THE WORLD'S LAST ISLAND OF INNOCENCE
The following comes from English journalist Michael Davidson (1897-1976)’s Some Boys (1969), his memoir of his Greek love affairs.
The text is taken from pp. 141-54 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971), which in this instance has only few and trivial differences with that of the British edition.
Davidson says here that he visited Bali thrice, all before “about 1950”. In his autobiography The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962), Davidson says his first visit was in 1950, that his liaison with Ktut, described in greater detail below, was also that year, and implies that when writing he had not seen Bali for twelve years. Presumably all three visits were therefore in 1950.
RECENTLY I read a paragraph in the London Times headed: "Bali As a World Tourist Resort." The message came from Singapore:
“Singapore and Indonesia are to collaborate to develop Bali as an international tourist resort, Dr. Goh Keng Swee, the Finance Minister, has disclosed . . . he and his Indonesian counterpart, Dr. Frans Seda, had recently discussed the project in Manila with some American financial interests.”
This is the coup de grace: it will complete the extinction, begun nearly twenty years ago by the Javanese politicians, of the world's last island of innocence.
Until about 1950 the inhabitants of Bali, a minute segment of the Indonesian archipelago and a tiny dot of easy-going Hinduism on a map of Islamic ambition, was as innocent of worldly corruption as, to use an analogy of the English ironist Samuel Butler, a newlaid egg: they weren't interested in money; they didn't care about conventions, except the comfortable conventions of politeness which make human relationships graceful; they weren't embarrassed by the human body; they didn't believe that life should be a succession of duties to the community, or the state, or the nation, or the fatherland (though there were kindnesses that one naturally performed for one's neighbours and one's village and household gods); it had never occurred to them that work was virtuous in itself or anything other than getting something done that needed to be done; they had never supposed that the soil that grew them rice, the sea that brought them fish, and the trees that bore them coconuts and fruit could be made to provide the chemical or mineral ingredients of destruction—or that the many sorts of creature like caterpillars and grasshoppers which made dainty garnishes for their rice ought to be annihilated with insecticide; they had never for a second suspected that American financiers could see in their beautiful, simple and happy-go-lucky island a source of profit on investment capital; and they prized everyday, ordinary, morning-to-night enjoyment for man, woman and child, above anything else they could think of.
But soon after the Javanese nationalists had got rid of Dutch colonial rule; soon after the inevitable political arrogance which, alas, always follows the achievement of a new nationhood, had gone to the heads of the Muslim government of the new and sovereign Indonesia (such a strangely unimaginative "European" name for this unique and seductive agglomeration of polygenous Asian peoples); soon after the managers of revolutionary power in Jakarta (as Batavia had become) had found time to look around for centres of individualism where they could suitably interfere with people's lives and decree their conformity with the new order—soon after all this the attention of Java's revolutionary reformers turned to Bali.
This was an island of infidels—and revolutionary Java was Islamic; it was an island where, since memory began, women as well as men went bare-breasted and would have thought it improper if they didn't—and the Javanese revolutionaries were imposing the usual outward signs of revolutionary puritanism; the people of Bali were a gentle, peaceful, fun-loving lot who hadn't bothered much about the revolution and were even rather fond of the Dutch—gentleness, passivity and a desire to mind one's own playful business couldn't in these stirring times be tolerated. The Balinese even rather liked their old-fashioned modes of aristocratic government: there were five tiny toy kingdoms each under its own rajah, and every village had its own prince—and they were content with the fairy-tale system their island had been accustomed to since, they supposed, the beginning of time. So the Javanese missioners moved in—Muslim or Communist and anyway puritanical reformist—and the first thing they did was to order that female breasts should be covered up: the wearing of blouse or shift became obligatory, a measure in the interests of public morals which naturally was welcomed by the drapers of Jakarta and Surabaya. All kinds of reforms were introduced, and gradually the old aristocratic pattern was replaced by the rule of bureaucracy. (Under the old system, I don't think anybody was plebeian: there were merely higher ranks of nobility than one's own.)
In view of this Javanese sacrilege, of this alien eroding of the age-old Balinese ways of life and belief, I wasn't surprised when I heard, some years ago, of the volcanic catastrophe which destroyed so many of those lovely villages and paddyfields and coconut groves—and necessarily, too, alas, alas, so many of those beautiful and pure-spirited people, among them some, I fear, who'd been my friends. I wasn't surprised because these people's belief in their all-powerful gods who lived on the summit of the great mountain, the Gunung Agung—the very volcano that erupted—was so intense and real that obviously these gods wouldn't just watch all this sacrilege going on and do nothing about it; and the handiest vehicle for the utterance of their rage and the wreaking, possibly, of a bit of vengeance, was their own mountain which they could loose off without stepping off it. To us, who don't deal with gods of this kind, it seems an odd brand of vengeance—the demolition of their own domain and devotees. But the gods, especially when angry, have always been notoriously perverse.
