A Satisfying View
Yes, my brothers,
I know this is a view which satisfies you
for you have worked so intently to create it.
—W. S. Rendra, “Twilight View”
Word of Mouth
Our island, our Bali, is an island of rivers and gorges: the rivers flow from the mountains down to the ocean, carving deep ravines we navigate to get our water, to flood the fields and quench our thirst and wash the daily filth from our clothes. News from Bali sweeps down from Gunung Batur, from the temples perched atop the volcano, and flows past us in whispers and roars. Often it floats by unnoticed. Other times it catches in an eddy or a rice field, turning into gossip until it’s time for the field to be drained and for the news to trickle down to the next village, the next field. It returns up the mountain in rain clouds and prayers, transforms, and makes its way once more.
News from beyond, from Java, Sumatra, Lombok, comes in from the sea and is borne into the village markets on the backs of travelers and foreigners.
Sometimes what we hear is true: at the markets we hear about statues a neighboring village has put in their main intersection to decorate and bless the road, about another village’s transition to a new headman, about good harvests, drought; we hear news of our newborn government from the capital, the date of the next election, the latest policy Sukarno has enacted to make life in this new Indonesia peaceful. But more often, by the time news reaches us it’s shifted into something unrecognizable, the way a storm changes shape on its way across the land.
So of course we didn’t believe it when Nyoman and Wayan, home from their work at a hotel by the ocean, said that Sukarno’s generals had been killed at Lubang Buaya, in Java. We worried that their time at the hotel, an hour’s walk from our village, was corrupting them, making them less Balinese, but we knew they were paid well, knew our island was changing, that the hotels were important, inevitable. Still we doubted.
But that’s what they’re all saying, they insisted as we gathered round them, as we guided them to the open platform of the bale banjar, the building in the village center where we conducted all our business, where we came together at night, played music, told stories.
Pak Yudi hurried down the dirt road to his family’s compound and returned with his radio. He placed it in the center of the bale banjar and we surrounded it, so many of us crowding round that we were pressed up against the columns that held up the roof, that we spilled down the steps to the grass around the platform, each of us straining to hear. Sukarno is still alive, the announcer told us, despite the communists’ attempts to kill him. But he has ceded power to keep the country safe.
We looked at each other, confused. What did the communists have to do with anything? Nevertheless! the announcer cried atop a swell of patriotic music, The governor of Bali has declared that we are still loyal to Sukarno!
A murmur moved through us as we tried to understand the news, as each of us added new questions to the confusion. How could Sukarno, president for life, cede power? Why did the governor need to reaffirm our loyalty? Why would the communists want to kill our president, who by his own words had embraced them? Some of us were communists, members of the Partai Komunis Indonesia, and we would never want to harm Sukarno. We weren’t political. We were farmers, most of us. Jakarta was so far away; it hardly concerned us. Our worries were close to home: Would we have enough food for our families? When would it be our turn for the controlled floods that made it possible to grow our rice? Whom would our children marry?
Pak Yudi was still fiddling with the radio—wasn’t he PKI? We’d never bothered to keep track. We thought perhaps Pak Gde was, too, and here he came, bicycling up the road waving a newspaper at us.
Have you read the news? he called. Of course we hadn’t; so few of us could read in those days. He leaned his bicycle up against the platform of the bale banjar and opened the newspaper. It was more of the same: communists tried to take over the government, shot the generals, threw them in a well to rot.
Ngurah, the schoolteacher, shook his head. This is nonsense, he said. The government is making it up.
We wanted to believe him but each day the newspapers and radio announcers insisted it was true. Over the next month whispers traveled along the rivers that people in Java were being killed. The government, or perhaps it was the army, or perhaps someone else entirely, was blaming the communists, rounding up the women of Gerwani, the women’s wing of the PKI.
The details Pak Gde read to us as we huddled out of a rainstorm were different, even more gruesome, though we hadn’t thought it possible. The generals, we learned, had been tortured. They had been raped by the women of Gerwani. Then they had been castrated, all before being thrown in the well.
