On Nyepi morning, I sleep in, missing the total solar eclipse that has arc-ed its way over Indonesia, waking to the glorious absence of man-made sounds. With eyes still closed, I’m already basking in the Shhhh.
While we two-legged creatures stay quiet inside, prohibited from leaving our homes (or compounds) for a full 24 hours, the earth’s other – some would say, more colourful – creatures take over. On this Day of (human) Silence, the natural world’s a stage, and we mortals take a backseat, transforming into mere observers.
Stepping outside, stillness. A slight breeze rustles the palm trees while the hanging end of the penjor gently sways. The space in front of me, normally choked with noise and people and cars and trucks hauling volcanic rock, breathes easily.
The Balinese construction crew has returned to their village, the shed locked up; a Javanese labourer sits in the shade of the other shack. Not a human in sight. A few discrete sounds – the scrapes of a chair or a dog’s bark from behind my house are all that break nature’s pristine peace.
Otherwise, the animals are at the fore. In some cases, confusedly so. A heron –from Petulus’ roosting trees no doubt – lands on the rice field, but is clearly stunned. It wobbles towards the edge, where paddy meets road, and turning its head this way and that, appears puzzled.
A lone black dog, collared in yellow, one of the more docile blackies of our banjar, meanders up the path, sniffing out goodies left over from yesterday’s meals.
Birdsong. The crowing of roosters comes to life. I can hear the whirring sound of cicadas all the way down the road, the cooing of birds a few compounds over. If I tried, I could probably identify at least a dozen different bird calls.
A flock of palm-sized birds flirt and flit from one tree to the other, peeking out from leaves, hopping onto higher branches, then flying away. A pigeon susses out its surroundings to gauge whether it’s safe to nip at the offerings placed on the temporary shrine. It’s quiet enough to hear and see one of their group, perched on one of the penjor’s dried stalks, pecking away at it until it breaks off.
How confused are they, these beautiful creatures, not hearing the usual raucous sounds of human life? How blessed are they to experience (at least, once a year) this day when they can upstage us mortals, frolicking about and without any risk?
But, like so much else in life, true silence is an illusion. No less so on a day such as this. By the time dusk settles in, a handful of errant cars have driven up and down the road; a talkative phalanx of pecalang (village security) have walked by; a dog is into its third hour of an incessant wail ‘n bark; a posse of young kids is cajoling in a walled compound nearby; and a pair of Javanese labourers in the shack are chatting alto voce.
But it’s my Japanese neighbour and restaurant-owner who takes the cake; I follow the sound-trail to my bathroom window, through which I see him hammering away at a box of what looks like concrete. Earplugs keep him blissfully unaware of the ruckus he’s making; so I knock on the window (nothing), then open it and yell at him to stop. He looks up, surprised.
I LOVE Nyepi. Were it only possible to capture and bottle up this day’s essence, and gift it to every country in the world… what a difference such a day would make. To healing – the people, the earth, our environment – and, just possibly, to the cause of peace.