A House Fitting
The man with his hands on the grips was Nyoman; the big motorcycle rumbled at his suggestion then bolted forward. I was the other guy, the guy on the back, just along for the ride. We leaned into the corner at Ubud Palace and swept by the crowd of cars-for-hire clustered there. Nyoman made short work of the blocks of restaurants and shops, the guesthouses; then, we were out in the country, rising up through terraced rice fields, the flooded paddies reflecting a heavy, silver light. Things looked to be getting agrarian, but not entirely. Right-in-the-rice-fields appeals to tourists, so guesthouses and villas often intrude on the farming life. Bali has been a spoiled paradise for a very long time, at least for those who want to be the only fallen Adam or Eve in sight. But I fell hard and far long ago, and I no longer expect the world to come to me all clean.
I looked over Nyoman’s shoulder, my face turned to the rush of palms against a mottled blue sky, white egrets over the sharp green of new shoots of rice. Bougainvillea and paradise banana. Clumps of deep yellow coconuts and the solid promise of green papayas. Kinds of bamboo. The small, tended shrines to Dewi Sri, the rice goddess. The place looked good to me! And passing.
Nyoman powered down and braked to a stop on a graveled berm. He nodded toward a gate as I swung off the back then pulled the big machine up on its stand. He flashed his loopy grin, just like when he’d told me he used to be cool. Now he is warm, friendly. He was the second person I’d shook hands with on Bali. His name had given me a little shock when I first met him. The taxi driver who’d brought me out from Denpasar had also introduced himself as Nyoman. What are the chances of that? I’d thought. Pretty good, as it turns out. Children in Bali are named according to birth order, male or female (gender noted only by an article): Wayan, Made, Nyoman, Ketut. After four, the names cycle through the list again. My original sense of unlikely coincidence had given way before a greater doubt. The Balinese way of naming got me thinking, about what they do, and about what we do, how we give given names. The best travel estranges in just this way—insists our worlds are made up. Which is not to say arbitrary. Different worlds don’t cancel each other out, don’t make it all relative and meaningless. Everything human speaks. But sometimes at home the world speaks in a drone, the familiar drowns out the strangeness of our own choices.
All of which sounds terribly abstract. The abstraction is in thinking about it, but before the thinking there is a moment when the flatness of things seems to go 3D. Just seeing. And that moment, densely suggestive, feels valuable, whether or not the suggestions are ever taken up.
I stepped through the gate ahead of Nyoman. He’d asked me if I was interested in seeing the place, a new villa he’d built recently, and I’d said sure. Perhaps he’d hoped I’d be so taken with it I’d want to rent the place, if not now, another time. And maybe he was a little proud of it. I did like it. For new construction, it had surprising presence, perhaps because in Bali the new begins to look old very quickly. Still, I liked my place in town at Nyoman’s homestay better, where I could walk almost anywhere in Ubud. I had a second floor room overlooking the family compound, which was full of flowering trees and birds, some wild and some caged. Besides, the address could not be improved on, the place was called Nirvana, the street, Goutama. And it was much cheaper than the villa.
Walking back to the motorcycle, Nyoman, who in his cool days had adopted the nickname Yoyo, after the toy, mentioned that the villa had been built asta kosala kosali, according to the old ways. That explains the feel of the place, he said, pushing his oversize horn-rimmed dark glasses back up the bridge of his nose, Good, no? He straddled the big motorcycle, his batik sarong pulled taught over his thighs. I got on the back, peering one last time at the compound’s heavy great gate. It looked overbuilt; you walked under as well as through it, and you felt the change going in and going out.
On the ride back into town, it occurred to me that if I had been born Balinese I would have been named Nyoman, too. The way identity sticks to a name seemed, for a second, to pull loose; then I was Kevin again, paying closer attention to the thick, roofed gates that lined the road than I had on the ride out. The variety was daunting—stone or wood, brick or mud—and yet, even sweeping by, there seemed to be a family resemblance, a common feeling that joined them all. Not surprisingly, it was with gates, doors, that I started to take an interest in traditional Balinese architecture. I hadn’t been inside much. It was my first time on Bali, and I had no sooner arrived than I’d fallen under the spell of Balinese dance. If I wasn’t at a performance, I soon would be. So most of the architecture I saw was public or sacred; Ubud Palace hosted dances regularly, as did any number of community halls and Hindu temples in the region.