Pak Yudi interrupted Pak Gde. It can’t be true, he said. Just yesterday the papers quoted Sukarno—the PKI hadn’t been involved, that there was no sign the generals were tortured.
But what about the other papers? we asked. They all say it happened, they all say it was the communists.
And anyway, we said. Wasn’t Pak Yudi a communist? Wouldn’t he side with them no matter what?
It just can’t be true, he said, picking at the edge of the sarong.
Still, some of us weren’t sure. They wouldn’t do that, said Bu Ayu, scratching at her Gerwani tattoo, and we wondered who she was talking about. Gerwani? The army? The communists? How could she know? And we were noticing these things more, the tattoos and clothing that marked people’s loyalties. But they were our friends, our family; we had known them all our lives, and our community, our livelihoods, depended on them. We cooperated. We always had.
But we didn’t know what to think. We knew not to trust the government but we also knew better than to question it. But when Bu Ayu asked again, Why would they? we had to admit we didn’t know.
Dewa barely contributed his share of food and offerings to the last three temple festivals. His wife sat idle, hardly ever taking the time to weave palm leaves into ceremonial baskets or to buy flowers to fill them, hardly ever leaving the finished offerings at their compound’s entrance as we were taught, and certainly never taking them to the village temple.
Pak Yudi rarely shared his radio, claiming the batteries were too expensive—but we heard staticky voices trickling out of his bedroom each night, even when it played nothing more than what he’d been listening to all day.
Bu Ayu railed on and on about how we treated our wives, about how our daughters should be allowed to go to school, when she knew very well we needed them at home. She always came to the bale banjar to discuss village business even though she was a woman. She said because her husband had married into her family, because she was higher caste than him, it was her right. But her husband should have come.
Rai promised Nyoman she would marry him but put the wedding off for months, finally marrying Budi instead. Although Nyoman was too halus to show it, we knew she had broken his heart.
Putu was always demanding special treatment, more time to speak at meetings at the bale banjar, extra food at temple festivals, all because his father was our headman. We respected his father, of course, looked to him to solve our problems, moderate our disputes. But Putu wasn’t him.
Pak Agus was from Java and although he was a professor at the new university, and although he went on and on about the importance of education, he was forever using low Balinese instead of higher forms, forever insulting those above him in caste.
Pande always had bits of rice and onion stuck in his teeth and spat when he talked. Surya neglected her family’s laundry and the scent of unwashed clothes followed them through the village like a hungry mongrel.
Kari talked too loud.
Pak Gde was always flirting with Wayan’s wife. Wayan’s wife was always flirting back.
You know, don’t you? These were all just little things. Any village has its problems.
And the most important thing, always, was to be truly Balinese, to be smooth, to be halus, to hold our tongues.
We tucked our gossip into corners, dropping our volume and taking care to ensure that no onlookers were around to witness, only telling what we’d heard to our closest friends. Our teasing at the market became gentler, especially with people we didn’t know as well, those from the other side of the market, in higher or lower castes than us—if we weren’t sure about the woman selling fruit or the girl with mounds of dried salted fish spread out before her we might still ask if she really thought that was a fair price, but we didn’t comment on her general cheapness, didn’t tease her for being short, or fat, or explain to her in detail how those things might affect her bargaining skills.
Wayan and Nyoman brought newspaper clippings back from the hotels and Ngurah read the reports of killings and riots in central Java, explained to us that the violence was real and it was spreading east. We wondered if it was only a matter of time before the violence crossed the strait to us. We wondered who we would point to if necessary. We all had neighbors we didn’t like, and at night before we slept, surrounded by the rare silence in the village, we deliberated whether our lives would be better with them gone.
