Volume 22, Number 1

The Banyan Tree

Dennis James

Koman Sawarthanan threw off the sheet and sat on the edge of the bed. The Balinese night had not ended, and the insect chorus in the rice field was in full cry. He knocked over the lamp on the bedstead reaching for his clove cigarettes. Mumbling an oath, he stood up and stepped out onto the rickety porch of his Puri Lumbung Resort staff bungalow, lit up, inhaled and stared into the chirping darkness, savoring the spicy tingle of clove in his mouth and nose. Two cigarettes later, the stars dimmed, and the black bowl of night became purple, then matte gray, then dusky rose. A rooster crowed, silencing the hexapod choir. He lit up again and thought about last night’s phone call.

“Hello, Professor Sawarthanan? This is Gatot Sudarso.”

“Gatot. Good to hear from you. But I’m no longer a professor. Just a humble tourist guide, surprised to receive a call from Deputy Minister of Trade Sudarso.”

“You will always be The Professor to me. As for my title, the emphasis is on ‘Deputy.’ I am an errand boy without portfolio.”

“And what errand leads you to call me?”

There was a pause, then Gatot said, “One not entirely pleasant, but with redeeming features. You know the adage about the Chinese character for crisis that is the same as the character for opportunity?”

“Yes. The last desperate thought of many dead Chinese.”

“Your wit has not abandoned you, Professor.”

“I’m glad something hasn’t. But, out with it, Gatot. What is this about? Keep it simple. And call me Koman.”

“You know that your tourist client, Gilbert Sanders, is a prominent textile and clothing manufacturer from Virginia in the U.S.”

“I have over the past ten days become aware of that.”

“He is interested in moving his clothing production to Indonesia, specifically Bali.”

“I noticed he has made many business calls.”

“If this deal can be concluded, it would mean several hundred jobs, a sizeable income resource for the residents of Bali.”

And, no doubt, for the residents of the Trade Ministry as well, thought Koman. “But worse for some residents of Virginia,” he said.

There was a pause. Gatot coughed. Then he said, “We think Mrs. Sanders, who happens to be his plant manager, is pressuring Mr. Sanders to drop the deal.”

“And how does this concern me?”

“It seems that while the Sanderses are at odds with each other, they both think highly of you, as a man versed in the economy and culture of Bali, which sentiment has been conveyed to the Minister by Gilbert Sanders. I am not surprised, having been your devoted student.”


“So the Minister has a proposal. If you can persuade Sanders to outsource his production to Indonesia, he will get you your professorship back.”

“How does the Trade Minister even know about my situation? That concerned the Ministry of Education. Ah, you told him, didn’t you, Gatot? And this is your idea, isn’t it? Well, I am much obliged, but I have to think about this, seeing as it hardly promotes international worker solidarity.”

“Professor, uh, Koman, yes, this was my idea. But the Minister had his own idea. He implied that if the deal doesn’t come off, he would … circumscribe … your guide’s license. I’m afraid this is the crisis side of the coin. I’m sorry.”

Koman was silent for a long moment.

“’Circumscribe.’ That’s your word, Gatot. What were his words?”

“The Minister said, ‘If he fucks this up he won’t guide tourists to the shithouse.’”

“How subtle. Well, thank you, Gatot.”

“I’m sorry, Professor. I tried to help.”

“The lyrics of a song come back to me from my years at Berkeley. ‘Don’t think twice, it’s all right.’ Well, I’ve got a lot to think about. Good bye, Gatot.”

“Good bye, Professor, and good luck.”

* * *

Koman loved this time of day, the hour before dawn, the soft light, the stillness, the cool moist air not yet heated to steam by the equatorial sun. As a boy in his family’s village, he was the first up to feed the animals and to set out offerings, then to jump naked into the watercourse to wash off the mud before dressing for school.

Now he was a tourist guide at the Puri Lumbung Resort in the forested hills of Northern Bali, probably the most over-qualified tourist guide in Indonesia. Formerly a tenured Professor of Economics at the University of Bali, he had been a vocal supporter of left-wing student movements and the founder of a Marxist study group. After a couple of warnings from the University administration, he received a letter terminating his position from the Minister of Education, an uneducated construction tycoon and political contributor whose fiat trumped any claim of tenure, academic freedom or free speech.

