The woman with an unspeakable name

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I’d like to introduce you to a wonderful old woman whose age is indeterminable and whose name is unspeakable, writes Mike Eveleigh on BBC on June 20, 2018.

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Nenek and family
According to Balinese belief, speaking Nenek’s true name aloud could summon her to the afterlife (Credit: Mark Eveleigh)

It’s not that she’s at all sensitive about her age. She was born in Bali at a time – perhaps 80-odd years ago – when births were not accurately recorded. Sometime around Indonesian independence in 1945, she was issued with an ID card, but she lost that many years ago and it wasn’t worth getting a replacement since she never strays more than a few hundred metres from her home in Pekutatan, a fishing village on Bali’s remote south-west coast.

She’s not deliberately mysterious about her name either. These days, the entire community calls her simply Nenek (grandmother). I’m not superstitious at all, but my long familiarity with Balinese customs means that even I would shudder to use her name. You see, the gods are said to have a list of people who are due to be summoned into the afterlife, and to speak Nenek’s name aloud could alert them to the presence of someone who’s been overlooked.

In a country where the unifying language of Bahasa Indonesia is spoken by almost the entire population, Nenek is one of only a few remaining people who can only communicate in a regional language (in her case Balinese). While my Indonesian is more than sufficient for conversation with the rest of Nenek’s brood, I’ve never learned more than a smattering of the local Balinese. The fact that, in recent years, Nenek has become increasingly hard of hearing has further stymied our attempts at communication. Lately, however, I’ve been charmed to notice that Nenek seems content to communicate more and more with hugs and simple, silent hand-holding.

I lived with Nenek’s family for a year around 15 years ago, and am so fond of them that they’ve become my adopted second family. So now, let me take you on a visit to their family home.

As we step off the sunlit lane, glowing with bougainvillea and perfumed with the sweet tang of jasmine, the first thing you’ll notice is the guardian shrine that protects the house. The next thing you’ll see will be Nenek, or her daughter-in-law Ketut, emerging from the kitchen with a Balinese sing-song Hindu greeting – “om swastiastu” – and an invitation to have coffee.

It is virtually impossible to visit without drinking a glass of the kopi that was harvested locally and roasted at a house just down the road. And why would you refuse? Ketut’s sweet, strong, black coffee is some of the best in Bali and is such a delicious caffeine- and sugar-rush that you must force yourself to stop before you reach the half-inch of grainy mud at the bottom of the glass. Long before you’ve reached that stage, Nenek will have emerged again from the kitchen with a little plate of sumpit (rice-flour dumplings steamed in banana leaves) or bantal (rice, groundnuts and banana steamed in young palm leaves). If there are no sweet snacks, there will, at least, be some freshly harvested pisang emas. These so-called ‘gold bananas’ are the most deliciously sweet bananas in the world.

Ketut will have prepared the food in her old-style dapur (kitchen). Traditional kitchens of this sort are rarely found even in the remotest communities on the island these days. Back when I first lived with the family, Nenek’s grandson Kadek (a dive guide on the reefs off eastern Bali) had recently built a new house for them, right next to the old one. But old habits die hard here, and neither Nenek nor Ketut ever trusted the shiny, tiled kitchen. They gave it a suspicious glance and promptly went back to their customary cooking position, squatting beside a driftwood fire within the slatted bamboo walls of the old dapur. Neither did they sleep in the new house, until, 15 years later, the leaky roof of the old house finally threatened to cave in entirely.

Dreams are considered of momentous importance in Bali: “My dreams are more delicious when I sleep in the old house,” Nenek’s son Sudana (Ketut’s husband) once told me.

“My dreams are more delicious when I sleep in the old house,” Nenek’s son Sudana (Ketut’s husband) once told me. (Credit: Mark Eveleigh)

You might still be sipping the coffee when Sudana himself comes down the steps from the road. Depending on the hour, he’ll either have been cutting grass as fodder for his four pink buffalo or he’ll just have returned homeward along the black-sand beach from the two rice paddies he leases from a local landowner.

A couple of years ago, I came up with a plan that would combine the presence of the enchanting pink buffalo with the beauty of that beach, and give Sudana what I hoped would be an easier retirement plan for his old age: I had a colourful cart made and Sudana spent some time training his buffalo so that he could shuttle surfers between Pekutatan and the famous surf-break at Medewi. Things didn’t work out as planned, however. Within a short time, the female buffalo had to retire on maternity leave, and now all that remains of our briefly famous ‘beach taxi’ is the pair of brightly painted cartwheels that adorn the walls of my own house in the village.