Nyoman, no doubt noticing my developing mania, began to suggest dance performances that would not otherwise have come to my attention. He sent me to school, to watch children learning to dance. He sent me to see pendet as it was meant to be danced, in a temple, in Peliatan. I watched gambuh at a major temple rededication in Kedewatan. And one night, he arranged for me to see Christine Formaggia and her small troupe dance topeng in a Brahmin temple I don’t know where, somewhere down a lot of twisty roads. Topeng is danced masked, a few dancers taking many parts in an old court story. The dancers assumed a new identity every time they put on a different mask, and the performance stretched for hours. That night was the only time I saw traditional topeng, though often public dance performances included one or another topeng character danced solo, generally the old man, an odd choice. Somehow I ended up in the back seat of Christine’s own beat-up station wagon for the ride back to Ubud. She drove badly and that car had no springs, I swear. Still, I was amused until she dumped me out at the bridge in Campuhan and I was left to walk back to Nirvana at that hour when the gates are all closed and the Bali dogs get threatening. I began to see myself as a figure of fun, ridiculous in my obsession with Balinese dance. It wasn’t even a big obsession, nothing like the tragedy of the grand balletomanes throwing their fortunes and reputations at the feet of some willowy girl. No, I was just the guy who showed up early to sit in the front row, mildly besotted.
So I pulled back and began to notice the architecture. By the time I left Bali I had a sense of the vocabulary of Balinese building, and I thought I could tell the difference between buildings that were “Bali style” and buildings that were more traditionally Balinese. But I had no idea how conditioned my responses were by the categories I brought to what I was seeing. My understanding was almost entirely aesthetic and/or functional. Back home, I started to read. Immediately I found myself revising what I thought I’d seen, and, soon thereafter, planning another trip.
I wanted to get myself measured for a house. It sounds odd, I know. And when I got back to Bali, it played as odd there, too, because I wasn’t interested in actually building. I just wanted to speculate a house, imagine up a house compound that would be, in the Balinese way, right for me. To have my measure taken, literally. Because the first thing I discovered was that the traditional Balinese compound is sized to its owner, to his body rather than to the size of his pocket book. This fitting is not only general, a big house for a big man, but particular and thoroughgoing. The body of man, a man, becomes the measuring stick for the construction of his family’s compound. (Always a man? The structure of traditional Balinese society seems to make no provision for women in this regard, though I see no reason why a woman’s body could not function in just the same way—as a ruler.)
Man is the measure of all things, here, not in the Protagorean sense, but quite literally. I read all about it, how thin strips of bamboo were notched according to the size of various spans on the body, and how the strips of bamboo then became the rulers used in construction—without the mediation of any other system of measurement. Nothing like inches, feet, or yards, just notches on a bamboo stick (called a gagulak). I had no sooner understood this than I wanted one of those sticks. My stick, my ruler. A sad, self-regarding desire, perhaps, but there you have it.
Of course, I already had some sizes. 6’. A weight (variable). 12, for shoes. 7 _, for hats. 45, for a jacket. Large. And once as a young man—what was I thinking?—I’d even got myself measured for a suit. It’ll wear like iron, was what the salesman said.
One size never fits all, of course, but what the Balinese way seemed to suggest was that size was not an external measure at all, to be fit into, but something inherent, something that could be made manifest. And, through asta kosala kosali, seen, inhabited.
When I read the term, which refers to the whole practice of traditional architecture in Bali, I remembered having heard it drop from Nyoman’s lips when we inspected his new villa outside Ubud. Although clearly not an entirely traditional compound, even in memory I recognized the expansive feel of that place as an extension of Nyoman’s own considerable amplitude. He’s a big guy, by Balinese standards, a very big guy. When he rides his motorcycle through the streets of Ubud, shining black hair tied in a batik kerchief, often wearing a canvas vest, he’s not mistaken for anybody else. What Nyoman called the good feel of his villa, of buildings constructed according to the lontars of asta kosala kosali, however, derives not so much from size as from layout and proportion, though a small man’s compound would be constructed along less generous lines. A balanced beauty, deep in the bones of how a compound is conceived. A westerner, likely, assimilates the effect to aesthetics, if not anthropology. But the builders, and indeed Balinese in general, while alive to aesthetic effects, arrive at them through indirection. Their aims are broadly religious rather than aesthetic. And perhaps beauty is more amenable to an oblique than to a direct approach. Like happiness. Happy people don’t pursue it. They live well, live in a world of felt meanings, and find that they are happy. To act for happiness is to live in a whirlpool of self-regard, which promotes not happiness but despair. Or so I was thinking, trying to understand why beauty should so often appear where it is not looked for, in the living, and why it often evades those who self-consciously set out to have it.