This bungled demonstration of divine wrath, giving a fortuitous fillip to the political intrusions from Java, caused a further profanation of the innocence of Bali—a much-publicized spectacular disaster always brings a horde of bureaucrats, and the appearance of refugees attracts reformers and doctrinaires from all quarters. And, doubtless, thousands of these sweet and guileless islanders, driven by their own gods from the soil that had always seemed part of their own flesh, must have migrated to the sophistications of their worldly Javanese neighbour.
And now comes the third blow, and this time a mortal one from which there's no survival—"American financial interests." I remember, twenty years ago, the arrival of a fellow-guest at the admirable—almost luxurious for those parts of that epoch—hotel in Denpasar, the "capital" of the island: one of those American lady globetrotters whom one has encountered for decades all over Europe and, more recently I suppose, here and there in the Far East. She had arrived by air, as one did even in those far-off days, from Surabaya, and settled into the best room at the Denpasar Hotel. But next morning she left by the first aircraft, flying back to Java without seeing anything of Bali—she could not possibly, she explained while paying her bill, stay in any place where iced water wasn't provided by her bedside. Well, when Bali becomes a "world tourist resort" there will be plenty of iced water, and of everything else that Americans or any other tourists want. But there will no longer be Bali.
I had the good fortune to know Bali before any of these blows fell—only the Javanese blow was threatening to fall; I paid three visits to that blessed island staying for up to a month or six weeks at a time. "Good fortune" is a travesty of what I meant to say: some hyperbole like "unique privilege" or "priceless gift" is what's wanted: for Bali in those days was like the Garden of Eden before the Fall, if by Fall one means man's absorption into the worldly stream of money-grubbing, place-hunting, snobbery and vulgarity which happened the moment he became homo economicus. Bali was then paradise: not only, materially, because of the lavish generosity of its soil and verdure—one could almost live by picking things off trees from where one sat; not only, scenically, because its volcanic structure and tropical luxuriance made it, with its coasts and mountains, as beautiful an island as any existing; not only, aesthetically, because nine of its inhabitants out of ten, male and female, were artists of one kind or another, to whom craftsmanship or creativeness came as naturally as growing up; not only, emotionally, because the mood of the island seemed continually to be one of happiness and pleasure; but also, humanly, because the people of the island were innocent—innocent of the sins of monetary materialism. In fact, the native of Bali hadn't then become a proper homo economicus: true, people owned property, there were rich and poor, capitalists and wage-earners (though no industrialists)—yet the ordinary people weren't interested in money; if a person performed a service, he didn't ask to be paid in cash but was grateful for some small gift—a new sarong, perhaps, or—what had become very smart in the town—a European-style shirt.
In order to convey—before relating one or two personal tales of Balinese friendship—my own impressions of the island, I don't think I can do better than quote what I have written elsewhere:
". . . a green and flowering mountain rising rampant from the sea, with skins of feathery palm and a violent volcanic crown; a fragment of verdant paradise between the eastern tip of Java and the island of Lombok . . . it's the sort of island where, when you're thirsty, a boy swarms like a monkey up a palm trunk and knocks you down a coconut.
