Byline by M J Akbar : A Bali Diary
The rich are different from you and me; they have the same airport. The first casualty of globalisation is identity. Every airport in the developed, or wannabe -developed, world looks the same: a confusion of corridors, conveyer belts, junk shops and a profusion of winding queues at immigration. You can recognise a nation from the look in the queues. There is faintly-hidden arrogance on the faces of officials in receiving countries, and barely-disguised relief in the manner of passengers chasing some better horizon than their native land can provide. Delhi is somewhere in the middle, there is both ebb and flow. The one thing in common between ebb and flow is torture. Signs advertise that the airport, currently in a compete mess, is on its way to becoming world class. This is apparently considered good news by the developer and presumably the civil aviation ministry. We will know what they mean when we finally see what we get; in the meantime don't raise your hopes too high.
Denpasar airport, in Bali, the exotic Hindu island on the southern tip of the Indonesian archipelago, is a gateway to the lost world of charm, grace and the sheer opulence of an environment lush with rain, paddy and forest. There is nothing artificial about the welcome in the Balinese smile, which begins in the eyes and spreads gently across the face. The airport is designed like a home, airy, free, spacious, sunlit.
It is an illusion of course but you get the sense that there are no walls in Bali. The architecture of wood breathes with the quiet harmony of nature. The doors are exquisitely carved, but they seem designed to remain open rather than slam shut. Stone comes to life in brilliant statuary, as deities and demons from a rich and vibrant belief system that ill-deserves the nomenclature of mythology. Epic scenes from the Mahabharata are carved high into the air at intersections of the road that takes us from Denpasar to the rain forest and Ayung river valley of Ubud. Lord Krishna and Arjuna, or Arjana as it is pronounced here, on the battlefield at Kurukshetra are favourites but there is a splendid variety from other events of the great epic. The genius of this art also lies in its anonymity. This is the work of a people and their faith, not an artist and his ego.
The drive to the Alila Ubud hotel is a journey through many pasts. Language is a primary vehicle of multiple identities. One expects a nameplate like Pt. Cerana Citra Kartika, or a Krisna Yuva Dana, a Bhakti Shop or a Nira Gallery. But there is also an advertisement for an Amerikan Pillo. The bus stop is a page from the chapter on European colonisation. It is called 'Halte Pesanggeran'. Tourism flows through the sinews of the Bali economy. The street is lined with countless shops churning out Buddhas and gods that will seem fashionably antique in some western drawing room. The West begins next door, in Australia. The printed advice we receive at the hotel is frank. Never buy anything without haggling. All prices should come down by thirty to forty per cent. But such candour destroys the charm of haggling. There is no sense of victory when you know that prices have been marked up already to account for the haggle. A shopkeeper must look as dejected and defeated as a Lebanese trader who has sold a magic carpet at a plastic price. The Balinese look too happy.The afternoon darkens suddenly as I check in. Lightning splits the clouds and a thunderclap from the pages of a Somerset Maugham novel shakes the skies. Rain pours down in a furious rush; the intensity would have left any city flooded but the water slips down the terraces of the mountainside. The shower stops, but is replaced by a thin invisible spray that keeps you cool without leaving you wet. Organisers of conferences in Bali tend to take a precaution against the rain becoming too disruptive. The price for a puja to appease the rain gods is forty two dollars.
There is prasad everywhere. Deities do not live only in temples, but on walls, parapets, even within conference halls. Fruit is left in a small leaf bowl, presumably after a quick puja, perhaps for decorative effect, perhaps in memory of the prayer, in front of the idol. Faith, and its symbols, are a constant assertion, subtly, not aggressively. A taxi driver was rather more regretful than he might have been elsewhere after hitting a buffalo: he had to pay atonement
expenses for three pujas at three temples before the Brahmins exonerated his sin. The challenge to ritual comes, one understands, not from the non-Hindu presence but from Indian sects like the Krishna Bhakts and the Brahma Kumaris who come here and advocate a more spartan form of Hinduism. It would be a tragedy if the Balinese began to conform. The world comes to Bali precisely because Bali refuses to go to the world.
If you need to discuss the role of Islam in multicultural Asia, where better than in Bali? We are guests of the Asia Society, the highly esteemed New York-based intellectual powerhouse. Both Richard Holbrooke, its chairman, and Vishakha Desai, its president, are present to lead the discussion. Vishakha has enough power in her drive to make academics quiver and mere mortals quail. The conference is conducted under Chatham House rules, which means that we cannot report or quote from the proceedings without the specific permission of the speaker. I hope I break no rules when I convey that there was (by and large) recognition of the damage done by the rhetoric and myopia of George Bush. But we were a liberal group, which did not make us homogenous but certainly persuaded us that a fresh future could only rest on a concept that we
in India have made a cornerstone of our political philosophy: tolerance of diversity, respect for the difference and equality for all.
Question from the Olde Curiosity Shoppe: why do so many panelists at any conference, whether in Bali or Timbuktoo, want to make just three points? Making just one point, which is really the ideal, would seem as if you had nothing to say. Two points might suggest that you had not thought through your views. And four of course would be too excessive for the audience, which would switch from slumber to sleep. So the magic number is three: remember that when you are invited to confer at any conference.