If we were thinking it, we knew, they might be too. So we stayed quiet. We didn’t want anything to be thrown in our faces later if what the papers were saying was true. And we knew that we would shame our families, shame ourselves, if anyone knew we were even considering such things. So we swallowed these thoughts, tried to let them go.
Weeks after the first reports Pak Agus returned from the university paler than the Westerners who came through the village from time to time, marveling at our arts and dabbing at their dripping foreheads with already-soaked handkerchiefs. We had never, in the three years he’d lived among us, seen him so upset. He was the only one of us who had been to university in Java and for that, despite his foreignness, despite the fact that he was hardly even Hindu, we respected him. As he trudged down the road toward his home, we diverted him to the bale banjar, ushered him up the steps, did not even wait for him to remove his shoes. Professor, we asked, What happened? What’s wrong?
Not Professor, he told us, burying his head in his hands like a child. I’ve been fired. They fired most of us, and wouldn’t let us leave before we gave them the names of other PKI members.
We glanced around, tried to remember which, if any, of us were PKI. A few of us hid trembling hands in the folds of our sarongs but the younger ones, the optimists, said, They only want to know. If they wanted to kill anyone they would be here already.
For the first time the possibility seemed real.
The professor looked at his briefcase, which he was still clutching to his chest as if it might bring his job back. I hope so, he said finally. He pushed his way through us and walked away alone to tell his family the news. When he was gone, we tried to change the subject, to talk about the coming rain, to tease the children. We knew better than to dwell on this.
Years ago, after the Japanese left and the Dutch were gone too, once we were finally independent, we tried to redistribute the land, to put things back the way they’d been years before. But Pande refused to give back what the Japanese had given him. Even though it had been our land, had been Wayan’s family’s, had been Dewa’s. It was his, he said, by right. He had grown up with this land, he said, so how could it not be his?
And it was rumored that Pak Agus had chests of money hidden in his bedroom that he’d brought over with him from Java, treasures that he’d taken from his family’s temple. We never saw a single bit of it, not even when a torrential rainstorm moved through the year before and ruined the ocean-facing wall of the village temple for the dead.
At the last temple festival Bu Ayu went into a trance, took the form of the goddess Durga, and spit in the face of her husband, all the men around her, even her son, barely five years old. Not until the face of each surrounding man was soaked in saliva did she return to herself, remembering none of it, or at least claiming not to.
We all, even those of us who were too young to remember, even those who had not been born yet, knew the story of how Pak Gde’s grandfather had killed Putu’s, and how that debt had never been repaid.
The fighting came to Bali. Villages to our north quarreled about whose fields should be flooded first—even though there was an order to it, there always had been—and these quarrels escalated into arguments about loyalties. We heard, even, that neighbors were killing one another.
But people in other villages were different, less refined. We knew that. We were calmer.
We knew how to bury our disputes, how to stay halus and calm and even-keeled.
But still we woke one night to the acrid smell of burning thatch. The air was thick and those of us who lived closest to the smoke could hardly breathe. At first we panicked, thinking the volcanoes were erupting.
But when we ran out into the street we saw Pak Agus’s compound in flames, the fire climbing from room to room, building to building, crawling up the roofs. Some of us ran to the wells for water, others to the river. Our containers were too small to help. None of us could get close enough.
Agus’s family clustered around him. His wife, Javanese too, held their daughter tightly as she sobbed. His daughter’s arms were empty. We all knew she had a baby, Agus’s first grandchild. We’d seen her cradling it, playing with it, had teased it and helped care for it ourselves. Some of us had even been there when the baby was born. We knew then why she was crying so hard in public.
Pak Agus was quiet but stared at each of us in turn, his eyes full of accusations. We knew. It had been a hot night, silent but for a few frogs croaking in the fields, mosquitos buzzing past our ears. No lightning strike, no rumble of an army truck.
But these things happened, we told ourselves. Our roofs were made from dried and woven thatch. These things happened. Sometimes homes burned down, and no one was to blame.
