasize that it was the whole pig that we ate. Everything had been cooked, from feet, to testicles, to nose, as well as all the flesh and crackling and blood, which was made into sausage. There was no rice or vegetables, just the cooked pig. The talk was in Balinese, which I didn’t understand, but I knew it was a political discussion.

Like every visit to a village, it was all different. They were poor, whether or not they were better off villagers or not. There was no electricity. The houses were simple and even more simply furnished. They were almost all farmers. They were lean but strong and dark skinned with worn faces. They teeth were jagged, with gaps. A few were teachers. The women were separated away. There were few, if any books, in the houses. What few there were seemed to be mainly party booklets. There was a separation. There was a gap. Wedastera was by no means rich – middle class, would be the term we might use. The gap was huge, but was being bridged by the man who used his name and led. They talked and talked and he was one of them. Later we all slept. Those who had come from nearby as well as Wedastera and I laid down on the woven mats spread over the cement floor of the village pavilion. It was hard, but somehow more restful than a mattress. Squeezed in, it felt the way the discussion earlier had looked to me, a merging.

In Indonesia, there is another word like marhaen. It is rakyat, which means the “people”. You might say that all countries have the word “the people”, or “people”. English does of course. But in English, “people” can be used to refer to any group of humans. “There are many people here today in the mall.” But in Indonesia, “rakyat”, only can be used to refer to the people as against the elite. Where we might say, or have once said, “the little people”, in Indonesia it is just “the people”. There is a gap, an inheritance created by the inequalities and exploitation of feudal and colonial rule, that has to be bridged. Wedastera’s breaking out of the totalitarian cultures, presenting himself as a contemporary individual, was able to bridge that gap. And he was willing to be with them, among them, to hitch a ride with a truck driver to circle the island to visit villages as we once did and then return to Denpasar to be Vice-Chancellor of UNMAR.

Of course, being down among the people – I say down because of the poverty compared to middle class life in the town – was never a guarantee in and of itself that the bridging would all be for the good. That depended too on what was said, what was to be organized. But it brought home to me a reality about Indonesia which remains true today because that gap, despite more than thirty years of so-called development, still exists. Most people still live on $2 dollars a day or less, although many Marhaen now live in the cities as well in the villages. No political advance is possible without leaders able to merge with the common people, sleep with them, eat with them, walk in the mud with them; and such people are still the Wedasteras, those breaking out of the totalitarian culture, individuals with a strong will and character.

It is just one part of the mix that is needed though, in this divided society.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s