So I returned to Bali. Again the great dome of blue sky, the flowering, the milk-and-butter colors of frangipani, painted beauties, like hibiscus and flame trees. When I stepped out of the taxi, it all came rushing back. The alley dogs on Goutama seemed to know me—they couldn’t be bothered to raise a racket. I rolled my bag down the long cobbled walkway to Nirvana, the feeling of return strong within me. I passed through the compound gate into the courtyard and there sat Nyoman, deep in a book. Then he raised his head and gave me his loopy grin and said, You’re back, welcome, not surprised at all. He called for the houseboys to carry a writing table up into my old room. The cockatiels roused themselves, and a new bird, a vivid lori, showed off a little, turning on his perch, well satisfied, apparently, with his coat of many colors.
Although I intended to have my measure taken soon after I returned to Ubud, and did give my attention to vernacular housing whenever I went walking, by night I found myself again in thrall to the dance. I found I was seeing it differently, more the dancer than the dance. Perhaps I was inching closer to the role of the dance-drunk balletomane.
Days, then weeks passed. Everything felt as if it had happened between dances, and it had, but getting measured for a house hadn’t happened at all. I had applied to Nyoman, of course, thinking he’d be able to put me in touch with an architect conversant with asta kosala kosali. But the architects he knew charged a hundred dollars an hour and built Bali-style internationally, houses that were more about a look than a tradition. Young architects speaking fluent English, that was the attraction, but also the problem. Slowly it dawned on me that one of their kind was not likely to be an undagi, a traditional Balinese architect. And I thought too that perhaps the measure of my wallet had been mistaken.
I often stopped in my walking about to talk with Made, a driver who had his stand at the corner of Goutama and Jalan Raya. Last year he’d helped me find my way into the studio of one of the best traditional painters in Bali, in Kamasan, translating my many questions. When I asked Made if he could put me in touch with an undagi, he said he knew an architect in the village next to his own. His cousin, as a matter of fact.
Made suggested his cousin while he was negotiating the narrow bridge over the river at Campuhan. Then we swung right, heading up the hill towards Neka Museum. He was working, an Australian girl in the back paying the fare on a ride to a meditation center away from the noise of town. Made asked me to explain again what I wanted, having some difficulty getting it, in spite of his more than serviceable English. He repeated what I’d said back to me, then gave me a blank look, his eyes round. I had started in again when the girl in the back leaned forward between the seats; she said, to Made, Pretend, he wants to pretend!
Then we were there and the girl got out and Made asked me to explain the whole thing one more time, and I did, stressing that I would want my own bamboo rulers, notched in the old way, according to the measure of my body. Finally, Made nodded, fished a cell phone out of his shirt pocket, and called his cousin. His explanation of what I wanted was punctuated by a good deal of laughing, I noticed, but the cousin agreed to humor me and a time was agreed on.
Although it’s not immediately apparent in a town like Ubud—by now an amalgam of several villages—a traditional Balinese village is laid out on an axis, the orientation of which is determined by how the village sits in the landscape. The cardinal directions are kaja, mountainward, and kelod, seaward; so a village on the north side of the island has, according to the compass, an orientation that reverses the orientation of a village in the south. But that’s a western view. For the Balinese, all traditional villages have the same orientation, which turns around—like spokes in a wheel—the axel of Gunung Agung, the mountain residence of the gods. Seaward is always away from the mountain, as the sea is all around.
If kaja is the direction of the sacred, kelod is the direction of the profane. The people live in between. The axis of life itself is made manifest in the placement of a traditional village’s three principal temples: pura puseh, the temple of origin, is sited mountainward; pura desa, the main temple, stands at the center of the town; while seaward lies pura dalem, sometimes called the temple of the dead, with its burning ground and attendant cemetery. The Balinese worship Wishnu at pura puseh, Brahma at pura desa, and Siwa at pura dalem. The layout of the village thus mirrors the cosmological structure of the universe, which suggests a way of seeing things quite different than what we mean by city planning.
But the Balinese did not exhaust their cosmological zoning of the “built structure” of their world in the orientation of the village; each temple exhibits the same kaja/kelod orientation, as do traditional house compounds, where the family temple occupies the most sacred corner of the grounds, while in the most profane corner animals mill in their pens by the garbage pit.
