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And she lets the rivers answer: Ubud through a literary lens


There’s a coiled-up energy in Ubud’s languid air that blooms into a thousand flowers in creative minds

I am on the way to Ubud, in central Bali. As we approach the city, both sides of the road are lined with endless rows of carvings and statues. There are innumerable Ganeshas, horses assembled out of twisted wood, jaunty dwarapalakas with hibiscus in their ears, giant Buddha heads carved out of black volcanic stone, their serene expressions a counterpoint to the violence of the source material.

The sculptures give way to paintings, then giant paper kites that pull and fret on the doorways, yearning for the tropical blue of the skies.

For the modern, MacBook-toting ‘creative’, this can’t be beat: a town where every prospect discloses a coffee shop, rice fields to walk in and take the air, strange ruins melting into the jungle, and everywhere the resonance of an ancient, yet familiar past.

I am here for an unhurried week. I have no itinerary, no particular plans. I do hope to write, but improving upon the empty page is not easy. I also do have a small assortment of books referencing Bali which I plan to read during my stay; including All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy and The Ocean of Churn by Sanjeev Sanyal. There is a unique pleasure in reading a travelogue or historical fiction, knowing that you can be at the location tomorrow morning if necessary.

Art to life

All travellers from India experience a sense of familiarity about Bali, a sense of walking on a bridge across vast gulfs of time. Tagore, who visited Ubud in the 1920s, wrote enthusiastically, “Some puranic age seemed to have come back to life before our very eyes, some picture from the Ajanta caves come out from the realm of art into the realm of life to revel in the sunshine”.

This connection to India goes down to the very bedrock. Till Wegener’s theory of continental drift, the West saw the Earth as immutable, perfectly preserved as it was from the day of creation. The ancient Balinese, however, were less sanguine. Legend holds that in the beginning, Bali floated freely on the primeval ocean, causing chaos.

It was Lord Shiva who broke off a fragment of Mount Meru and anchored the wandering island to the ocean floor with it. This fragment is Mount Agung, the louring volcano that is going through a current cycle of eruptions. I’d seen Agung from the plane on the approach, aloof, so tall that it pierces the boiling milk of the cloud cover. One glimpse instantly erased the interminable hours in the cramped plane.

The Indian traveller today only has to fear the avariciousness of low-cost airlines, which delight in cramming them into impossible densities. The same could not be said thousands of years ago, when enterprising merchants from present-day Odisha set out across untamed seas, braving storms, rumoured sea monsters and, in a pre-insurance age, potential financial ruin. Sanyal in The Ocean of Churn posits that the knowledge of the complex system of monsoon winds enabled seafarers to make ocean-spanning voyages millennia before the Europeans.

There are only a few traces of this left in India, “a fair is held every year in Cuttack called Bali Yatra... families, especially women and children, gather at the edge of a waterbody and place paper boats with oil lamps in the water; this is how the families of the ancient mariners would have bid goodbye to their loved ones”.

However, this trade would have a profound impact on Southeast Asia as a whole — the traders didn’t just export textiles, they were also transplanting the seeds of Indian culture.

Hidden energies

Ubud is located inland, right on the foothills of the spine of volcanoes that pulled up the island from the oceanic depths. There are no beaches to be had, so travellers who come are typically seeking other coasts, shores to interior seas.

According to legend, the city was founded by a sage from India, Rishi Markandeya, who beheld a vortex of hidden energies at the confluence of two small but fast-flowing rivers. He built a temple at the Campuhan or confluence.

This comes in All the Lives We Never Lived, a novel that follows a man’s search for his mother after she leaves for Ubud with a German artist, Walter Spies. She is bedazzled by the place, declaiming at one point, “All around are things I want to paint! There are not enough days in my life to paint all the pictures I have in my head”.

Spies, I find out, is a real-life character, emblematic of the turmoil of the 20th century — a recurring theme in his life is imprisonment in prisoner-of-war camps in both World Wars. He took up an offer in the 1920s by a prince of the royal family of Ubud to set up an artist’s commune. The royal guest house overlooking Campuhan became his studio, thus continuing the pattern laid down by Rishi Markandeya millennia earlier.

I walk alone

After settling down in a small but comfortable guest house on Monkey Forest Road (the forest is the top tourist attraction, where you can spot troops of monkeys gambolling fearlessly and occasionally relieving tourists of the burden of carrying hats or water bottles), the initial blur of narrow street ablaze with the lanterns of cafés and the rioting assortments of frangipani and kecombrang slowly resolves.

Solo travellers are few, and when we see each other in the cafés or on the streets, a knowing glance passes. I think about our illustrious forbearer, a Javanese prince turned ascetic who wrote a travelogue, the Bujangga Manik, in the 15th century after a tour of Java and Bali. Seeing a wandering hermit, people called out to him:

‘“Where are you going?

Why are you so unusually walk

ing all alone?

Thus questioned,

He never replied”’.

Always smile

A routine emerges, out of not having a routine. A long walk at dawn, an unhurried wandering through one of the temple complexes black with years, and then escape the afternoon heat by reading in one of the coffee shops.

In a chapter in To Stir with Love, Janet DeNeefe, who runs a string of highly-regarded restaurants in town, says, “there is something so distinctive about the flavour and aroma of Bali coffee, a certain earthiness, nuttiness and maybe even a mellow hint of chocolate that makes it so addictive, some say it is redolent of sweet mango”. Coffee is the beverage du jour here; Ubud isn’t really a place to drink yourself senseless.

During one of the walks, seeking to escape the mid-day heat, I slip into a corner bookstore. It is like stepping into the cool of a book-lined cave. Like all really good bookshops, the Ganesha looks bigger on the inside than the outside. Antique Balinese musical instruments hang from the ceiling, driven there by the floor-to-ceiling shelves.

I pick up a Basa Balinese booklet. The phrases are divided into four registers or levels: Ceremonial, Formal, Polite and Casual, with small icons denoting which is which. I notice the precept by the authors: “Always smile, even if you are displeased, things will go a lot smoothly and you’ll be respected.”

Why not?

Despite the languid air, there is a sense of possibility, of potentialities. There are notice boards everywhere advertising yoga courses, healing by standing on nails, acupuncture, relaxation through singing bowls and so on. I spot a notice for a writing retreat, described as a “playful swoop into creative and commercial writing, replete with stimulating wordfood”. Intrigued, I mail one of the organisers, Peter Boydell, a screenwriter.

“Why Not at 4 p.m.?” is his response, in one of the streets not too far from the monkey forest. The late afternoon light glimmers off the paddy fields that run alongside the road. Why Not? is a bar, and I approach the only man intensely staring at his laptop.

I disturb him in his labours and drag him back 12,000 kilometres from the M62 highway in Liverpool. Boydell is scripting a crime caper set in his native north of England. I look at the tropical sunset that is unfolding behind us, as distant a possible setting from what I imagine are the rain-lashed streets of England. Is it tough to write in such a different atmosphere? “Writing is taking your mind out of your mind and into your body,” he says gnomically.

Why Ubud? “There is a special energy here,” he says, mentioning one of the leaders of the retreat, a Finnish novelist called Johanna Elomaa, who’d said that she’d been writing sporadically all year, but the moment she arrived, it has been flowing very well. He quotes her, “Everything is coming, I don’t where it is coming from.”

I can’t help but think of the Campuhan, an endless confluence of waters and energies across time.

The writer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2020 2:05:59 PM |

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