"I think a Greek island in the bloom of Pericles' time may have been a little like it: an island of aristocrats whose life of pleasure and flourishing art was supported by slavery—the slavery, on Bali, being provided by the generous earth. One did enough work in the padi fields to harvest rice enough to satisfy one's belly and the Rice Goddess, the Rice Mother; for the rest of the time one was happy: one danced (so many dances, theatrical or ritual, perfectly performed by exquisite little girls or handsome, epicene youths); or one painted delicate pictures of monkey-like people stooping over the padi and human-like monkeys playing among the palms; or listened to tremendous Brandenburgian concerti played by an orchestra of gongs thirty musicians strong; or carved strange goblin figures in wood; or chiselled the easy soft stone into temples worthy of the gods; or fashioned head-dresses like mitres, like Cleopatra's tiara, out of the blooms of jasmine; or one squatted under a banyan tree making much of one's fighting-cocks or playing with one's crickets captive on a thread. One drank, stronger than coconut milk, the delicious 'beer' called tuak, brewed from the sugar-palm; and ate with one's rice, off palm-leaf plates, pork or chicken, dragon-flies, flying ants and the larvae of bees; and one went down to the golden sands, palm-fringed, where the catamarans were beached, and bathed in the gay breakers, not swimming out because of the killer barracuda and vaguely covering one's genitals with a fluttering hand for convention's sake (as the mouth is covered when yawning). One wore the soft flowing simplicity of the sarong; and one chatted cosily with one's village Prince, careful only to sit on a lower level than his, and to address him in his superior upper-class language while he spoke to oneself in one's baser, lower-class language (five tongues, I think, were spoken, including Brahmini Sanscrit and excluding Dutch) and one gazed, if one were a barbarian from industrial civilization, in humble wonder at this sweet and gentle human happiness, set against the torrential greens of padi and palm: a happiness that sprang from beauty and the spontaneous creation of beauty. Everyone was an artist from infancy; they were people of the mind, as well as of the body. . . ."
On one of my visits to the island I stayed in the village of Saba as guest of its Anuk Agung, or "prince" as foreigners rendered that august title: "agung"—as in Gunung Agung, the name of the mountain which is the home of the gods—means "great," "mighty," "illustrious": a combination of all three. Saba was a large village in the verdant foothills of the mountain and a mile or so from the seashore. A stone wall, like a miniature fortification, ran right round the village, entered through ornate gateways in the Indo-Chinese style. Each household had its own pavilion, spaciously separate from its neighbours and built of the soft, red-brown stone which the village's masons and sculptors so skilfully fashioned into gargoyles and arabesques and moulded ornamentation—everybody's home was more like a pagoda than a mere house. And each home had its own walled courtyard, in which stood a small stone temple like a dovecot in which the gods lived: the god's chamber appears to be quite empty, for they are astral beings without visible substance. The village, like every village on Bali, had its own gamelan—full orchestra of gongs, xylophones and tintinnabula which together, played by true musicians, produced a glorious torrent of melody, having the tempo and zest as I've hinted above, of Bach at his most spirited; and, of course, its own company of dancers, girls and boys; and its own woodcarvers, painters and sculptors of stone.
The grandest pavilion was the Prince's; ornamented in what might be called oriental rococo and with a wide loggia reached by flights of steps on three sides—toy versions, one might say, of those majestic stairways which climb up to Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Me, the Anuk Agung had installed in a small dwelling not far from his: one room, a luxurious loft, on the upper floor, supported by a pillared arcade below and gained by a ladder. I looked out on to the special walled enclosure in which the gamelan performed its nightly rehearsals—fortunately I loved the tempestuous gusto as well as the intricate melodies of these massed percussive batteries; especially when comfortably mellowed by tuak and particularly when these enjoyments were shared with a brown-skinned young vassal of my princely host.
On my first evening, during that exquisite half hour when the dragonflies are still darting in the final glitter and when time seems to be waiting for that sudden eclipse of daylight which is the tropical sundown, I was sitting on the lower steps leading up to the Prince's terrace—he himself, of course, sitting above me on the top step. A number of his subjects—householders and retainers and a crowd of boys of all sizes eager to gape at the foreign visitor—were gathered on the steps about us, each of course placed according to his rank and all lower than the Prince. (There was one man, fortunately, who had been to school in Java and who understood enough English to interpret.) They all wore the sarong and most were barefoot; a very few wore a shirt or singlet and many of the boys had a rose or a sprig of jasmine or something of the sort behind an ear or tucked in their hair or between the teeth. The Prince's big fleshy brown body was bare to the waistline of his yellow sarong; but he wore, to mark his regality perhaps, a pair of European shoes. He was very handsome in a plump, young-middle-aged way, and bubbling with good humor, joking with the men and teasing the boys—who seemed to tease him back, but always using the idiom proper to his lofty station, while his remarks to them were made in their plebeian speech. Such was the etiquette at a Bali court. The Prince shook jovially with laughter at his own and the others' jokes; his fatty wobbling breasts quivered and his great stomach heaved like a bellows.
