Author William Dalrymple delivers a lecture on “The Last Mughal”, on the roof terrace of the Olive Restaurant, Old Delhi
Clash of Civilizations
Last week I was in Delhi for a wedding and happened upon a lecture by the brilliant historian William Dalrymple. The lecture was on the writer's favorite topic – and the subject of his latest book – Bahadul Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal emperor, who was buried by the British colonial army in an unmarked grave in Rangoon in 1862.
On the roof terrace of the trendy Olive restaurant, in the shadow of elegant Qutub Minar – which one assumes was specially lit green and purple for the occasion – and attended by a commendable gaggle of Delhi wallahs in their smart autumn clothes, Dalrymple sat cross-legged, Mojhito in hand, on a small podium. A selection of coloured slides played against the night sky. It was illuminating, to say the least: about one's ancestors, the ghastly colonial British, who, as Dalrymple pointed out, started well, 'going native' in the late 18 th century – decked out in native costumes, with harems full of bibis and begums, and the occasional murid but who ended up, 80 years later, as evangelical Christians in tight, stifling Victorian garb, dynamiting all but the walls of the magnificent Red Fort and murdering tens of thousands of the poet-emperor Zafar’s loyal subjects. Dalrymple described this as a “clash of civilizations.” It was a harrowing lecture.
William Dalrymple reading a POLENG magazine at this year's Ubud Readers’ and Writers’ Festival.
The evening was also illuminating in the sense that Delhi, which is not unlike Jakarta, had taken this literary Scotsman toff-wallah with the aristocratic Fraser wife to heart. They have allowed him to be lord chief historian of the most exciting period of their post Mahabharata history. Salman Rushdie heaps praise on him. He appears on NDTV, Bombay’s equivalent to Fox News, with the theme song to 1951 British movie the Dam-busters playing in the background. As the Chatterattis in Lucknow, chemise and Poojabbis in paisley kaftans descended on the free pizza – descending faster than the Sepoys fell in the Indian Mutiny of 1857 – I mused that this Scotsman with the engaging lisp is now an Indian national treasure, and that...... I WANT TO BE THE WILLIAM DALRYMPLE OF BALI!!!!
I too am balding and Scottish, nominally....and also way too big for my pajamas.
I will give it a go.
I will write about the legendary Bali-based Danish trader Mads Lange who, in the nineteenth century married a begum from Johor’s royal family in a Hindu Balinese ceremony near present day Kuta where he had a small fortified trading post. Sadly the remnants of the fort have recently been bulldozed to make way for Kuta’s fifth Dunkin Donuts and holistic healing arcade – but old photographs exist. I will write about the 1906 Puputan Badung – mass suicide of Denpasar's royal family in front of the Dutch colonial forces, Bali’s answer to Zafar's last stand. Quickly I will 'segue' into today's clash of civilizations – which is really a case of parallel universes – where the real estate developers have taken over the west coast and are poised to circle Kuta's Peace Memorial in S.U.V.s
I will launch my book at Kudeta wearing batik by Milo.... but no-one will come. Unlike Delhi, Bali has recently been over-run by commercial types who don’t care about history (and are therefore doomed to repeat it), and the Balinese, god bless them, don’t read books, they just star in them. None-the-less I will hold court, arak madu in hand, and bang on about the clash of civilizations that started with a benign hippy movement in Kuta and Denpasar in the fruit-salad days, the glorious Bali 1970s – when surfie girls in sarongs and sandalwood beads and little else went to IMIGRASI with bike-rental boyfriends waving pre-nuptials "like the bibis waved peacock feathers at the court of early 19th century resident Delhi resident, Sir David Achterloney". I will pose the question: Has Bali now degenerated into a full-fledged junta of hedonism, with the Balinese seemingly side-lined or dumbed down to better fit into a the plastic paradise picture. I will quote the writer Jonathan Kent who, in a recent Newsweek piece entitled "Can Bali Bounce Back", wrote about a Balinese at this year’s Kuta Karnival: "Pak Made ("Uncle Made") as he's known was misty-eyed as he tried at his kite:
"Look at my kite, look at my kite. We would like to live like this, peaceful on the sky. Do you think?"
I will explain to my audience how western writers and peace park promoters in the 21st century have to portray the Balinese as simplistic, sentimental folk who run artshops and speak like extras in Porgy and Bess (nothing could be further from the truth). Susan Maree in her moving tribute "My love affair with Bali – In Memoriam" – which is the introduction to the Bali Peace Park web-site (a noble venture, visit Balipeacepark.com ) for example, writes: "With frangipani, hibiscus, exotic fruits and palms; the markets, villages, and Balinese traditions oozed alluring charms; and whilst shopping was cheap, if you'd learned to barter right! A smile comes to my lips when I remember the phrase "Give you good price!”
Animal effigies are now deemed a challenge to the mental well-being of Kiasu (animistically-challenged) Chinese
The final section of my lecture on the clash of civilizations – which has segued into parallel universes – will deal with the new age journalists need to type-cast Bali as 'post-apocalyptic'.
"Once peaceful island" says Dallas Finn in his Peace Park blurb.
"Perhaps Bali can rebound from terror, one more time" writes Jonathan Kent in Newsweek!
"What would they know?" is always the reaction of my Balinese friends when they read such things," these arrivistes who don't bother to learn the ropes before making solemn pronouncements". The Kuta bomb was a horrible tragedy, but, days after the horrific event, I witnessed a peaceful wedding ceremony going on 500 meters from "ground zero!” It is the very nature of Balinese culture to survive, it is extremely resilient, it has survived islamification, colonization and mass tourism and will survive attempts to dumb it down by bloggers. Bali is called the island of the gods (Pulau Dewata) because every Balinese ancestor spirit or dewata is continually purified and re-incarnated. In a way, I will explain, as a finale, the Balinese remember the dead, and their ancestor spirits on a daily basis in their family house temples – they don't need any monuments.
* * *
For an encore I will explain my parallel universes theory:
The Balinese today are quite happy getting on with their busy Hindu-Balinese lives. Occasionally they are wheeled out into the tourist public's eye for a Karnival, a Pestipal or Ketjap Dance as its now called. Gone are the days when tourists hurled themselves out of buses to get a snap of a passing 10,000 strong procession. Today's tourist seems more and more confined to a hermitically sealed commercial Bali, Bali Lite shall we call it – like Susan Maree's Bali – where there are no offerings in the room, and the architecture is New Asian schtick and there are no animal effigies (heaven forbid that a Chinese tourist might get out of a shower and see a rabbit statue and drop dead with fright)
In the other universe, Real Bali, the Balinese are oblivious to the build up of the real-estate barons, and the shop-house merchants. The fact that their island's hotel association is represented by a foreigner is not an issue with them (Is there not one of the 200 or so Balinese general managers world-wide who could do this job?) and nor is the fact that the Balinese costumes for the Doha Asian Games are chosen this year by an Australian!! The tourism sector is, for the most part, oblivious to the fact that behind those bungy frames and Polo shops lurks a medieval culture that refuses to play dead – the world's most gorgeous culture surviving, nay surging, into the 21st century.
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