The audience spread out on grass mats. Then, the Balinese announcer addressed the crowd in English to explain how first the dalang, the puppet master would be reciting mantras, warming up his voice with gamelan players there behind the screen lit, enclosed by walls of black cloth. "Go behind and look. It's our tradition." Or, the audience could get up, go for coffee, snooze. Yes, they should relax, he emphasised.
Margot remembered her Brisbane days studying anthropology and Murri dialects. She had attended a corroboree staged in the Concert Hall -- how the audience came formal and politically correct and politely sat through the indigenous show of jabiru and kangaroo dancers doing a song-cycle chant with sticks and didgeridoo until the singer stopped abruptly, pointing. "Hey youse blokes," addressing Brisbane's best in evening gowns and shirts with pert bow-ties. "What s'matter? Yer not enjoyin yer selves, why yer not gettin up fer yer drinks n smokes?" Relief had become a flood of clapping laughter. Then they loosened up and did what they were told.
“Can we go and look behind?” asked Pauline to Margot who was tired. “The man said so.”
Here was a chance to help the two girls bond with their new stepfather. They still had so much travelling to do and this was just the first stopover on their world trip. By chance they had read of the Balinese shadow play performance at the Singapore Asian Puppetry Festival and had brought the girls. But their clingy-ness was wearying. So Margot put her no-negotiation terms to reinforce their new husband's position. “Perhaps. Ask Simon.”
Pauline looked to Adele. Neither were happy. Why was she pushing them away to him? “With you Mum,” she said, just audibly through tight lips, darting a glance at Stepdad, who heard all, but bit his lip and waited.
“I’m staying put,” said Margot. “I need a break. Look, Simon knows all about these things.” Her compassionate eyes looked at him while speaking to the girls, trying to take back the blows her daughters dealt.
“But Mum!” she whined mosquito-like and showed her downturned mouth. Adele was also pouting now. Pierre's undermining influence and new stepmother’s seductions had spoiled a lot of things. Such was the collateral damage of broken marriages. After a custody struggle and court appearance to take them out of the country Margaret had them solely for the next three months and hoped during this trip to retrieve the better part of her darlings from toy bribery, new home swimming pool and KFC's dumb tastebud love. Youth selects badly as she had also done with Ben, with Pierre attracted to brawn rather than brain. Her ex-husbands were still looming brutes in the shadows.
“Mummy, we want you, not...”
Such defiance! Pauline’s outburst was a warning, highly-strung with flawed behaviour.
“Don’t push it, Paul. I have the peg right here inside my pocket!” Both had grown too old for baby threats to heal bad attitude; but her tone still made Pauline hesitate. Her will was younger. “You can’t go by yourselves. It’s simple as that,” Margot concluded.
Boundaries reasserted, Paul gave in. “Alright,” she snarled. Then they got up with Simon to see the back side of the shadow world. He suddenly sighed relief, release, or love.
After intoning mantras to call the spirits coaxing them to sit upon his tongue, the puppet-master got things ready for the story with his puppet sticks chosen for tonight, pronged into the horizontal length of something soft and wet and yellow-green placed underneath the cotton screen.
"What's that?" asked Adele. At first he didn't know, then remembered seeing the same, but standing upright when he went fruit picking near Coffs Harbour.
"It's a banana log," he answered her.
They got it, nodding, not wanting to acknowledge him too much, until curiosity spoke when the puppet man un-pronged a figure from the squishy stem, a lace-fine painted thing, filagree, lit by coconut-oil lamp.
"Why’s he waving his fan about?” she asked again, while Paul still in a pout, said nothing.
"It’s not a fan," he whispered with backstage etiquette. All were working hard behind the dalang - the four gamelan players gonging with soft hammers hypnotically on xylophonic bronze.
Looking closer, there was much more here. "It's a mountain with a tree inside." he said. “See? A tiger and wild boar are below the trunk, plus monkeys sitting on the branches.”
"But what's it for?" asked dying-to-know Adele, noticing the mountain-tree thing was centre screen. She was the more objective of the two. He had more chance of bonding with the younger; but like a roly poly clown on a rocking base she was always being buffeted by big sister.
