Sarong Series Number 1:

Searching the Market for the Right Sarong for Wayan’s Grandmother

Having lived half or more of my life already has given me a sense of urgency I didn’t have when I was young. I had the sense that there was always a chance to do it again, to go back. But there isn’t. There never was. You are only ever where you are, who you are, once. We live each experience with that particular viewpoint a single time. And once it has past, any similar situation or occasion is already populated by memory and emergent understanding. Any return is a frame for comparison within the self. To return is to revisit experience that already has formed us

How do I say this better/different? We do a thing. And we think we can do it again, re-do it. But we can never recover the strangeness of a first confrontation with difference or unfamiliarity, the pure curiosity that comes from knowing almost nothing. We can never see the colors and hear the sounds and smell new air in the same way again. We know this. We only have first impressions once. This sense of fresh wonder is so beautiful and even as we bathe in its sensuous beauty it is emptying out of us, replaced by the memory of fresh wonder.

The stories I want to tell you are not stories of things that happened every day in the same, predictable way. Such stories are non-specific and so begin to be cultural descriptions – women ask “have you cooked yet” in the morning. You ask (or used to ask[1]) – have you bathed yet? – of people on their way back from the river. I can tell you this because I have (been) asked this question so many times.  It’s a bit like – how are you? Yet even as I write that – that I don’t want to tell you stories of things that happened in the same way many times, I realize that isn’t true. I do want to tell you those things. They come to mind when I start to tell you about the time when something happened a little differently. And they remind me of the first time I heard the question and felt confused about how I should respond. When I lived in east Bali, in Karangasem, my kitchen had a window that looked out on a path people used to get to their gardens. When we would see Ibu Tumpek (literally Mother Tumpek, but in cultural terms something like Mrs Tumpek), my neighbor across the road, walking on that path in the morning, she would look up and call out – have you cooked yet? – even as she could see we were cooking. This happened every day. It was habitual ritual.

This is my favorite sarong – an example of hand drawn batik (batik tulis) on very fine cotton.

There was one (first) time when Wayan’s grandmother came into my kitchen (actually Wayan’s kitchen; I was borrowing his house) and lifted the lids off all the pots in which I was cooking the food I would eat that day (because women always get up early and cook for the whole day so that’s what I do when I am in Bali), looked at each dish as the steam carried the smell of rice and vegetables out, and then asked me – in Balinese – ampun masak!? – have you cooked yet? And I answered – Ampun – already. And then we did that every day. Every day she came in with small offerings to distribute throughout the kitchen – little squares of banana leaf with a tiny pinch of rice and grated coconut colored yellow with fresh turmeric on each – on the stove, on top of the rice cooker, on top of the cabinet that held dishes, resting on the basket that held the basic cooking ingredients (shallot, garlic, fresh turmeric, ginger, galangal, hot peppers), the bucket where the uncooked rice was stored.

Wayan’s grandmother is so tiny. I don’t speak much Balinese (Indonesian, the language I speak, is a completely different language) so we didn’t have a way to sit down and really talk. But I loved her in the way you love someone who becomes part of your life every day, part of your habitual ritual, like the fox talking to the little prince (in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince) about what it means to become tame, that missing someone effects a kind domestication that we choose. So when they don’t come you worry. When they never come you cry. And then when they come again you cry again for confronting the fact you were working to make peace with the loss – by death or anger or some other departure that you never know.

I gave her a sarong when I left Bali that year. She held it with one hand underneath it, cradling it as if she held a platter. She put her other hand, the sweet hand, on top, covering it as if she was protecting it. And then she held it against her chest with her left hand and with her right hand she stroked my right arm from my shoulder to my wrist over and over. I’m kind of making this up. I don’t have that kind of memory that captures everything.  Maybe I do and the problem is that I don’t recall everything, or can’t conjure it perfectly from wherever it’s stored in the brain. Or maybe I do but I don’t think I do so I decide my memory is a generalization, a cultural trope, rather than a specific moment.

How Wayan’s grandmother held the sarong I gave her. These are my hands, holding my sarongs. I am wearing a kebaya, a traditional garment always worn for ceremonies and by some old women every day. This kebaya is silk and specifically for ceremonies.

I am describing something that we can gloss as habitual ritual. This is what people do when they are starting to walk toward loss. Maybe this is what, in particular, women do, when they are preparing to let go of someone, stroke the arm from the shoulder to the wrist, shoulder to wrist, shoulder to wrist, hold at the wrist, eye contact, shake the wrist for a half a second and let go.

This is how Wayan’s grandmother held the sarong I gave her against her body so she could touch me with her right hand.

This is what a kiss is – cheek to cheek, an inhalation, switch sides, cheek to cheek, an inhalation. If you are kissing someone you don’t know well, your cheeks don’t touch, the inhalation is quick and shallow. If you are kissing someone you love, your cheeks touch and the inhalation is deeper, slower. If you are kissing someone you have loved a long time, someone who has been gone or will be gone awhile, hold your cheek against theirs, breathe them in until your tears mix with their tears.