The army came to our friends’ doors and told them they could sign papers renouncing their PKI membership in exchange for a complete pardon. There could be no neutrality, they said, stiff-backed and brawny in their Western-style uniforms. Either you were against the PKI or you were a traitor.
We watched Pak Agus as he signed outside his half-charred home, his eyes still weary with grief, and we flinched at his silence.
The few who refused to sign were arrested and we watched the trucks pull away with young men handcuffed in the back. None returned.
When the army had left we gathered in the streets, mourned and keened for those who had been taken, cried together for as long as we could stand.
But the army came back with news: Gerwani women had been selling themselves to soldiers in exchange for weapons, then killing them as soon as they’d been handed guns and knives. At first this sounded ridiculous but then Putu reminded us of the way Bu Ayu was always grabbing power, was always insisting we let her speak, that she was right. We went to her house in search of the truth. We looked under the beds and in the pots and pans for guns. We marched out to the garden and searched for signs that it had been dug up to hide weapons. All the while Bu Ayu berated us, asking if we had no shame. We asked the same of her.
We began to joke that she was a witch, that she was bringing pestilence down on us. Some of us weren’t sure if we were joking.
A crowd—among them Pak Agus, Pak Yudi, Pak Gde, Dewa, Surya, and Budi—had trailed behind us the whole way over, quietly imploring us to stop. We did our best to ignore them; we needed to know the truth. Then maybe we would understand what to do.
Anyway, someone else said. The communists are all atheists. They couldn’t possibly have magic.
We wondered how you could be Balinese and not believe in the Gods.
That night Bu Ayu’s family compound burned to the ground. We stayed in bed and listened to the flames, clapped our hands over our ears to block out the cries of children trapped under thatched roofs. None of us went to the wells for water to put it out. We knew if we did, our houses would be next.
Then the army came at night with lists. They entered home after home, emerged with those they claimed were members of the PKI. They told us that they were building a better Bali.
If we fought the army, told them their lists were wrong, told them we didn’t care who was what party, sheltered those they wanted, what would stop them from taking us, too?
Pak Agus’s son was one of the first to go. They took him in the middle of the night and we didn’t realize he was gone until the morning, he had gone so quietly. The next morning we came across Ngurah and the headman quarreling shamelessly in the street. The headman was yelling that of course Agus’s son was PKI and of course the PKI were vermin, were nothing but rot in our village. Ngurah’s arms were crossed in front of his chest and he spoke quietly, urgently, asking how the headman could say such things when he knew the communists were no different from the rest of us.
Ngurah never lost his temper and so had won the argument, but the headman’s words stayed in our minds like dirt wedged under our fingernails.
And after his son was taken, Pak Agus stopped speaking entirely. For days he was jumpy, flinching at the slightest sound, the wind through the palm trees, the pound of women’s pestles grinding spices, the early morning crow of the roosters. He watched the roads as if waiting for the trucks to come back for him. But after a week he no longer seemed to see the road, didn’t seem to remember that it led anywhere, not even to his once-beloved university. He resigned himself to the knowledge that it was only a matter of time. He wandered around as if possessed. Not even the balian could help him. Not even the balian was willing to try.
He had been in his trance for days when Yudi’s screams pierced the dark night air. He cried out for us to help him, told the soldiers he was innocent, that they had the wrong person—maybe it was Yuda they wanted, there was a Yuda in the next village over, he said. We stood by the road and watched them take him away. In the morning we refused to mention it. We talked to Yudi’s wife as if Yudi was just out in the fields.
There were others like Yudi who went screaming, crying, begging for us to help them; we knew they weren’t PKI, they told us, we knew! But their disgrace, their coarseness, their cries told us that even if we weren’t sure how to feel about the communists, that they were, somehow, still at fault.
We didn’t know what happened to them. We heard stories, yes, of course we did, there were always stories, people forced to dig their own graves before they were shot, others killing their own family members to spare them torture at the army’s hands. But these stories couldn’t possibly be true. You wouldn’t have believed them either.