"I think it starts the show," said Simon, digging, remembering epics begin with invocation, just as Ganesh is called to be the scribe in Indian poems. Here, the Mountain, or Tree of Life must be the root and cause of things planted in the centre for the introduction, while the shadow world's dramatis personae from the old Balinese Mahabharata paraded one after another. Tonight, it was the Pandavas and enemies about to steal the epic micro stage, aided by gamelan and dalang’s toe-rattle, hitting against the wooden puppet box. Soon the puppet maestro would give voice to some of his hundred characters or more. This is superb. How lucky to have caught this show, Simon thought. He looked around the screen and snatched a glimpse of Margo seated inscrutably there. Pauline noticed his eye was on her mum. Jealousy was quick. "Oh, they’re just cartoons,” she shot out arrow-sharp, unconscious of her rudeness. Eyes turned. The announcer sitting parallel to the side of the white screen to keep an eye on both front of house and back edged in closer.
“Sorry,” whispered Simon. The man and troupe-manager raised a calming palm and smiled, patient through good time spent with youngsters.
“They’ve got noses long as witches,” Paul provoked.
“And skinny necks,” Adele scoffed, following, their eyes of judgement on the flat-faced figures held up by the dalang.
“They’re weird,” Paul said.
Little Western eyes would not accept. Why were they like this? Simon, wondered. They had flipped from angels into she-devils. Because of me? Or their Papa? It was the wall between them. “Look,” he tried, “See how nicely they’re painted.”
They would not buy in. And fidgeted.
Reading the situation the announcer, who had travelled with the troupe to England, Europe and America, tried a rescue. “Girls, its hard work, cutting and patterning leather, painting a nose so noble. That’s Arjuna. A hero.” He quietly explained how earth and plants were used to colour rawhide, and next how shoulder and elbow hinges, slivered from buffalo horn were jiggled by sticks, also of water buffalo; how they had to be boiled down and moulded.
“Yuck! That’s gross,” Paul said. Eyes turned again. He had misjudged. He had seen so many of these disturbed, hard-to-please spoilt types from a culture too rich and jumpy.
“Fiddle-sticks!” said Pauline, aping her mother.
“Sticks and stones,” said Dele, the copy-cat.
“Bones and phones and witchety crones”, Paul chorused.
They had veered off topic into silliness like sidewinder rockets. Nothing could be salvaged. The girls were bored. Simon felt awkward. Another tale of failure. “Perhaps we’ll go back now and sit with Mum.”
The announcer forced a smile, a bit relieved. He had to keep his programme on the rails. Victory achieved, the little demonesses jumped up and ran off straight away to join her.
“I’m sorry,” whispered Simon. “They’re not my girls. They’re my wife’s.”
The announcer shook his finger. He understood, but had another view. “No, my friend. They are yours now. They are your karma.”
Simon had been disloyal. The truth pierced him like one of the puppet sticks gouging straight into his green and squishy vulnerability. “Sorry. I’d better go.”
A big commotion started on the other side of the screen. Banging his rattle against the puppet box, the dalang sang to a dramatic standstill. The Tree in the Mountain was twirled away to Heaven, the tale of black leapt on to the sheet of white and the audience was in the dalang’s grasp.
Yudhisthira spoke in the Kawi tongue, a word from Sanskrit -- Kavi, meaning ‘poet’ the noble king of character and dharma, while two pot-bellied servants attending court, turning up between each scene to crack their jokes filled in the gaps. It was a practical comic device. Father and son messed about as interpreters in Bali Bahasa or Bali English, depending upon the audience.
"Wow! Look at that."
"What's that, Dad?" They would say again each time. Tonight they told the story of the good rajah, wanting the maha yagya, the fire blessing for Indraprastha City and his people. God Indra said that he and his Pandava
brothers should first humbly enter the forest to meditate and purify themselves.
Next, gamelan gongs helped to shift the scene with upthrust bullrush scenery making a pond. Behind the screen the dalang brought up his fish on the buffalo horn stick, wiggling its tail with a sing-song voice yo-yo, yo-yo, this way and that, yo-yo, yo-yo, until the other hand brought next a stalking heron to fill its belly, moving the preening neck with a second stick. On the audience side, it loomed up large, then pecked down hard with pointed hammer blows with the help of rising gamelan's percussion - the special effects. A little boy in the audience rushed up to touch the screen, crying No! until his mother gently seated him. "It's ok, Darling." Aroused by gongs and clash of leather puppets with the dalang doing all the funny sounds, Pauline and Adele, who had now switched off were roused from dozy boredom.