Corner, rather than end. Because in addition to the primacy of what is mountainward and what is seaward, the Balinese understanding of space is also conditioned by what is eastward, towards the rising sun, and what is westward, towards the setting sun. Eastward, kangin, is the second most sacred direction, while westward, kauh, is the second least. Kangin and kauh remain constant all over the island, but how they align with kaja and kelod varies depending on where you are in relation to Gunung Agung. Which makes for complexity. The zoning of space is layered. Transparencies would help. But, really, you’re going to need an undagi to sort out the difficulties when it comes time to build.
The Balinese organization of space is both stunningly abstract and remarkably visual. So near the equator, the sun rises in the west all year round. You can look—kangin. And kaja is not known by faith—on clear days the blue profile of the big mountain shows, unmistakably, there. On cloudy days, you have the evidence of the architecture, if you know how to read it. But you can’t see just how pervasive the Balinese sense of direction is in consciousness, how meaningful. The westerner’s sense of direction is not only depressed but, by now, almost meaningless. It’s a W on a freeway sign, little more. “Going westward,” in the old Irish sense, calls for a footnote. For most westerners, a significant sense of direction is now so lost it’s not even missed. Our orientation has more to do with where we want to get to than where we actually are.
In Bali, when a man lies down to sleep he points his feet seaward, kelod, or westward, kauh. He knows which way. The body too is zoned, the head sacred, the feet profane, the trunk between. Standing, the head is up, and in that sense mountainward, the feet down, seaward, a physical relation that’s maintained while sleeping by orienting the body kaja-kelod, or kangin-kauh.
By the time I returned to my bed at Nirvana a second year, I knew enough to realize that the headboard was kelod, that in the dark under my mosquito net I slept, somehow, upside down, like a bat in a cave.
Made’s blue van squeezed around a parked car on Goutama before rolling to a stop. Body a bit battered, creaking in the springs, an engine that pinged—old. I climbed in what felt to me like the wrong door—Bali being one of those places where cars come with a right-hand drive. And small—I sat with my knees pressed against the dash for the duration. But Made’s cousin’s village came up quick; not far from Ubud, it had none of Ubud’s flashiness. No tourists, nothing for tourists. No shops, no signs. A face without make-up. The three temples, community buildings, a drum tower. The plain walls of modest house compounds. And then we were there.
After the introductions, we settled down on the mats in the guest pavilion (bale). Made introduced his cousin, Wayan, not a traditional undagi but a university educated architect who had studied the old ways at school. Another cousin, Ketut, soon joined us, a builder. Ketut’s wife brought out soft drinks, and before long there was quite a crowd come to see the westerner with the weird request. Again, I explained what I wanted. An old man shuffled up and the cousins translated for him. I could hardly take my eyes off the old fellow, stately in his batik sarong and twist of a hat. When I asked who he was, he cocked his head, his brown eyes sympathetic, as Made explained that he was their grandfather, who had himself been a builder of traditional houses his whole working life. Now well into his eighties, he slept in a tiny bale a few steps across the open court from where we were sitting. It looked to be the oldest structure in the compound, the bale dangin, or ceremonial pavilion. The old man, a Wayan too, preferred to sleep out of doors, and made up his bed on the platform that hung directly from the teak corner posts, the very place his corpse would be laid out when that day arrived. I asked if old Wayan’s was the body that had been measured when the bale dangin was built, but the pavilion was older than that even, over a hundred years old.
I was ready, ready for my body to manifest its proportions into space, for my place to take shape, if only in imagination, under the afternoon sun, light pouring from the west. And out came the tape measure. Gagulaks? I asked. The architect gave me a puzzled look, holding up the tape. Bamboo gagulaks? Only old Wayan nodded. But clearly no bamboo strips had been prepared. I glanced at Made and he glanced at the architect. They talked. Finally, Made said, Same, same. I thought it made a difference, that to notch a gagulak was not the same thing as referring everything to an external measure. But I didn’t insist; I didn’t see how insisting would help.
