I haven't seen Ketut Liyer in so long. Between my involvement with Felipe and my struggle to secure a home for Wayan, my long afternoons of aimless conversation about spirituality on the medicine man's porch have long since ended. I've stopped by his house a few times, just to say hello and to drop off a gift of fruit for his wife, but we haven't spent any quality time together since back in June. Whenever I try to apologize to Ketut
for my absence, though, he laughs like a man who has already been shown the answers to every test in the universe and says, "Everything working perfect, Liss."
Still, I miss the old man, so I stopped by to hang out with him this morning. He beamed at me, as usual, saying, "I am very happy to meet you!" (I never was able to break him of that habit.)
"I am happy to see you, too, Ketut."
"You leaving soon, Liss?"
"Yes, Ketut. In less than two weeks. That's why I wanted to come over today. I wanted to thank you for everything you've given me. If it wasn't for you, I never would've come back to Bali."
"Always you were coming back to Bali," he said without doubt or drama. "You still meditate with your four brothers like I teach you?"
"You still meditate like your Guru in India teach you?" "Yes."
"You have bad dreams anymore?"
"You happy now with God?" "Very."
"You love new boyfriend?" "I think so. Yes."
"Then you must spoil him. And he must spoil you." "OK," I promised.
"You are good friend to me. Better than friend. You are like my daughter," he said. (Not
like Sharon . . .) "When I die, you will come back to Bali, come to my cremation. Balinese cremation ceremony very fun--you will like it."
"OK," I promised again, all choked up now.
"Let your conscience be your guide. If you have Western friends come to visit Bali, bring them to me for palm-reading. I am very empty in my bank since the bomb. You want to come with me to baby ceremony today?"
And this is how I ended up participating in the blessing of a baby who had reached the age of six months, and who was now ready to touch the earth for the first time. The Balinese don't let their children touch the ground for the first six months of life, because newborn babies are considered to be gods sent straight from heaven, and you wouldn't let a god crawl around on the floor with all the toenail clippings and cigarette butts. So Balinese babies are carried for those first six months, revered as minor deities. If a baby dies before it is six months old, it is given a special cremation ceremony and the ashes are not placed in a human cemetery because this being was never human: it was only ever a god. But if the baby lives to six months, then a big ceremony is held and the child's feet are allowed to touch the earth at last and Junior is welcomed to the human race.
This ceremony today was held at the house of one of Ketut's neighbors. The baby in question was a girl, already nicknamed Putu. Her parents were a beautiful teenage girl and an equally beautiful teenage boy, who is the grandson of a man who is Ketut's cousin, or something like that. Ketut wore his finest clothes for the event--a white satin sarong (trimmed in gold) and a white, long-sleeved button-down jacket with gold buttons and a Nehru collar, which made him look rather like a railroad porter or a busboy at a fancy hotel. He had a white turban wrapped around his head. His hands, as he proudly showed me, were all pimped out with giant gold rings and magic stones. About seven rings in total. All of them with holy powers. He had his grandfather's shining brass bell for summoning spirits, and he wanted me to take a lot of photographs of him.
We walked over to his neighbor's compound together. It was a considerable distance and we had to walk on the busy main road for a while. I'd been in Bali almost four months, and had never seen Ketut leave his compound before. It was disconcerting watching him walk down the highway amid all the speeding cars and madcap motorcycles. He looked so tiny and vulnerable. He looked so wrong set against this modern backdrop of traffic and honking horns. It made me want to cry, for some reason, but I was feeling a little extra emotive today anyway.
About forty guests were there already at the neighbor's house when we arrived, and the family altar was heaped with offerings--piles of woven palm baskets filled with rice, flowers, incense, roasted pigs, some dead geese and chickens, coconut and bits of currency that fluttered around in the breeze. Everyone was decked out in their most elegant silks and lace. I was underdressed, sweaty from my bike ride, self-conscious in my broken T-shirt amid all this beauty. But I was welcomed exactly the way you would want to be if you were the white girl who'd wandered in inappropriately attired and uninvited. Everyone smiled at me with warmth, and then ignored me and commenced to the part of the party where they all sat around admiring each other's clothes.