"What happened?" Pauline asked. Before she could say much the screen went white and blank, and then a monkey popped up from below to become fast food. A tiger puppet arrived and crouched stage left, then leapt upon the simian. Again the gamelan went crazy with the dalang’s tiger-growling and monkey wails, a one man animation studio. Again, the boy jumped up and was restrained a second time.
"So cute," said sentimental Paul. Her better side was coming to the fore, forgetting Stepdad -- the tiger crouching in her life right next to Mum. The funny puppets cast their cut-out shadows.
"Wow, Son!" Said the pot-bellied commentator between scenes.
"What's that, Dad?"
It was a cue for Yudhisthira and entourage to enter. The fish came back, now pleading in dialect to the royal Person for safety, being pregnant.
"Yes Dad, what?"
"The fish knows Kawi. She is lady. Got babies in her belly."
This was more to the girls' taste and they laughed.
The heron turns up pleading, too, a case -- having to feed her young as well. It was an impasse and an ethical dilemma.
“Who will you help now, Lord - the fish or the bird?” Old Pot-belly asked. Yudhisthira offered himself instead of the pregnant fish swimming around his ankles. But the heron like all the other animals could not eat a Lord of Dharma, and thus backed off to bow. With sleight of hand the dalang pulled back the puppet, blurring and growing its shadow magnifying it in the coconut lamp switching his leather cut out -- first, one person for the heron and next for the fish, another. Both flanked the king and moved him off stage right. The gamelan and toe-rattle added sound drama.
“What happened Dad?”
“Wow! A trick from the Heaven. The bird become god Vishnu and fish is Brahma. The gods tried to trick our good Lord. Wow! Yudhisthira, you always for the people. You really great King!”
And so the gods rewarded the King of Dharma with a lotus flask.
“What’s that Dad?
“It’s ambrosia, Son, blessed water. It can heal peoples and bring the dead to life.”
“Oh that’s good, Dad!”
“Good brew,” Simon nodded to Margot. He was trying to compensate for what had gone haywire earlier, when the girls had come flying back to her cross-legged lap. She smiled and nodded with a finger put to lips to gently silence him, because the looming storm of little girls was calm now, and four of them had made a family.
Next, the gods instructed Yudhisthira in Kawi. All cleared the stage
except for father and son.
“What they saying, Dad?”
All along, he has been the modern fellow, who, like his generation has lost interest in the antique Balinese language. Then, Indra the god spoke himself in English, a dalang ploy to add some gravitas, but came out comical.
“Yudhisthira, be careful. This special water. It’s ambrosia. You look after it.”
Yudhisthira handed the precious liquid over to Bhima his brother for safer keeping, still sloshing in its lotus flask. He, in turn, passed it to his half-demon son Gatotkatcha, the super-wrestling giant rakshasa who was also unpredictable and wild. The story whisked ahead to the mountains. Flying high above the frozen snow-line Gatotkatcha drops the lotus bottle bringing to life the demons inside the mountain. Soon, the land of snow was boiling, threatening the earth.
“Ah, global warming. A good comment,” Simon said. “The melting of glaciers. This puppet man lives in the real world.”
Interesting, she also thought. Some insight there.
Of course, a tale must turn bad some time to turn out good. Yudhisthira and the Pandavas arrive to handle with care the bad boy, hothead demons.
The ways of Balinese trolls was introduced in turn by two new pot-bellies, demonic brothers through jokes and jigs.
“Our rakshasa brothers after a thousand years are free at last. See them shooting fire missiles. Good! Arrows ping! ping! ping! at the Pandavas.”
They did a silly dance, and, in conclusion, clonked their demon heads together, knocking each other out. Soon they recovered, roaring with belly laughter. Then, the demon commentator by name of Lam started doing his push-ups, working hard. Reaching his eleventh, Lam slow-leaked a fart. Pauline and Adele thought this hilarious and squealed with pleasure. “Shoosh you two,” Margot said, smiling.