Depa, asta, musti, old Wayan said suddenly, forcefully. Then he showed me, first pointing to the tips of his middle fingers, he stretched his arms out, as wide as they would go, Depa. Asta, he said, reaching his right arm out in front of him, he touched his elbow, then lifted his forearm up, indicating the tip of his extended middle finger. Asta, he said again. Then he help up a fist, and pointed at the span between the bottom of his little finger and the top of his thumb, Musti. Depa, asta, musti, the old man chanted, demonstrating the spans one after another as if he was doing Tai Chi or perhaps signaling the pilot of a jet, maneuvering a big plane up to the terminal. The old man’s outsize gestures pulled asta kosala kosali out of the books for me, made the living current in the traditional ways hum. I felt the body in the measure. A traditional undagi would have notched my depa asta musti onto a gagulak, and it would have been used to lay out the bale walls.
We started in. They measured the length of my foot, the tampak, 29 centimeters, and the width, the urip, 10 centimeters. They showed me how to pace off, heel to toe, the various spans in a house compound. The distances were always a significant multiple of the length of my foot, with the addition of a single width (the urip). Although a compound would be conditioned by the owner’s caste, wealth, the size of the family, and the desired level of embellishment, the placement of the bales within the compound would always be measured out by the owner’s feet. My feet struck the little crowd gathered around to watch the proceedings as amusingly large. Indeed, every single part of me occasioned a snicker as too big. The pavilions that rose up in their imaginations as we worked through the most important measurements must have been so outsize as to seem almost grotesque. As a person, I was overbuilt.
The most striking feature of Balinese bales, other than the thick thatched roofs, are the teak posts that support them. Called sasakas, these posts are simply beautiful, squared off below, they rise through a paduraksa, a carved design that transforms the post from four to eight-sided above. The dimensions of the posts are determined by a series of spans taken off the hand, which, added together, become the rahi, the basic unit of measurement used to carpenter the posts. Below the paduraksa, the posts are one rahi to a side. Because this is a variable, rather than a standard measurement, Balinese carpenters traditionally had to hew the posts to measure. The length of the posts, a multiple of the rahi and a single finger urip, like the width, are standard throughout the compound, and contribute to the harmony of the whole. Though the height of my posts occasioned giggles all around, it felt right to me, and I stood looking up at the tape measure extended to 264 centimeters for a long time, satisfied.
It was while we were taping the depa agung that I stepped in the chicken shit. I reached as high as I could with my left arm, and rose up onto the toes of my right foot, stretching, then let myself down once the measurement was taken, barefoot into a little pile of chicken shit. I felt mocked, but not by my hosts. They were sorry, and Ketut’s wife led limping me back to the kelod corner of the compound, where she poured a bucket of water over my foot. Too many chickens, was all she said.
After that, my passion for a house fitting flagged. We talked. Young Wayan explained that the gate opening into the compound was measured from elbow to elbow when, hands on hips, the elbows were held out, arms akimbo. The width of the doors inside the compound was taken off the head, like a hat size, and my fat head elicited a round of soft chuckles: it would be easy to get the furniture in and out, anyway. Wayan sketched a compound of four bales, something appropriate for a small family. He shaded the grounds around the pavilions with quick pencil strokes, Swastika, he said, indicating the shape of the darkened ground. Clockwise-turning, a Hindu swastika, like a clock face with the hours ticking forward.
After a traditional Balinese compound is built, a priest is called in and through a series of ceremonies the buildings are brought to life. The trees and bamboo, the very grasses used for thatch, everything that was sacrificed in the construction of the bales, is reincarnated into new life. Thereafter, the pavilions are thought of as alive and treated with respect. On ceremonial occasions, they may even be dressed, like people. The roof corresponds to the head, the posts to the body, and the foundation to the feet. Alive. In the west, I think, we are far more likely to characterize architecture as dead than living, though to say dead testifies, perhaps, to an unacknowledged desire to inhabit a world that at least feels alive.
Before we left, Young Wayan cautioned me that what we’d done was but a primer, that asta kosala kosali was far more complex than what we’d been able to cover. But I already knew that: everything in Bali is more complicated than you’d think, just looking. I thanked them, thanked them all, and bowed my head deeply over my tented hands when I said goodbye to Old Wayan, who’d been the one best able to animate our discussion, to make me feel the house in my body.
On the drive back to Ubud, Made asked about my house back home, and I found that in Balinese terms there was little to say of it. A three bedroom stucco bungalow, built about 1920. How the sun tracks in winter. The view over the graveyard to blue hills. A house not defined so much by what it is as by what’s in it. That speaks, has meaning, but in an idiosyncratic way.