Being a guide was not so bad. He was able to get a license, albeit limited to his home district. They had, at least, left him that. He knew these hills like his family’s courtyard and enjoyed strolling among them, tourists in tow, expounding on Balinese flora. Between tours he worked the soil like his peasant forbears. He even did some organizing around local issues.

But there was the matter of his wife, Soni, their two daughters, his family, his in-laws, his village and their common expectation, not unreasonable, that after all his education, he would be the paladin whose wealth and influence would supplement their spiritual welfare with material welfare—a new truck for the crops, a storefront in Ubud for the village handicrafts, a generator to deal with power outages. Their Balinese stoicism precluded overt complaints but he sensed their disappointment. It was hardest on Soni, having to go back to live with her in-laws on a third of the income he had brought in as a professor. Soni—his wife, lover, friend, muse, critic, editor, comrade. She loved him, and she understood. But in defending his belief that all should share the country’s immense wealth, he had consigned her to a life of rural poverty. She rarely complained. But now she rarely smiled.

He wanted the job back.

He wanted economic justice.

He wanted a generator for the village.

He wanted international worker solidarity.

He wanted a house of their own.

He wanted to organize grass-roots movements

He wanted to read, teach, have collegial contacts.

He wanted socialist revolution.

He wanted Soni to smile.

He wanted the job back.

As their exclusive guide, Koman had been with the Sanderses for ten days now, exploring Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali; attending gamelan concerts and dance performances, trekking to villages. At the end of each day they had insisted he have dinner with them, and they talked into the night. During the day he often had occasion for discussion with each alone. He was a good listener, always accessible, non-threatening and discreet. When a response was called for he was articulate, supportive and non-judgmental. It didn’t hurt that he was a physically attractive man with a solid torso just beginning to thicken, smooth almond skin, thick black hair and brooding chocolate eyes.

So they had confided in him. He discerned that their marriage was fraying. There was a significant disparity in age and social standing. Gil was in his sixties, a tall, thin, patrician Virginian, a twice-divorced philanderer and borderline alcoholic. Kit was in her forties, previously unmarried, but not inexperienced, a short, solid, attractive blonde of Ukrainian heritage. They had met at an exclusive substance-abuse institute, where she was head nurse and was personally in charge of his case. In a benign post-detox haze he married her and made her head of production at his textile company’s Richmond facility.

After two years, the haze lifted, and he resumed drinking and playing around. She threatened a costly divorce, so he proposed the Bali trip as a romantic reconciliation. But she discovered his outsourcing activity, saw it as a move to ease her out, and was furious.

Today they were scheduled to trek to the Royal Banyan Tree, the oldest and largest in Bali. The trek was five miles each way, winding through hilly rain forest and terraced rice fields with a lot of sun exposure and the likelihood of heavy rain at midday. Kit, an experienced hiker, had chosen the trek the day before. She had said, “I’m tired of these nature walks. What’s a good tough hike?”

The Royal Banyan Tree, Koman had said. He described the trek and asked, “Mr. Sanders, Gil; are you up to it? It’s pretty strenuous. Of course we can always turn back if it.…”

“If he has to turn back, you go with him and give me a map,” Kit snapped.

“If she can do it, so can I,” Gil had said, not very convincingly. He had struggled to keep up, even on the “nature walks,” and had fallen several times.

Just before starting on the trek, Gil took Koman aside.

“I think this will be our last day. We’ll be cutting short our stay here and going home tomorrow late morning. I may have to attend to some business back home.”

One day, Koman thought. One day to determine his fate. One day for Soni, his daughters, family and village. He would do what he must do. He could rationalize afterward.

The morning’s leg of the trek followed a small watercourse two miles upstream through clove, nutmeg and coffee groves, Koman pointing out the various crops. At about 11:00 a.m., they entered the rain forest and the heat clamped down. Koman, in his traditional sarong, tunic, sandals and small turban, led the way, stepping calmly from stone to rotting log to gnarled root. Gil came next, sweating profusely, breathing hard, his arms out for balance. Kit stayed far behind, looking morose and thoughtful. All three barely glanced at the wild gardenia, hibiscus, and torch ginger that bloomed in chaotic abundance along the trail.