While gaily conversing, through the interpreter, with the Prince and his courtiers, I became aware of a warm, palpable presence against my shins and thighs, as if a great lazy dog were leaning against them; and, glancing down, found myself looking into a grinning coffee-brown face with a wide scarlet mouth behind bone-white teeth. He was squatting on the step against my feet, and his thin bare arms were folded comfortably over my knees—as if I'd been put there as a natural support for sprawling, lolling boys taking their ease. He seemed to me quite delightful, and perhaps about twelve years old—though a slight dark brown where his whiskers would be suggested he might be a year or two older. And who would blame my hand, of its own volition, it seemed—without waiting for instructions from me—for wandering down on to that glowing brown back, and feeling the warm undulations of its chocolate skin? The boy's grin became even more friendly, and he seemed to give a small affirmative toss of his head—"Go ahead," his expression appeared to say; and ahead I went.
Still brightly talking about such things as the rice-harvest in Bali and what people ate in England—"Yes, we do eat rice in England, but not every day"—I allowed my hand to do what it liked, and to descend to deeper levels of exploration: bending slightly as if to scratch my toe I picked up the hem of his sarong and felt my fingers encircle first his ankle and then the warm yielding softness of his calf, and then the narrows of one thigh above the knee. . . .
I couldn't believe that the Prince—his chief interest at the moment being his foreign guest, he kept his good-humored gold-flecked eyes fixed most of the time on me—hadn't noticed what I was up to; and the others, too, gathered on the steps couldn't have failed to observe my unusual movements. But nobody seemed to mind; I saw no sign that my behaviour was considered to be bad-mannered; so I didn't desist. . . . Most certainly the boy didn't mind: he shifted his position so that my hand could more easily glide up the yielding acres of his thigh and into the immense dark caverns of treasure that lay beyond. . . .
"Yes, yes, how fascinating—" I was saying to the Anuk Agung, as he recounted to me the various episodes of the thrilling Monkey Dance which was to be performed a few nights later—a show with a cast quite as big as that of any Broadway musical and with as much zip and zest; ". . . how fascinating—" I repeated; and, below, my knuckles came up against the silky folds of a lolling soft pouch of warm wrinkles; and then my fingers touched a velvety tuft like the down on a pigeon's breast—and then found themselves closing round a tense, upward straining rod that felt like a pillar of flame; as mighty and muscular, it seemed in my fevered mind, as the boy's entire body—a weapon of priapic proportions in the dark and secret fantasia beneath the sarong . . . "But fascinating, Prince, how I'm longing to see it"—but I wasn't thinking any longer of the Monkey Dance. . . .
After a pause, during which it may have appeared to the Prince that my attention had been wandering, he said: "You will be needing an attendant in your pavilion. I shall tell that young boy who's sitting there beside you to stay with you there tonight." What, I wondered, is the proper way to show one's gratitude for such exquisite hospitality?
* * *
It was a night of games rather than of passion—we were like children, I felt, told to run off and have a good romp. Romp we did; while the splendid torrential rhythms of the gamelan pounded below our windows; and then slept through the quick oblivious night and then awoke, both at the same instant, in the fresh bright twittering dawn, and smiled at each other, because we both felt so jolly.
Later that morning we joined the Prince for a walk to the sea; two or three of his retainers and half a dozen of the village boys came too. We went along the banked-up pathways between waterlogged paddy-fields, skirted tangles of mini-jungle and sugar-palm and huge venerable banyans with multiple trunks like something out of space fiction; and heard the swish and chatter of the leaping monkeys high among the branches. Halfway, we rested in the shade of one of these; and the boys, running up like squirrels, scaled the fifty-foot bare trunks of neighbouring coconut palms to knock down some nuts so that we could all have a drink. The coconut glades, clumps of soaring stalks like a field full of ostriches, grew down to the very brink of the shore—there were fifty yards of golden sand between the green gables of the palm-forest and the big Pacific breakers.
From the water's brink one or two fishermen were casting with hand-nets into the surf—nets very like, I suppose, those familiar on the Sea of Galilee since St Peter's time, and exactly the same as I've seen on the banks of the Upper Niger near Timbuctoo. A few catamarans lay beached above the tide—very different from what are known today as "catamarans" in the yachting world: a single longboat with short mast and lugsail, and two outrigger spars fore and aft holding a hefty steadying beam or pole which acted as a second keel.
We'd all drop our sarongs, and dash down into the breaking rollers—led by the laughing plump Anuk Agung, whose fat flabby buttocks waggled as he ran and whose dangling genitalia were much too voluminous to keep within the cover of his veiling hand. The boys leapt and dived and surfaced like dolphins, and my little friend's slight brown form flashed over the water like a fish's fin.