Ahead, we saw two horsemen rounding a curve. Westerners. Somehow they had sparked a commotion, and just as we began to swing left, following the narrow paved track, a cow jumped out of a raised field, over a wide drainage ditch, smack onto the pavement in front of us. She was that cow jumping over the moon in the illustrated Mother Goose, hooves high fore and aft, head thrown back. When she landed it was as if on ice, her legs churning on the slippery pavement; but she regained her balance and charged on down, across the road and into a field, running, her tether streaming behind her. I wouldn’t have thought that jump possible—how what’s credible can suddenly expand! We laughed. What looked like an accident, a disaster for someone, resolved into a great joke. And that calf, peering out of the long grass of the upper field after its mother, must have been wondering what that jump was all about!
When I arrived back at Nirvana Nyoman was drinking Bali coffee and he poured me a cup, and I told him all about my house fitting. He sympathized that the architect and his family had found me big, comically big, because, as he said, he was big, too. But I think he found me a little cracked on the subject of gagulaks. I asked him if the architects had notched gagulaks for him when he’d had the villa built out in the rice fields, saying I’d like to see them. They had. But I didn’t keep them, he said. Why would I? I still have my body, and he made a sweeping motion with his free hand. My measure is right here!
The next time I saw Made he asked me if I’d be interested in visiting a couple of house compounds in Batuan. Old style, totally original, he said. Very cheap to see, almost free. I was interested, but I thought the old ways must be passing more quickly than I’d realized if there was now a business in showing them. House museums! Could dioramas be far behind? Still, Let’s go, was all I said.
But the first place was under renovation, perhaps the proceeds from visitors paying for a renewal that made the place less traditional every day—an irony familiar to travelers everywhere, their arrival hastening the end of the very thing they’ve come to see. Workers in shades were rebuilding the low, interior walls that separated the family temple, with its ancestor shrines, from the rest of the compound. Yards of smooth cement had been poured in. Pre-cast decorative elements and terra cotta brick. Everything ruler straight and crisp. The harmonies of asta kosala kosali, the human proportions, were lost to sight. And the soft edges of use, of touch, had been obliterated where the work was new and made to look shabby in what was still old. The graying man who showed us around—and he looked a little out of place against the new walls, too—was visibly pleased with what money had wrought. He hadn’t bought a refrigerator for the cook house, after all; his first thought had been to get right with the gods. That old man, so small, his wrinkled body had folded up as if made ready to be put away. He took my hand in his as I was leaving, smiling, something in him warm and expansive, still alive to the momentary connection of a chance meeting.
The ground of the second compound had been paved with rounded river stones. Although the shape of the earth had been smoothed, some of the original contours of the site were still visible. A few beds for bushes and flowers had been created with a curb of raised stones, but they were not so many. A little dirt showed in the pigs’ corner. Here and there a small palm or fig created a patch of welcome shade. Four ducks huddled together near the well.
Entering, we had passed through a roofed gate, and by a screening wall, the aling-aling, built just inside. Although the gate was massively built, I’d felt the pinch of a small man’s arms-akimbo passing through, and a sudden sense of opening in stepping around the stone screening wall: here, you entered, not grandly, but definitely. Inside, it felt a protected world, a walled garden. The effect was not only visual; there were small shrine boxes on each side of the gate, where the potency of the gate’s protection is renewed daily with offerings, and the aling-aling was not just there to visually screen the compound from the street, but also to keep evil out, which traditional Balinese believe only travels in a straight line.
The center of the Balinese compound is left open, an interior courtyard that all the bales face. In a modest compound like this one, none of the bales are big enough to suggest the word “house.” They seem more like outbuildings without the big house, or free standing rooms, each with its own raised foundation and thatched roof. Except for the north building, which is enclosed, about half of what the pavilions have under roof is covered porch. Public and private space are zoned very differently here than in the west. Our urban model is domestic and private inside, public space immediately outside, sidewalks and the street. Our suburban model, a house in a green, is domestic and private inside, semi-private outside. In a Balinese compound, the whole lot is private and domestic, walled, but there is very little personal privacy, very little space behind walls. It’s an arrangement that fosters a sense of family, while discouraging self-regard. Solidarity over against isolation.
Somehow the freestanding bales, each separate, but all of them in a family way featuring teak posts, thatched roofs, and mud walls, possess a kind of casual clarity, nothing crowded, nothing too close or closed, everything distinct. Oriented kaja and kelod, east and west, up and down, each bale with its specified uses. It’s an order achieved, but not taken for granted. Not only is the entry to the compound protected from malign influence by the gate and the screening wall, but the pattern that the river stones take, laid out on the ground, everything that is not one of the four main pavilions, itself describes a rough Hindu swastika; even birds of the air would be able to see that the place is protected.