Finally, they emerged from the steaming forest onto a broad, rocky path that wound through fields of tall rice. Squinting, they passed from mottled shadow into bright sunlight. As Gil groped for his sunglasses, his booted toe struck a protruding rock buried in the trail. He twisted and went down hard on his right hip.

“Fucking rock!” He struggled to his knees and started to look around. “Oh shit, my cell phone. Where’s my cell phone? It must have fallen out of my pocket.”

Koman hurried over to him. “We’ll find the phone, Mr. Sanders. First of all, are you okay?”

“Sure, sure.” Gil got to his feet, still looking for the phone. “I’m okay. I fall down three times an hour at home every day. Keeps me awake. The phone, Koman, where’s the phone?”

Gil dusted himself off as Kit walked up. “Sanders, we’re going to have to put up guard rails for you. Next time, don’t get up so soon. I want to get a picture of you on your ass. Now what are you doing?”

“Looking for my cell phone. Ah, here it is. Still works. Good.”

“What do you need the phone for? You said you weren’t going to pursue this business any further.”

“Well, I just want to leave the door open. The ministry may make an offer I can’t refuse.”

“The hell you can’t.”

“Kit, I have an obligation to the company.”

“Bullshit. You’re the company. You can do what you want.”

“There’s other stockholders. I have an obligation to maximize profits.”

“And what the hell am I supposed to do as head of production when production has gone ten thousand miles away? Hang around here while you screw your secretary in Virginia? Or better yet, watch the store there while you cavort lewdly among the maidens here? I’ve worked all my life, and I had a good job as head nurse, and I didn’t leave it to wind up playing idle society matron for a skirt-chasing drunk!”

“Okay, okay. Listen, nothing is set in stone. Let me think about it. I’ll call the Minister’s office and tell them I need time. But Kit, you’ve got to understand.…”

“I don’t want to hear it. You screw Richmond and that will be the last thing you screw in our house, and that’s all I have to say to you.”

She pushed past Gil, who fumbled with his cell phone. Koman, who had been off to one side, looking away, stepped aside for her. She looked up as she passed him.

“Sorry. We had a little argument. I’ll just walk up ahead and take a few pictures.”

“I’ll go with you. It looks like Mr. Sanders is busy again.”

“He’s always busy. To hell with him.”

They walked in silence for several minutes, Kit staring straight ahead, her mouth tight. Koman occasionally looked sideways at her. Then he stopped, gently took her arm and turned her towards him. “Mrs. Sanders, Kit, I don’t know what’s going on with you and Gil but I would feel remorse if you came away from this trek without some memories of its beauty. So I ask you to try to relax and take in what is around you and become part of it. This is Bali. There is nothing like it in Virginia.”

She looked up into his eyes for a long moment, then gave a little laugh and shook her head. “You’re right, as always, Koman. I will try. By the way, is this rice? It’s so tall and yellow it looks like wheat on steroids.”

He smiled and nodded. “It is rice, oddly enough, called red rice because it turns red when cooked. It is our finest rice, grown only in Northern Bali. There are only two harvests, compared to three in the South, so it grows taller.”

“And those little mailbox-looking stands along the trail?”

“They are altars to hold up offerings for a good harvest. Come, I will show you.”

He stepped up on one of the dirt embankments enclosing a field of rice and offered his hand to hoist her up behind him. They walked single file for one hundred yards along the top of the dike up a gradual slope until they came to a twenty-foot-square dry clearing where, on one side, stood a small shed containing harrows and harvesting and planting tools. At the other side of the clearing was a raised bamboo platform, six feet high and three feet square with a peaked roof and open sides. The raised platform floor was strewn with little bundles of flower petals, nuts, seeds, and small pieces of fruit

Kit looked up to see dozens of terraces of rice awaiting harvest. They rose up the surrounding hillsides like thickly carpeted stairs. The late morning sun was a blazing hole in the sky, but a breeze rippled through the green and gold stalks. Kit raised the camera but lowered it without shooting. She watched the rice wave in the wind for a long time. Then she turned to Koman.

He was facing the platform, pressing his hands together, eyes closed. He took a deep breath, made a slight bow, turned, and smiled.