“Sorry for my perfume, everybody,” Lam said, breaking the fourth wall, worthy of Artaud and Brecht. The audience also tittered, some guffawed. Now the chubby demons were endearing, not stock-in-trade bad-asses --
Lam and his sidekick, the irascible, funny ogres.
To and fro, the battle raged with earthy interludes and dances by the duo.
Next, Boss rakshasa launched a fire arrow, and Yudhisthira put it out with water warfare. Arjuna challenged a rakshasa to the death sending an arrow through the demon’s heart. The battle came to a Balinese standoff
but then the demon conjured up a dragon, but Yudhisthira found a way to stop it too. Then Pot-belly made a fresh appearance.
“Wow!” he said and “Wow!” then one more “Wow!" Then, "Nno, nno, ne-nno, nno”, he sing-songed, taunting.
Pauline imitated, and Dele copied her but got a glare from Margot. She looked to her simple Simon for support, but then thought the better of enlisting his aid. She longed to share the burden of parenting, hoping he would grow into the role sooner than later. He was younger than her and still was inexperienced handling children, despite his earnestness. Plus, this was her third marriage. Two husbands had left her ignominiously for other women. Thus she carried in her the demons of self-failure and the sting of wagging tongues, having rushed into another marriage with someone seven years her junior.
“Now, what did I say?” She snapped at the girls, feeling pressure.
The demon headman’s name was Prashchinti who prepared to finish off the Pandavas assuming into his body a thousand demons. He grew immense, filling the shadow screen then went to battle, pushing back the Pandavas, until Yudhisthira, sad, knew all too well should the brothers be killed, the ceremonies for Indraprastha City and his people would not proceed.
“You call Shiva, Lord.” Old Pot-belly counselled. Then young Pot-belly
came out of hiding.
“What happened, Dad?”
“Prashchinti demon swallowed all the rakshasas. Our Lord has lost his heart. He must pray Shiva.”
Yudhisthira intoned and Shiva came speaking in Kawi.
Old Pot-belly translated. “Yudhisthira, I know what is your problem. This is not the gods’ fault, this is your fault. So why you give Gatotgacha special water? Gatotgacha is very young, Yudhisthira. These young guys can’t hold the sacred things which are like the tigress milk, too strong. It melts through any dish, even gold one.” Yudhisthira was getting more depressed.
Shiva spoke again.
“What happened, Dad?”
“He’s telling Yudhisthira: ‘“Ok, don’t worry. God will help you. God will give you the Way. This weapon come from the Hell. Yes, Yama was keep the weapon.”
And so he handed it over.
The hellish thing in his hands, the good king of Dharma stood before Praschinti Demon.They charged each other, again and again. Atomically-armed by Shiva, God of Destruction, Yudhisthira now had the power of ten thousand storms at his disposal. With every lunge the mountain ranges shifted, with every thrust the three worlds shook and quivered,
with every clash a rakshasa fell down dead split off from Prashchinti like a shard. Yudhisthira shoots, until each dead rakshasa piles up and the field of battle was silent.
“Wow!” said Pot-belly.Yes, the demon body in turn become a mountain again, “Wow!”
“I think our ceremony will be save, Son.”
“Yes, Dad. I think our story stop, Dad.”
The characters left and now the Tree of Life in the Mountain returned to centre stage, closing the play. The dalang sought customary forgiveness just in case he had hurt or got things wrong, an insurance policy to ensure good karma. The gamelan played on in the background and the audience whooped and clapped.
“Wow!” mimicked Simon. “I think the story done, Mum.”
"Well, this one at least," she murmured.
"What do you mean?" He asked naively. Margot kept a lot to herself. He was still getting used to that.
Oh dear, she thought, not explaining herself. The tropical heat in this outdoor park seemed suddenly oppressive and she did not want to risk further disjuncture. Instead, Margot smiled, hiding her apprehensions in the darkness and snuggled up close. At least, the girls were the only puppets nodding in her lap now, subdued by travel tiredness, droned to sleep by the gamelan.
Their little event had arrived at its moment of calm. She relaxed a throbbing head against her husband’s heartbeat, not knowing if she could endure more stopover standoffs like this staged by sour children. She inwardly begged the god of honeymoons to re-write the script, if not with a happy ending, then at least with a fresh-start chapter for her broken family saga.