Then we'd wander slowly back to Saba, cracking more nuts on the way and drinking the milk; and the Prince's household would send over to my pavilion palm leaf platters of rice and pork (the lean, hairy, untamed-looking pigs rootled round every village), which the boy and I ate together beside the shadowed pillars of our dwelling. And while we ate, the weirdly sweet notes of some aerial woodwind would come melodiously down to our ears: the Balinese are in the habit of rigging high among the branches a kind of flute-like contrivance which, when the breeze blows right, gives out soft dulcet sounds, a kind of airborne music. And then, once we'd eaten and digested, it was soon time for another romp. . . .
I stayed at Saba perhaps a week; we parted, that charming urchin and I, as light-heartedly as we had spent our time together. He was overjoyed at the new sarong I gave him.
* * *
On another visit to Bali, I gained a memory which has remained with me ever since, even more precious than that of my companion at Saba. I set off from Denpasar, the island's "business-centre," to visit an old friend, a Swiss artist who for a great many years had lived in a small village on the heights of the mountain: the great purple-crowned volcano which has since disastrously erupted. I have written elsewhere about what I met with during this ascent of the mountain, and might as well repeat now what I said then. The first paragraph reveals the Balinese belief in their key position in the universe:
"While the sun circled about the earth, the world, of course, revolved round Bali; the Gunung Agung, the great central mountain, was the 'navel of the earth'; wherever one might be, one could always find the North by looking towards the mountain. . . .
"High on the mountain, Theo lived with his Balinese family a delightful and talented Swiss painter and a kind of father-figure to his villagers: to him, possessed of useful medical knowledge, they brought their maladies as well as their domestic problems. His people were great brewers of tuak; and visiting him, one could be sure of a splendid roistering time and a performance of the dance special to his village: by which small dainty girls, crowned with flowers, exorcized the devils of anybody who chanced to be possessed of some. . . .
"On the way up to Theo's, there was a hamlet called Selatt, surrounded by terraced padi-fields. Here one stayed in a resthouse where, for a few rupiya one could get a dish of rice, a flagon of tuak and a small room; and where, after gently making known to the Mayor one's amorous preference, one's desires were mysteriously fulfilled. Nothing was said; nobody appeared during the evening's supping and drinking; but when one went to bed one would find, wistfully smiling from the gloaming of the room, a tender brown creature who took it for granted he was staying the night. There would be no question of payment: the Balinese weren't interested in money; but if one made a present of a new sarong there would be abounding and touching gratitude. That's how I came to know Ktut—alas, I have treacherously forgotten his name, for Ktut was merely his 'title,' meaning 'second son': one of the sweetest and most affectionate companions I've had, who stayed with me for all the rest of that blissful month and travelled with me all over the island. . . ."
So Ktut, of course, went with me up to Theo's; I remember how, walking up, we came high above the rice-fields to a mountain stream whose bed, though the river itself was little more than a trickle, was a broad ribbon of rock and boulder—washed clean of topsoil by centuries of recurring torrents. We picked our way upstream for quite a distance, jumping about the boulders: we wanted a pool at least deep enough to splash in, a freshener—after what had been a rather tumultuous night—before we arrived at Theo's. That night we slept happily together on a mat of plaited palm-leaf in a small room full of canvases and pots of paint; and next day went down to Denpasar.
I'd become good friends with the manager of the Denpasar Hotel, a shrewd, witty and understanding Dutchman: had I not know him well I don't suppose I'd have dared—though in those days I dared most things—to have Ktut staying in my hotel room for a week or so. But this nice man turned a blind eye on Ktut's presence, and the room-servants seemed to take him for granted. Ktut adored this strange sort of European luxury, and never tired of using the shower. But I didn't take him into the restaurant for meals: he went out to eat his own kind of food in the town. The sight of this golden-skinned fifteen-year-old clad only in a sarong taking his meals in the swagger restaurant would certainly have surprised most of the visitors there; but it was to save him embarrassment rather than myself that I didn't bring him in—he wouldn't have known how to go about this type of eating. But he often came in and joined me at my table while I was having a meal, and drank some orange juice or something—and it amused me to see my fellow customers stare!
We wandered together all over the island, staying in village inns and princely pavilions; and then I had to leave. I quote again:
"But then, like all one's loves made fleeting by the compulsions of time, bliss came to an end; I had to go back to work: I had to leave Ktut, pathetically forlorn, but enriched by several new sarongs and, I hope, some sweetness of memory. After sadly putting him on the bus for his home, I found that my aircraft was delayed and I had to stay for an extra bereaved day. In Powys Mashers' translation from the Arabian Nights: 'Were I to stay, I'd see the places where her absence is, And hear her silences: Let me away.' "