“These offerings are made to invoke the blessings of Shiva, our ancestors and the spirits of the earth, on this rice crop. The spiritual bond between the Balinese and rice is very strong. There are many rituals involved in the blessing of the rice. In the villages, the entire population is involved in the cultivation, harvesting and blessing of the rice crop. At meals, no rice served is left uneaten.”

“And you believe in this, these rituals, these offerings?”

“I do. I participate in them in my village.”

She paused, brushed a strand of hair from her face. “As part of your religion or the customs of your culture?”

“There is no difference.”

She nodded slowly, then she looked back at the rice fields. “It’s like a sea of gold with wind blown waves.” Her hair fell across her face again and Koman brushed it back with his fingertip.

“Like it blows your golden hair,” he said

She took a step back. “Are you familiar with the phrase, ’making a move’, Koman?” she said with a tight grin.

”I gather that is what I just did, and should not have.“

“That’s right. Especially with such a hokey line.”

“I’m sorry. My judgment and diction were impaired by my senses. I forget myself. I am to guide your exploration of Bali, nothing more.”

Just then Gil came up the path on top of the dike. “All right, I put off conferring with the Minister till tomorrow. I’ll make some other calls, get some more information and then make a decision.”

“Uh-huh. Well I’m going to take some shots around here. You boys go on. I’ll catch up. I need to do some thinking too.” She jumped up on the dike, ignoring Gil’s offer of a hand up, and walked deliberately further into the rice fields. Her head bobbed just over the surrounding stalks and then could not be seen.

“Your wife is a formidable personality.”

Gil made a short harsh laugh, more like a bark.

“Oh she is that. She’s a pistol. But I owe her a lot. Kit pulled me through, dried me out and cleaned me up. Trouble is I’m drinking again. So I need her. And she’s pissed. I don’t blame her. If I don’t move production, my profit margin might disappear. But if I do, she might disappear.”

“None of my business, but since you shared that with me, Gil, surely you wish to leave a viable company for your children and grandchildren’s welfare. And on humanitarian grounds, the workers of Bali are at least as needy as those of Richmond.”

“Well, I have no children, and the employment picture in the States is pretty bleak.”

“I do not doubt it, but as we say, a skinny elephant is still an elephant. In Bali the situation is much worse. Here, months separate planting, harrowing and harvesting. In the interim we have thirty to forty percent unemployment, unless you call selling wooden lignums and fake batik on the street to foreign tourists for five dollars a day employment. But I overstep myself. Let’s walk. Are you up to it?”

“Sure. And I take no offense at your comments. I will think about them.”

The two men climbed atop the dike and negotiated the narrow path to the main trail, Gil in front, Kuman close behind. Gil slipped sideways twice but Koman caught him before he fell off the dike. By the time they reached the main trail, Gil was shaking.

They walked slowly, for a long time. Kit reappeared, but skulked far behind, taking dozens of pictures, scowling at the viewing screen, deleting her shots, shooting some more.

They re-entered the forest and the trail began a slight uphill grade. A light shower fell, wetting the roots and stones. Gil struggled along, slipping back and sideways every few steps.

“I’m not going to make it, Koman. I’m sorry. We better turn back.”

“No, Gil. You are going to make it. I‘ll be here to help. Take this stick. Use it for lift on the uphill, to brace on the downhill and to balance on the level. Watch the trail.”

The rain came down in earnest.

“Oh, man, this is too much.”

“It’s only water. Come on, Gil. Here.” Koman strode off the trail into the bush, broke off two palm leafs, each the size of a small kayak, and handed one to Gil. “Hold this over your head.”

The trail leveled off, and the rain slackened. Gil threw away the palm leaf and concentrated on his footing and placement of the stick. After a half-hour he gained some facility and maintained a good pace. He chanced a glance at the surrounding verdure; the gargantuan ferns and palm trees; yellow flowers big as brooms, hand sized blue butterflies and black spiders; and fell flat on his face. But this time he laughed, even as Koman moved to help him up.

“I’m okay, I’m okay. I can get myself up. Instead of keeping my eye on the trail I put my face in it.”

“It happens to everybody, Gil. If you want to look around, just stop and do it. We’re in no hurry.”

Gil leaned on his stick and looked around. “My God. It’s like the Richmond Botanical Gardens gone berserk. I’ve never seen plants this big.”

“Wait till you see the tree.”