Wayan’s grandmother is gone, as my grandmother is gone. I saw neither of them die. I was far away both times. So to me they have never died. They are alive in my mind. I don’t feel sad. Remembering Wayan’s tiny grandmother holding my arm and then sitting with me, her hands in my lap and mine in hers, sitting with the (f)act of leave-taking, she is here with me. The past is happening right now.

She was married by capture. When I asked my friend Wayan to ask her how she married and she told him the story, which he reported to me, he looked at me astonished. He never knew. And I observed that he had never thought to ask. His mother, too, was captured. She told me about it, not him. But those are long stories, tales of the betrayal of women, the force of men’s love and desire, and also about the Japanese occupation before Indonesian Independence and families’ efforts to keep their daughters from being taken as comfort women. I will tell you those stories but not yet. What I want to tell you right now is about searching in the market for that sarong for Wayan’s grandmother, the gift I gave her before I left Bali (I wonder who has it now? I wonder if she was cremated in it?).

In Bali, bright colors are called warna muda, young colors. Dark colors are warna tua, old colors. These terms both describe the relative values of colors (warna), their lightness or darkness, at the same time they describe who should wear them. The young should wear light/bright (young – muda) colors. The old should wear dark (old – tua) colors. I was looking for a dark colored sarong but I had a particular technique in mind for how the fabric should get its printed pattern. I wanted a batik cap. Batik is a style of resist dyeing in which a design is drawn on fabric in wax. When the fabric is dyed, everything but the area painted in wax will take the dye. A batik made by drawing these designs by hand is called batik tulis. Tulis means to write. So batik tulis refers hand-drawn batik. Batik tulis is the most valuable form of batik, especially if the design is very complex with tiny lines and elaborate floral and faunal motifs. The finest of fine batik tulis designs are drawn on silk.

This sarong, and the one below, are both in the warna tua range. They are batik tulis, not cap.

The local market was largely for tourists on the first floor and for local people on the second. There was no batik tulis there, being too expensive and special to find at a local market. Such high-end fabrics are only available in special fabric stores or fabric markets and the best batik tulis you have to go to Java for. Batik is not indigenous to Bali though they have developed a distinctively loose and improvisational batik style that is beloved of tourists for its bright, beachy holiday aesthetic.

I was searching for batik cap, A cap (prounounced chahp, the ‘c’ in Indonesian sounds like ch in English, the a an ah sound) is a stamp in which the batik design has been rendered in thin copper wires that, when dipped in wax, can be stamped onto the fabric leaving the wax behind in a pattern with a repeated motif. These simple batiks can be rustic, with sloppy registration and over-lapping repeats.  They can also be refined, almost indistinguishable from the lowest levels of batik tulis. I looked for hours, stall after stall, inspecting the right sides and the wrong sides of so many fabrics that fell into the tua range and were not too fancy for daily use. Machine-printed fabrics that mimic batik are common now and some of them are very good. You have to inspect the repeats carefully, studying the way the color bleeds to the back, to tell them apart. The printers are clever. They build into their designs the distinctive crackling of wax that allows a tracery of dye to impinge upon solid fields of color.

Another batik tulis in the tua range.

Market vendors will always tell you what you want to hear. Is this batik cap? Yes, that’s cap. Before noon, they are looking for their first sale of the day and promise you a ‘morning price’ – using the phrase in English with rolled r’s – if you will buy what they are selling. After they receive the money they will take the bills and brush them against all the other wares in the shop, imbuing the goods with a kind of sympathetic attraction magic. One sale draws other sales. We know this. (For a rambling description of several different kinds of Balinese attraction and invulnerability magic, I have written a footnote: [2])

The sarong I bought was one of several. Hers was brown on blue with areas of a dark red. It was perfect for an old woman. And though I thought it should be good for every day, Wayan’s grandmother said she would wear it to the temple. It was a beautiful, dark sarong, the best among many. I bargained hard for a good price, refusing the seller’s efforts to price the sarongs individually, insisting instead on a price for the group. 

I am good at this. I am animated and persuasive, charismatic in those moments of pursuit. I remember once when I was twenty-two, during my first trip to Bali. I was in the middle of haggling for something when the seller suddenly laughed and said (in heavily accented English) “bew-tee-full”, so disarming me that I felt shy and embarrassed at the praise. I don’t remember exactly what happened then. Maybe that was her concession and I paid for the thing and left. Or maybe that was her counter and I conceded and paid for the thing and left.

The fabric-seller finally accepted my offer and we both had a moment of triumph until a look of panic crossed the woman’s face and we both realized she had accepted a price that was too low but it was already done. When you are already to that stage the only way you can undo it is to refuse the sale altogether, another kind of misfortune. When I paid her I unraveled my haggling and gave her more than she had asked for at the outset, folding the money into her hands so no one, not her, not the other vendors, would see what I gave her. I love the game of bargaining but I never want to hurt anyone. It is enough for me to know that I am not being gouged as an idiot tourist who has no understanding of the value of things. To pay more than you should entails a kind of shame; women should know what things should cost.


