The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing

The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing

By Richard Boughton

Nyepi went by quietly at my house, and quickly too somehow. It lacked the traditional tedium that had always attended it in the past, that sense of hours elongated to the point of rending like a string of overwhelmed taffy. It lacked the customary numbness that assails the mind in the face of excessive sensory deprivation, the limpness that besets the famished soul. Something was missing from Nyepi. It was all too easy, all too comfortable, all too feasible. I hardly had time to suffer before the day was done.

What happened? People happened. Progress happened, change, the march of time. The flesh became weak and the spirit was not willing, and tradition sputtered, coughed and slumped to the shoulder of the busy, impatient world. Hardly had the soundless morning begun its trance-like stroll through the blinded streets when children were seen dashing alongside, meeting together midway at the banjar, where pecalang were found talking and gambling at cards. “Shhh, be quiet,” the traditional guards said, and played.

Quiet the children were, for an hour or so, and then came a shout, laughter, a screech. Bicycles were brought from behind closed gates and the sombre day was pierced with motion. By mid-afternoon the adults had peeked out, too, first to the door, then to the porch, then to the gravel siding by the gate. They smiled sheepishly, cocked heads toward the children, raised their arms to signal impotence. Well, kids will be kids. I might have suggested a chemical preparation, or more simply one of those hammers with the rubber heads (to avoid obvious dents), but that would probably have been at odds with the peaceful character of the day.

In the evening there was a party at one end of the block, while at the other a forgetful squad of pecalang grew loud and overly celebratory.

It seems that Nyepi is not what it used to be – and the sad thing is that this should be the case after only three times experiencing the event. My first Nyepi, in the year 2010, seemed suitably austere. We lived in Sanur at that time, in a homestay, as we had arrived in Bali a month eariler. My wife had returned to America (to avoid Nyepi, I think), and so my son and I were going it alone – strangers in a strange land, unacquainted with the customs but prepared to learn and comply.

It was quiet indeed, not a light was lit and we had no TV to try to cheat the day with. I read books, and prayed, and rested, and waited, while my son tossed about on the bed, sighed greatly, shed a few tears, cursed Indonesia, and watched a Mr Bean DVD 12 times through. Out of window curtains, parted ever so demurely, we saw a pecalang pass on patrol, and it was deep at night before I dared poke my head out the door to gaze at the dazzling, soundless stars.

By the following year we had moved to a house, a small two-bedroom place near Sindhu market – and already Nyepi had changed. Our maid, a Muslim, did laundry on the back patio; my son had somehow got the TV to work (a negative accomplishment on any day, in my mind); and my wife took the opportunity to clean corners and nooks that had never seen the light of day – employing me for the same purpose, of course. What else, after all, did I mean to do? Meditate? Neighbours could be seen outdoors as well, busy at similarly dreary pursuits. It was quiet, but not so quiet as before, and the TV marked the hours and nudged them along, plodding relentlessly through the programming schedule for the day.

By the third year, as I’ve said, the children were let loose. And a rumour had spread that Indovision could be tricked, despite its vow to discontinue all service, by leaving the control unit on one channel the night before. And tricked it was. As long as you did not change the channel, you could watch all day and all night during Nyepi, a poverty in programming seeming preferable to peace. Front gates squeaked and adults stole out to the street and gathered gleefully in places where like-minded disdain was being shown.

I’m no huge fan of Nyepi, as I guess you can tell. Too much of meditation and introspection would likely merely cause me to detest myself, which is something I try to avoid in my old age. Nonetheless, I hate to see the sanctity of a tradition diluted. As a matter of principal. And so I find myself strangely outraged.

“Look, there goes a kid on a bike!” I say. “There goes a man, walking down the street. Now he’s coming back. Now he’s whistling!”

“Good Lord, get a life,” my wife says. “Or go join the pecalang.”

“But they’re chattering, and laughing, and playing cards.”

“So go make a citizen’s arrest.”

Nyepi itself, ideally anyway, is composed of four equal parts, called abstinences. First there is Amati Geni, the abstaining from lighting any fire or turning on electricity. So much for that one. Next is Amati Karya, the abstinence from working. This is something from which I’m happy to abstain any day of the year, so it’s no more difficult for me on Nyepi than on any other day. Amati Lelungan is the avoidance of going outside the house – and I have to admit that’s a hard one, for while one may himself be silent, he wants, quite naturally, to experience the full import of the circumstance, made amazing by unanimity, by stepping out to the darkness to hear how all the rest of nothing really sounds and to marvel at the disappearance of his own hands and feet in the rarity of a cloak of pure night.

Lastly there is Amati Lelangan, which is the abstinence from indulging in any pleasurable activities. Whoops. Who knew? Our ignorance of this fourth abstinence had been complete. We anticipate twins (or even triplets) by Christmas.

1 Comment

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