I don't know how old my medicine man is. I've asked him, but he's not certain. I seem to remember, when I was here two years ago, the translator saying that he was eighty. But Mario asked him the other day how old he was and Ketut said, "Maybe sixty-five, not sure." When I asked him what year he was born, he said he didn't remember being born. I know he was an adult when the Japanese were occupying Bali during World War II, which could make him about eighty now. But when he told me the story about burning his arm as a young man, and I asked him what year that had happened, he said, "I don't know. Maybe 1920?" So if he was around twenty years old in 1920, then that makes him what now? Maybe a hundred and five? So we can estimate that he's somewhere between sixty and a hundred and five years old.
I've also noticed that his estimation of his age changes by the day, based on how he feels. When he's really tired, he'll sigh and say, "Maybe eighty-five today," but when he's feeling more upbeat he'll say, "I think I'm sixty today." Perhaps this is as good a way of estimating age as any--how old do you feel? What else matters, really? Still, I'm always trying to figure it out. One afternoon I got really simple, and just said, "Ketut--when is your birthday?"
"Thursday," he said. "This Thursday?"
"No. Not this Thursday. A Thursday."
This is a good start . . . but is there no more information than that? A Thursday in what month? In what year? No telling. Anyway, the day of the week that you were born is more important in Bali than the year, which is why, even though Ketut doesn't know how old he is, he was able to tell me that the patron god of children born on Thursdays is
Shiva the Destroyer, and that the day has two guiding animal spirits--the lion and the tiger. The official tree of children born on Thursday is the banyan. The official bird is the peacock. A person born on Thursday is always talking first, interrupting everyone else, can be a little aggressive, tends to be handsome ("a playboy or playgirl," in Ketut's words) but has a decent overall character, with an excellent memory and a desire to help other people.
When his Balinese patients come to Ketut with serious health or economic or relationship problems, he always asks on which day of the week they were born, in order to concoct the correct prayers and medicines to help them. Because sometimes, Ketut says, "people are sick in the birthday," and they need a little astrological adjustment in order to set them in balance again. A local family brought their youngest son to see Ketut the other day. The child was maybe four years old. I asked what the problem was and Ketut translated that the family was concerned about "problems with very aggressive this boy. This boy not take orders. Bad behave. Not pay attention. Everyone in house tired from the boy. Also, sometimes this boy too dizzy."
Ketut asked the parents if he could hold the child for a moment. They put their son in Ketut's lap and the boy leaned back against the old medicine man's chest, relaxed and unafraid. Ketut held him tenderly, placed a palm on the child's forehead, shut his eyes. He then placed a palm on the boy's belly, shut his eyes again. He was smiling and speaking gently to the child the whole time. The examination was quickly over. Ketut handed the boy back to his parents, and the people left soon after with a prescription and some holy water. Ketut told me he'd asked the parents about the circumstances of the boy's birth and had discovered the child had been born under a bad star and on a Saturday--a day of birth which contains elements of potentially bad spirits, like crow spirit, owl spirit, rooster spirit (this is what makes the child a fighter) and puppet spirit (this is what's causing his dizziness). But it was not all bad news. Being born on Saturday, the boy's body also contained rainbow spirit and butterfly spirit, and these could be strengthened. A series of offerings would have to be made and the child would be brought into balance once more.
"Why did you hold your hand on the boy's forehead and stomach?" I asked. "Were you checking for fever?"
"I was check his brain," Ketut said. "To see if he had evil spirits in his mind." "What kind of evil spirits?"
"Liss," he said. "I am Balinese. I believe from black magic. I believe evil spirits come out rivers and hurt people."
"Did the boy have evil spirits?"
"No. He is only sick in his birthday. His family will make sacrifice. This will be OK. And you, Liss? You are practice Balinese meditation every night? Keep mind and heart clean?" "Every night," I promised.
"You learn to smile even in your liver?"
"Even in my liver, Ketut. Big smile in my liver."
"Good. This smile will make you beautiful woman. This will give you power of to be very pretty. You can use this power--pretty power!--to get what you want in life."
"Pretty power!" I repeat the phrase, loving it. Like a meditating Barbie. "I want pretty power!"
"You are still practice Indian meditation, too?" "Every morning."
"Good. Don't forget your Yoga. Beneficial to you. Good for you to keep practice both ways of meditation--Indian and Balinese. Both different, but good in equal way. Same- same. I think about religion, most of it is same-same."
"Not everybody thinks so, Ketut. Some people like to argue about God."
"Not necessary," he said. "I have good idea, for if you meet some person from different religion and he want to make argument about God. My idea is, you listen to everything this man say about God. Never argue about God with him. Best thing to say is, 'I agree with you.' Then you go home, pray what you want. This is my idea for people to have peace about religion."