[1] When I did my PhD fieldwork between 1998 and 2000, the Balinese I knew in the village where I worked had bathrooms in their houses, but still used the nearest river to bathe in the morning after breakfast and in the evening before dinner. It was not uncommon for people, also, to shit in rivers and people I knew talked about the experience of shitting in the river as extremely pleasurable (definitely preferable to shitting in a bathroom) for its sensuous aspect as well as a kind of contemplative ambiance they felt squatting in cool running water. For those of you who might wonder how to shit in a river, here is how: Pick a river, and part of a river, where there is a good current. This may be just ahead of a little falls or an area where the water speeds up because it narrows there, either narrowing by the river bed squeezing or narrowing by virtue of rocks that create sluices between them. Definitely don’t shit in a swimming hole or just above one! If the body of water you are considering is sluggish at all, don’t go there. Choose the woods. Always shit downstream of any place where other people will be bathing or swimming or picnicking.  Take your shoes off, but not your sarong (hopefully it’s obvious that in this instruction you are not wearing anything under the sarong such as underwear or tights or whatever. If you are not wearing a sarong and are, instead, wearing pants, then you will take those off and if you want to cover yourself on the way into the water, use your pants, or some other piece of cloth, such as a towel, as if it were a sarong). Wade into the water, but only so far that the water comes to your hips when you squat. As you squat, if you are worried about being seen by someone else, pull your sarong (or sarong substitute) up so that it is always just above the water until you are fully squatting and you can gather the sarong at your waist. If you don’t care about being seen, or you know you will not be, you may, of course, just take off whatever clothes you want and get in the water.  Squat facing upstream. Then, once you are comfortable squatting, just relax and let your mind wander and etc.

[2] Some sellers will use a more complex and dangerous attraction magic. During my first fieldwork, I studied attraction magic formulae called pengeger, a term we can gloss as magnet, used for love and desire. The principle is the same for all pengeger. The basic idea is this – there is a mantra in which the object (beloved, customer, antagonist) is constructed as bereft of everything s(h)e needs. In love magic, this looks like imagining the beloved is sick in a wasteland, her entire family gone, her village annihilated, fields burned, shelter destroyed. In sum, she has nothing but the lover, the one who is reciting the love magic formula. By reducing her to this level of devastation, the objective is to make the lover, in effect, the last man on earth, the only one she can turn to for shelter, food, family, comfort, health, love.

You can make a pengeger yourself, if you know what you are doing. Most people don’t know about these things as they are considered rare knowledge and protected in palm leaf manuscripts written in Old Javanese, creating a kind of linguistic threshold most people can’t cross. You can also purchase a pengeger from a ritual specialist. If you are making it yourself, you will say the mantra over something you will then consume (food, drink, betel, cigarette), while imagining your object. If someone else is making the pengeger, they will say the mantra over the thing they will imbue with attractive power. There will be prayer, an offering, incense (the smoke carries the prayer to the gods), holy water. Then you consume the now-potent commestible.

There are other ways to incorporate the pengeger for more long-term benefit. A ritual specialist can inscribe your body invisibly with Balinese sorcery symbols, including writing sacred syllables on your forehead in oil and on your tongue in honey, which of course you then swallow. Balinese sorcery symbols and sacred syllables are potent images and sounds that invoke unseen beings. Invoking such beings carries with it risks. Once these potent beings surround you with their persuasive powers, as long as you do the correct propitiatory rituals you can keep them satiated and helpful. If you make mistakes – forget about them and fail to pour a libation of your drink before you drink, drop a bit of food from your plate onto the ground before you eat, ask for permission before you pee, etc., — you can incur their wrath and they are unforgiving and vengeful. Often when men die unexpectedly in out-of-the-ordinary ways – drowning in shallow water, for example – it is presumed they offended unseen beings (I have never heard of this related to women).

The most dangerous form of attraction magic I learned about is a tiny length of thin, gold wire called a ‘needle’ (jarum) that is imbued with magic and then pushed under the skin at the third eye. This style of attraction magic is also a kind of invulnerability magic that is protective against malevolent attacks. I never heard of women using jarum. And when men talked about it they would whisper, speculating about other men who might be using one based on their extraordinary abilities to avoid injury in conflict with others and their remarkable capacity to attract young and beautiful girls as lovers or gain political power and wealth. Jarum are incredibly ‘hot’ and require considerable personal power (sakti) to control. If a woman were to use a jarum, she would be an extraordinarily powerful and ambitious woman, tantamount to a man in Balinese cultural terms. If you don’t have the personal power to manage a jarum, it will kill you in a distinctive way. You don’t just die in your sleep from using a jarum. You will die by having a coconut land on your head when it falls, or by falling out of a coconut tree despite being well tethered, or by falling off a cliff.

If any of the sarong-vendors in the soft-goods part of the market were using pengeger, they were weak. None of the sellers could persuade me to buy any fabrics I later wondered why I had purchased; this is how you know you have been magically manipulated; you think – what was I doing buying this piece of junk for that ridiculous price?!? Similarly, you know you have had love magic put on you when you emerge from an affair and later think – what was I doing? I don’t even find that person attractive?!?

Author: Laura Bellows

Designer, Anthropologist, Writer

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