And anyway, we told each other, in low whispers over pots of boiling water, in murmurs over the pounding of rain in the fields, the army had their reasons. Everyone who was taken was guilty, at least of something.
But Ngurah. He wasn’t a communist.
We didn’t notice when he was taken, not until our children started bothering us as we worked, asking where he had gone, why he hadn’t come to school that day to teach them, whether he was sick.
Was he sick? We went to his compound to find out but it was empty—not even his parents remained. We couldn’t believe it. Maybe he had left of his own accord, maybe he had gone elsewhere, maybe—but no one did that in those days.
We lied to our children at first, told them Ngurah had gone to the capital, to the university, had moved his family with him. But then the children asked why he had abandoned them, when he would be coming back.
And we realized then that he had abandoned them, had abandoned us, must have done so long ago. He’d been teaching our children, caring for them, but what, exactly, had he taught them? We’d thought he was on our side, but clearly, we were wrong.
We had to protect our children from the likes of Ngurah—and we worried, now, that by sitting in his classroom they’d been implicated, that they would be next.
What was our side? No one was willing to ask, no one knew when it had happened, when we had started thinking of people as communists or not communists. We told ourselves that we were all neighbors, that we were all innocent, but when the army came to take people they deemed incendiary, we nodded and told ourselves, well, yes, it made sense, well, yes, perhaps they had been against the good of the island, the country.
But we hated the way our stomachs felt heavy and thick when we walked past Ngurah’s house, past the schoolyard.
But the army must have known something we didn’t.
Militias formed all over the island. They swarmed the village, holding meetings at the bale banjar and telling us that it was our patriotic duty to take sides. They repeated the news we’d been hearing for so long but they brought evidence that the communists truly were anti-Balinese: posters declaring the caste system corrupt, pamphlets encouraging atheism. And there was more! The PKI wasn’t just planning a coup, they said. They were planning to kill anyone who wasn’t a communist, not just in Java, but here too. They would murder anyone who got in their way and anyone who refused to help their revolution.
We had no choice.
We held a meeting. A few of us were still uncertain. Dewa asked how we could be sure, how we knew that there was something wrong with the communists; only weeks ago we hadn’t even known who was what party! But Nyoman listed off the facts, one at a time, one for each finger until his fists had opened into hands.
And behind him, Putu stood, arms crossed. Because his father was the headman, Putu was one of the strongest of us all; he had always had plenty to eat. He looked at each of us in turn and we knew that we had to nod, had to admit that we needed to protect ourselves, that this was getting out of hand.
We organized ourselves. We went from house to house at night. Militias brought lists to us, and when they ran out of names, they told us numbers. We didn’t know who else it could be but we named people anyway, people who had betrayed us in the past or who refused to share their land or their food, people who had insulted us, people who we’d always wished would just move away.
We named Bu Ayu, Pak Gde, and then stayed home as they and their families were herded out.
This was our chance to build a better Bali.
Putu declared Ketut Reti a communist. We knew it wasn’t true, we’d seen Ketut Reti before the last election, wearing Nationalist Party colors, but we also knew that Putu had had his eye on Reti’s wife for months. We said nothing, not even when Putu visited Reti’s compound days later, not even when Reti’s wife shook and wailed for days.
Don’t you see? We were at war. We were the army. We were defending our homeland from those who would betray us—who had betrayed us. The village was our home; our souls were planted in the soil by our doors and if we left, even to go to the next village over for the market, we felt ourselves tugged home, our bodies begging not to leave. So we had to protect that. We did what we needed to do.
And it wasn’t easy, of course it wasn’t easy. On the worst nights we swore we heard things, the ghosts of people who were gone but had not been properly mourned. The wind on our faces at night was too cold. Each birdcall, each footstep, each stray wisp of smoke was a sign that we weren’t on the right side anymore, that we had been betrayed. So we gathered closer together, played gamelan louder, joked into the night, kept each other company.