Ketut keeps his chin lifted all the time, I've noticed, his head held a little bit back, sort of quizzical and elegant at the same time. Like a curious old king, he looks at the whole world from above his nose. His skin is lustrous, golden brown. He's almost totally bald, but makes up for it with exceptionally long and feathery eyebrows which look eager to take flight. Except for his missing teeth and his burn-scarred right arm, he seems in perfect health. He told me that he was a dancer in his youth, for the temple ceremonies, and that he was beautiful back then. I believe it. He eats only one meal a day--a typically simple Balinese dish of rice mixed with either duck or fish. He likes to drink one cup of coffee with sugar every day, mostly just to celebrate the fact that he can afford coffee and sugar. You, too, could easily live to a hundred and five on this diet. He keeps his body strong, he says, by meditating every night before sleep and by pulling the healthy energy of the universe into his core. He says that the human body is made of nothing more or less than the five elements of all creation--water (apa), fire ( tejo), wind ( bayu), sky ( akasa) and earth ( pritiwi)--and all you have to do is concentrate on this reality during meditation and you will receive energy from all of these sources and you will stay strong. Demonstrating his occasionally very accurate ear for English idiom, he said, "The microcosm becomes the macrocosm. You--microcosm--will become same as universe--macrocosm."
He was so busy today, crowded with Balinese patients who were stacked up all over his courtyard like cargo crates, all of them with babies or offerings in their laps. He had farmers and businessmen there, fathers and grandmothers. There were parents with babies who weren't keeping food down, and old men haunted by black magic curses. There were young men tossed by aggression and lust, and young women looking for love matches while suffering children complained about their rashes. Everyone out of balance; everyone needing equilibrium restored.
The mood of the courtyard of Ketut's home is always one of total patience, though. Sometimes people must wait for three hours before Ketut gets a chance to take care of them, but they never so much as tap their feet or roll their eyes in exasperation. Extraordinary, too, is the way the children wait, leaning up against their beautiful mothers, playing with their own fingers to pass the time. I'm always amused later when it turns out that these same tranquil children have been brought over to see Ketut because the mother and father have decided that the child is "too naughty" and needs a cure. That little girl? That little three-year-old girl who was sitting silently in the hot sun for four straight hours, without complaint or snack or toy? She's naughty? I wish I could say, "People--you want to see naughty, I'll take you to America, show you some kids that'll have you believing in Ritalin." But there's just a different standard here for good behavior in children.
Ketut treated all the patients obligingly, one after another, seemingly unconcerned by the passage of time, giving all exactly the attention they needed regardless of who was waiting to be seen next. He was so busy he didn't even get his one meal at lunchtime, but stayed glued to his porch, obliged by his respect for God and his ancestors to sit there for hours on end, healing everyone. By evening, his eyes looked as tired as the eyes of a Civil War field surgeon. His last patient of the day had been a deeply troubled middle-aged Balinese man complaining that he had not slept well in weeks; he was being haunted, he said, by a nightmare of "drowning in two rivers at the same time."
Until this evening, I still wasn't sure what my role was in Ketut Liyer's life. Every day I've been asking him if he's really sure he wants me around, and he keeps insisting that I must come and spend time with him. I feel guilty taking up so much of his day, but he always seems disappointed when I leave at the end of the afternoon. I'm not teaching him any English, not really. Whatever English he already learned however many decades ago has been cemented into his mind by now and there isn't much space for correction or new vocabulary. It's all I can do to get him to say, "Nice to see you," when I arrive, instead of "Nice to meet you."
Tonight, when his last patient had left and Ketut was exhausted, looking ancient from the weariness of service, I asked him whether I should go now and let him have some
privacy, and he replied, "I always have time for you." Then he asked me to tell him some stories about India, about America, about Italy, about my family. That's when I realized that I am not Ketut Liyer's English teacher, nor am I exactly his theological student, but I am the merest and simplest of pleasures for this old medicine man--I am his company.
I'm somebody he can talk to because he enjoys hearing about the world and he hasn't had much of a chance to see it.
In our hours together on this porch, Ketut has asked me questions about everything from how much cars cost in Mexico to what causes AIDS. (I did my best with both topics, though I believe there are experts who could have answered with more substance.) Ketut has never been off the island of Bali in his life. He has spent very little time, actually, off this porch. He once went on a pilgrimage to Mount Agung, the biggest and most spiritually important volcano on Bali, but he said the energy was so powerful there he could scarcely meditate for fear he might be consumed by sacred fire. He goes to the temples for the big important ceremonies and he is invited to his neighbors' homes to perform weddings or coming-of-age rituals, but most of the time he can be found right here, cross-legged upon this bamboo mat, surrounded by his great-grandfather's palm- leaf medical encyclopedias, taking care of people, mollifying demons and occasionally treating himself to a cup of coffee with sugar.
"I had a dream from you last night," he told me today. "I had a dream you are riding your bicycle anywhere."
Because he paused, I suggested a grammatical correction. "Do you mean, you had a dream that I was riding my bicycle everywhere?"
"Yes! I dream last night you are riding your bicycle anywhere and everywhere. You are so happy in my dream! All over world, you are riding your bicycle. And I following you!" Maybe he wishes he could . . .
"Maybe you can come see me someday in America, Ketut," I said.
"Can't, Liss." He shook his head, cheerfully resigned to his destiny. "Don't have enough teeth to travel on airplane."