My husband wants a new baby boy, she whispered, and when we saw her four months later she was precisely four months pregnant.
Dad-to-be Nyoman was pleased with himself. As the only son of his parents, the task of caring for the family’s many Hindu temples falls exclusively to him. And while he never complains, his own father’s comments about how busy the temples keep him got him thinking that this important role would eventually fall to his only son.
He decided his son needed a brother, a companion to share the responsibility and make the duty less lonesome. “I got the recipe to make a boy,” he announced. Well, we joked, you had better patent it and we can all get rich. “No, truly; I believe it. I knew my first child was a boy and I feel this one is, too.”
What’s the recipe, Nyoman? Either modesty or a sense of protecting age-old secrets prevented him from revealing the details, but we learned that he had consulted ancient Hindu scriptures to uncover the technique for creating a male baby. We imagined his wife in all manner of weird positions, using special lotions and potions and making dedicated prayers and offerings. We were intrigued, but Nyoman wasn’t talking.
We hope the recipe works. A good omen is that his young daughter is convinced she will get a baby brother and has already named him Daniel Nyoman April. “We can’t name him April because he will arrive in August,” Dad explained. But the little girl was firm. She and her older brother, both born in April, had the Balinese word for April in their names and their new brother would have it, too.
The endearing logic and determination of children, and faith in their own decisions, is a global characteristic that knows no boundaries of race or culture, just as the inexplicable and illogical superstition of adults everywhere leaves you flabbergasted.
“Do you believe in black magic?” the housekeeper had asked two years ago. “My baby has already been ‘hit’ two times by black magic.” Did it work? “I don’t know.”
Just this week the same child, now aged four, was running a fever. Her mother had been unwell for a week. The little girl was taken to a doctor of western medicine and prescribed a syrup. We explained, again, the importance of fluid intake for sufferers of fever. “She doesn’t want to drink.” We explained again the risk of dehydration. “She doesn’t want to drink.” The prospect of making a Balinese child do something it mightn’t want to, even to protect its health, seems alien to the island’s young parents.
Less than 18 hours after the medicine was prescribed, when the fever had not instantly retreated and when the child was still refusing to take liquids, the mother announced the child would be taken to a balian – a practitioner of traditional magic.
The balian’s solution was to sprinkle the child’s head with holy water and instruct mum to make a special offering at temple. Did it work? The mother perceived that it worked for a short while, and then the fever raged again. Take her back to the doctor, we urged. “Yes, I will go the doctor this afternoon and to the balian in the morning.” An each-way bet, we thought, was an acceptable outcome.
What did the doctor say? we asked the next day. “My neighbour told me not to go again to the doctor, only to the balian.” But your neighbour is the balian, we protested to this normally sensible young woman. She shrugged and turned away.
As it transpired, the balian was far too busy to afford the mother and child any worthwhile time. He managed just a few seconds to advise that his initial treatment had not worked because, since he’d administered it, someone had practised magic around their home and they should come back tomorrow. Nice work, if you can get it.
Come on, we prompted, you were both sick before someone made magic at your home. Blank look. What was even harder to take was the mother’s fear and anxiety as she told the story. Clearly, the balian’s prognosis was enough to make her so sick with worry that she, too, would need a series of costly consultations while her child continued to dehydrate.
In fairness, I have to recall my grandmother’s horror if we opened an umbrella inside a home, wore the colour green, hung a new annual calendar on a wall before the start of a new year or put shoes on a surface other than a floor. Each action was mysteriously believed to bring bad luck. I smiled to myself about the shoes when our housekeeper resolutely advised that the extraneous bath mat that had been delivered with our laundry must not be used to dry my hair – because feet had already trodden on it.
Perhaps there are commonalities to the genesis of superstitions around the world. It’s a thought-provoking prospect and it’s far more fathomable than a family’s readiness to risk the health of a child for a neighbour’s gain. A preference for traditional medicine is acceptable; blatantly commercialised voodoo that preys on fear is not.