Made whispered to me, This place is very interesting, and again I realized that this is a passing world, which modern Bali has begun to forget. The quiet authority of the compound, everything built according to an articulated plan, no reaching, no showiness, would soon count as a rarity. The measure of the particular man who first lived here, who stood still while the carpenters notched the strips of bamboo off his body according to the old formula’s of asta kosala kosali, his measure seemed more symbolic than crucial to the particular proportions of the place. Any man—or woman—would do about as well. What matters most is the gesture to the human body, an honoring, and an acknowledgement that we are made flesh, that our living takes place in a human world, our life in the larger life of that place.
We walked through, visitors in a passing place. In one corner the ancestor shrines, dressed, and at the other end, the rail fence of the sty. Everything swept and quiet. Before we left, an old woman stepped down out of a bale to greet us. The years had had their way with her. Dressed only in a sarong pulled tight around her waist, she might have been one of the girls painted by Walter Spies or William Gerard Hofker in the 30s and 40s, when from the west Bali had an Edenic look. Then, the traditional ways were less remembered than just lived. That girl had weathered down to this, friendliness a matter of fact, warm eyes, a gap-toothed smile. We touched hands. Made made the polite inquiries and she laughed, pointing around the compound with the small staff in her left hand. Looking at her, I thought we all die in a past world, and that this is as it should be, and acceptable.
A journey ends. But before I left the island I wanted to see that girl again, my favorite condong, in the legong dance of the youth troop in Peliatan. Not, maybe, the most technically proficient condong around Ubud, and not the most elegant, either; she nevertheless danced with incomparable authority. She was visited by the dance, and the dance possessed her so completely that her body seemed to disappear within the flashing body of the dance itself. A world all electric. A dance-lit room.
The free transport proved an old van; only four of us boarded in central Ubud for the short trip to Peliatan. Two old guys from Osaka chattered in the back, to each other, and to a young woman from Kyoto who sat across the aisle from me. After the introductions, I kept to myself, sank into the melancholy of the half-illuminated night scenes flitting by beyond the glass. I saw the eyes of the driver in the rearview mirror, his attention taken up by the Japanese. Perhaps the girl from Kyoto appealed to him, reserved, but willing to humor the old men. Or perhaps it was the old men themselves, their high spirits rendered harmless by age. When the van stopped I was the first one out, walking the long alley to the dance hall alone in the dark. I wanted that chair in front, but I liked the dark alley, too, and preferred it alone. The moon’s radiant progress. The slow rain of all those southern stars going west.
I got the chair, but the condong who danced that night was not my girl, but another girl, beautiful and elegant, the better technician, no doubt the better dancer. But she did not combust. It did not feel, for the space of a dance, that where she stood the earth circled round.
I felt chagrinned, a little silly. And I sat quietly in my chair the rest of the evening. The last dance of the night was topeng, the masked old man. He tottered out onto the stage, as if surprised to find himself there, lit up and on display. Although he still wore the opulent clothes of a court gentleman, the old man seemed bewildered by them, in danger of tripping himself up. And when he tried to dance, he stumbled. His hair, formerly black and neat, now sprouted from his head white, long and disheveled. And a great white mustache hung from his upper lip. Worse, he searched his flesh like a man plagued by nits and fleas.
I sat in the small crowd, silent; we were all silent, lost in a great mirror.
This old man, he came right up to the stage edge, in front of the footlights, gesturing, reaching out a palsied hand to the Japanese girl from the van. He beckoned, she cringed. He begged, she relented. She stood up and put her hand in his, and the old man beamed, for a second, and then he dropped her hand, stumbling back, resuming not the dance but his failure to dance. The girl sat down, embarrassed, while the old man climbed the stairs to his exit.
The Southern Cross hung low in the alley as I walked back to the van. When I arrived, the driver was already there, and feeling talkative. He complained about the heat, and his face did glisten, wet. A breeze, cool and sweet, touched me lightly, moving on. I was dancing, the driver said, hot. The lights and the costume, very hot. Which dance, I asked, what part? The old man, he said shyly, perhaps a little mischievously, and we laughed together as the Japanese walked up. When I told her, the girl from Kyoto wouldn’t believe it. Not really so old, the driver said. Not yet.