The trucks stopped coming. We were ordered to take care of things ourselves, told that the army was needed elsewhere, that we would have to step up and do our part. We worked together, used whatever we could. None of us wanted to be responsible for any person’s death.
We felt closer to each other than we had in years.
Every day we thought it should be over, that we had found them all, but we knew if we only looked harder we would uncover more communists, more traitors. Some of us followed Putu to the next village. When we arrived they eyed us warily but we told them we were on their side, told them our plan. They agreed.
We went home and rounded up our remaining communists—amazed, but then, that there had clearly been so many hiding like vermin in our gardens—and brought them back to the neighboring village. Some of them were our cousins, our siblings. We hated knowing that our own relatives were traitors. We didn’t like to think that we were sending them to die. But the nationalists from the next village brought their communists to us, and in our fields we killed them. We didn’t like to admit it, but it was easier killing people we didn’t know.
And although we were reluctant to say it—we had killed our cousins! Our brothers!—all this was strangely satisfying. We all had disputes running back generations. We all had quarrels.
Without the army, would we have done this? How were we so eager to point to our friends, our neighbors? Why did no one ever point to us?
What would we tell our children, our grandchildren? Would we need to tell them anything? Would they understand that we were doing what we had to do?
When would everything return to normal?
You have to understand that we hardly slept in those days. None of us could. None of us was willing to, for fear that we’d be next.
One humid, heavy morning, we woke and realized that the communists were gone and our duty was fulfilled. The war was over, and we had won. Those we hadn’t killed were in prison. A few relatives of PKI members remained in the village, but we avoided them.
We gathered in the temple, held a festival, played gamelan and coaxed the shadow puppeteer to put on a show. We celebrated into the night, repelling all the demons and ghosts.
We rebuilt. We redistributed the land we had seized, rewarding those who helped most. We replanted the rice, harvested it. We listened for news. We waited for the rivers to return to their normal color, for the eerie blood-red tinge to fade away.
We waited to forget, but we wondered if it was really over. Each round of gamelan we played together in the bale banjar seemed too short, the resetting of the patterns each instrument wove together coming too soon, each gong and gangsa and drum piling on top of one another, crying out for more attention than we could give. We had always loved the chaos of our music but now we flinched when the wrong note was hit. We kept waiting for the final gong to reverberate through our chests like an earthquake, to tell us it was finished, that this wasn’t just a lull before the cycle continued. But we didn’t hear one.
We held our breath.
In 1965, a failed coup in Indonesia set into motion events that ultimately led to the dismantling of the Sukarno presidency. Military and government officials pinned the blame on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI, Partai Komunis Indonesia) and the affiliated women’s organization, Gerwani (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia, Indonesian Women’s Movement). Over the following months, beginning in Java and then moving outwards to Bali, Sumatra, and elsewhere, members of these organizations were killed, both by the army and by civilians—many of whom were neighbors or family of those killed. Estimates of the number of people killed in Bali and Java range widely, from 100,000 to two million.
While this story is based in historical research, it is still a work of fiction and I have taken liberties in order to fill in the gaps, both emotional and factual. The events are still not widely discussed in Indonesia, and there is still more work to be done to write the history of 1965-66 and to examine how Indonesia copes with this past in its present. Still, there are quite a few books and articles that can illuminate the events in ways that I could not in fiction.
Best among them are: Geoffrey Robinson’s The Dark Side of Paradise: Political Violence in Bali (1995); Leslie Dwyer and Degung Santikarma’s “Speaking from the Shadows: Memory and Mass Violence in Bali” (2007); and Mary Zurbuchen’s “History, Memory, and the ‘1965 Incident’ in Indonesia” (2002).
I would also like to thank Drs. Ni Wayan Pasek Ariati, Thomas Hunter, and Peter Just, all of whom helped guide me to the right information for this story. I am in their debt.