The ceremony took hours, Ketut officiating. Only an anthropologist with a team of interpreters could tell you all that occurred, but some of the rituals I understood, from Ketut's explanations and from books that I had read. The father held the baby during the first round of blessings and the mother held an effigy of the baby--a coconut swaddled to look like an infant. This coconut was blessed and doused with holy water just like the real baby, then placed on the ground right before the baby's feet touch earth for the first time; this is to fool the demons, who will attack the dummy baby and leave the real baby alone. There were hours of chants, though, before that real baby's feet could touch ground.
Ketut rang his bell and sang his mantras endlessly, and the young parents beamed with pleasure and pride. The guests came and went, milling about, gossiping, watching the ceremony for a while, offering their gifts and then taking off for another appointment. It was all strangely casual amid all the ancient ritualistic formality, sort of backyard-picnic- meets-high-church. The mantras Ketut chanted to the baby were so sweet, sounding like a combination of the sacred and the affectionate. While the mother held the infant, Ketut waved before the child samples of food, fruit, flowers, water, bells, a wing from the roast chicken, a bit of pork, a cracked coconut . . . With each new item he would sing something to her. The baby would laugh and clap her hands, and Ketut would laugh and keep singing.
I imagined my own translation of his words:
"Ohhhh . . . little baby, this is roast chicken for you to eat! Someday you will love roast chicken and we hope you have lots of it! Ohhhhhhh . . . little baby, this is a chunk of cooked rice, may you always have all the chunks of cooked rice you could ever desire, may you be showered with rice for always. Ohhhhh . . . little baby, this is a coconut, isn't
it funny how this coconut looks, someday you will eat lots of coconuts! Ohhhhhh . . . little baby, this is your family, do you not see how much your family adores you? Ohhhhh . . . little baby, you are precious to the whole universe! You are an A-plus student! You are our magnificent bunny! You are a yummy hunk of silly putty! Ooohhhhh little baby, you are the Sultan of Swing, you are our everything . . ."
Everyone was blessed again and again with flower petals dipped in holy water. The whole family took turns passing the baby around, cooing to her, while Ketut sang the ancient mantras. They even let me hold the baby for a while, even in my jeans, and I whispered my own blessings to her as everyone sang. "Good luck," I told her. "Be brave." It was boiling hot, even in the shade. The young mother, dressed in a sexy bustier under her sheer lace shirt, was sweating. The young father, who didn't seem to know any facial expression other than a massively proud grin, was also sweating. The various grandmothers fanned themselves, got weary, sat down, stood up, fussed with the roasted sacrificial pigs, chased away dogs. Everyone was alternately interested, not interested, tired, laughing, earnest. But Ketut and the baby seemed to be locked in their own experience together, riveted to each other's attention. The baby didn't take her eyes off the old medicine man all day. Who ever heard of a six-month-old baby not crying or fussing or sleeping for four straight hours in the hot sun, but just watching someone with curiosity?
Ketut did his job well, and the baby did her job well, too. She was fully present for her transformation ceremony from god-status to human-status. She was handling the responsibilities marvelously, like a good Balinese girl already--steeped in ritual, confident of her beliefs, obedient to the requirements of her culture.
At the end of all the chanting, the baby was wrapped in a long, clean white sheet that hung far below her little legs, making her look tall and regal--a veritable debutante. Ketut made a drawing on the bottom of a pottery bowl of the four directions of the universe, filled the bowl with holy water and set it on the ground. This hand-drawn compass marked the holy spot on earth where the baby's feet would first touch.
Then the whole family gathered by the baby, everyone seeming to hold her at the same time, and--oop! there goes!--they lightly dipped the baby's feet in this pottery bowl full of holy water, right above the magic drawing which encompassed the whole universe, and then they touched her soles to the earth for the first time. When they lifted her back up into the air, tiny damp footprints remained on the ground below her, orienting this child at last onto the great Balinese grid, establishing who she was by establishing where she was. Everyone clapped their hands, delighted. The little girl was one of us now. A human being--with all the risks and thrills which that perplexing incarnation entails.
The baby looked up, looked around, smiled. She wasn't a god anymore. She didn't seem to mind. She wasn't fearful at all. She seemed thoroughly satisfied with every decision she had ever made.