Sudana joins us for coffee and we chat about the ever-changing conditions of the rice paddies – a perennial preoccupation in rural Bali. Nenek sits nearby, silently but contentedly occupied with her chores. It’s said that in rural Bali that more than half of a family’s income is spent on the endless cycle of temple ceremonies, and both Nenek and Ketut seem to fill every spare minute with preparing the little offerings that are the spiritual bread and butter of the ‘Island of the Gods’.

Prayers are offered for the success of Sudana’s ‘beach taxi’, a brightly coloured cart pulled by buffalo (Credit: Mark Eveleigh)

Nenek, occasionally smiling at us, staples intricate little leaf saucers together using splinters of palm stem. She’s so accustomed to the work that she barely needs to look. These saucers will often be used to present coffee to the spirits that act as temple guardians, to keep them alert for the demons that haunt the beaches. At other times, she might be busy weaving ketupat, the tiny latticework baskets that look like Balinese Rubik’s Cubes. They’re so complicated that I’ve never known a foreigner to succeed in making one, yet both Ketut and Nenek are able to complete one in less than a minute. (Ketut’s record by my stopwatch was 28 seconds.)

These ketupat are reserved for bigger ceremonies. They’re half filled with rice and boiled for several hours so that the rice swells into a solid block. It’s unusual if a week goes by without a large ceremony somewhere in the immediate neighbourhood.

Sudana plays in the local Balinese temple orchestra known as the gamelan and practices at least once a week at a neighbour’s home, serenading us late into the evening. If it’s your first visit to his home, Sudana might offer to show you around their small family temple: behind delightfully moss-laden walls adorned with the Hindu swastika stand the various stone shrines that protect the house. Beyond the temple is a little grove of coconut, cacao, banana, papaya and coffee trees, and you might hear the grunt of a pig that is destined to become a ‘guest of honour’ at some forthcoming ceremony, when it’ll be served up as babi guling. Literally meaning ‘turned pig’, babi guling is roasted on a spit over the course of many hours and could be considered the Balinese national dish.

Ketut teaches the author’s daughter to prepare ketupat, tiny woven baskets filled with rice (Credit: Mark Eveleigh)

It’s late afternoon by now, and Sudana, with typical Balinese hospitality, will almost certainly invite you to stay for dinner. Ketut might have prepared her deliciously spicy nasi goreng (fried rice), and there will be some vegetables in sauce. There might very likely be some sea-fish satays, barbecued using a clever invention that avoids the endlessly finicky turning of satay sticks: instead, a whole bunch of sticks are impaled in a hunk of banana tree so Sudana can simply turn the entire batch all in one go. There might be some shreds of chicken in sauce if there’s been a ceremony in the street lately, but that’s the only time meat is likely to be on the menu.

Fridges are a relatively recent arrival here so the community still has the habit of sharing among the neighbours. Ketut will offer you a fork and spoon to eat with, but a beaming smile is sure to break out on Sudana’s face if you decide to ‘go local’ and eat with your hand: “Lebih enak!” he chortles happily – more delicious that way.

Nenek will sit close while you eat, silently happy to be in company. As a visitor, you’d assume that Nenek is Sudana’s real mother. In all senses apart from the biological one, she is. You see, Nenek never had a son and her only daughter moved to the east of the island when she got married. This meant that when Nenek’s own husband died many years ago, she would have nobody to look after her in her old age. So, with the typical practicality of the Balinese, Sudana’s parents (who had several children) and lived nearby gave him to Nenek to raise as her own. It’s a common system here with no stigma attached, and it continues even today.

It’s said that in rural Bali more than half of a family’s income is spent on temple ceremonies (Credit: Mark Eveleigh)

Little Ayu, the baby of the family and at 11 years old one of the village’s most talented traditional dancers, was also given to the family, by her father (Sudana’s brother) when she was still a baby. Ayu’s biological parents were having trouble making ends meet with the children they already had, and Sudana’s sons had already grown and left home. So Ayu now has two sets of parents. She delights in spending time with her biological mother and father (who live in the same street), but it’s clear that Sudana and Ketut’s house is ‘home’ to her.

At 11 years old, Ayu (pictured right) is one of the village’s most talented traditional dancers (Credit: Mark Eveleigh)

Once when Lucia, my 13-year-old daughter, visited from Spain where she lives with her mother, she accepted an invitation to a sleepover with our Balinese family. She slept squashed in a bed with Ayu, Ketut and Nenek, and was squatting contentedly by the dapur fire eating rice with her hand when I arrived to collect her the next morning. It’s a sign of the easy-going charm of this delightful family that without a word of the same language in common, Lucia was able to fit right in.

Nenek seems to have a talent for communication. Long experiences seem to have shown her that often a hug is all it takes.

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