“The tree, yes; the tree. Lead the way, Koman.”

“The trail will be steeper now. Use your stick and your hands.”

For the next two hours they mounted uneven blocks of stone, clambered hand and knee over rock ledges, crawled under and climbed over fallen trees, stumbled and slipped on wet tree roots. Then the rain stopped. The sun, unclouded, resumed its slow roast of the forest canopy.

Finally the foliage began to thin out, and the trail came up onto a small ridge dividing two streams that formed forested canyons on each side. On the crest of the ridge, all alone, was an unruly monster of a tree with roots reaching out like claws, a mountain of living wood. The trunk was less that of a tree than an immense snarl of serpents. The ground beneath its glowering canopy of branches was bare, the Royal Banyan having defeated all its competitors for access to the sun.

Gil took off his hat and dropped it. He walked over to the tree, touched its grotesque, octopodic roots and peered into the cave of its dark and dripping heart. He circled the tree slowly then stopped and looked at Koman.

“Well, you made it,” said Koman

“No, you did it, my friend; you gave me the balls to do it. You know, you’ve got the qualities I look for in supervisors and managers. You get people to do things on their own. You’d make a great Human Resources Director.”

Koman laughed. “I don’t think so.”

“I’m serious. If I did open a facility in Bali I’d hire you as consultant in a minute, with your command of languages, your knowledge of the culture and temperament of the people. You want to be more than just a guide don’t you?”

“I am content to do my job well.”

“Nonsense. Everybody everywhere wants to get ahead. You’re obviously well educated. You said you studied in the States?”

“I have a Doctorate in Economics from the University of California at Berkeley.”

“My God. You should be a professor.”

“I was. It is a long story. I’d rather not go into it.”

”Maybe some day when I’m older, eh?” Gil chuckled.

Kit emerged from the bush and walked up to the men. She looked quickly at Koman and then turned to Gil. “Well, you made it. How did you do it? Did Koman carry you?”

Gil stopped smiling and began a retort but Koman intervened.

“Mr. Sanders did it himself, despite the rain and the bad footing.”

“I’m impressed. So, Koman, this is your big tree. Tell us about it.”

Koman walked over to the tree, looking up into its dense tangle of branches. He patted one of the serpentine columns of the trunk. “This is Ficus benghalensis, the banyan tree. This one is estimated to be 600 years old. Its trunk is more than sixty meters in circumference. It is fifty meters high, and its canopy is fifty meters across. These claw-like extensions are called “prop roots.” They can spread for many hectares underground. In Hinduism, the banyan leaf is said to be the resting place of Krishna before he recreated the world, just after destroying it. Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment sitting under a banyan tree.

“The tree has a darker side. The banyan is also known as the ‘strangler fig.’ It begins as a seed that lodges in a crevice of a host structure, another tree or a building, and grows until it envelops the host. Buddhist canon likens the banyan’s supplanting of a host tree to the way sensual and material desire overcomes human spirituality.”

Koman insisted Gil and Kit pose in front of the tree while he took their picture. They did so, awkwardly. They did not touch each other. They didn’t smile.

* * *

That evening, Koman sat alone at a table at the end of the courtyard, one that overlooked a field of rice bordered by the forest. Nursing a palm wine and smoking clove cigarettes, he waited.

At about 7:30, Kit walked alone into the courtyard dining area of the resort. Most of the tables were empty, the guests having eaten and repaired to their cottages or to a large conference room where a village children’s dance ensemble, accompanied by a small gamelon of their elders, performed a traditional legong, a dance interpretation of part of the Ramayana. She saw Koman, smiled and went over to him.

“You’re here. I’m glad,” she said.

He stood and bowed. “I am too. Please sit down, Kit. Where is Gil?”

“He passed out on the bed after a couple of drinks. Too much trekking.”

A waiter appeared. Koman recommended the nasi goreng, rice with spices, vegetables and meat, plus river fish cooked in banana leaf. They ordered gin-and-tonics and watched the sun sink below the tree line.

Looking into her drink, Kit said, “I think I’ve gotten Gil to back off the outsourcing deal. I suppose I should feel good about it. Let’s face it, I’ve gotten used to the life style that goes with my job and marriage. But I don’t feel good about it. It’s Gil. I’ve got him where I want him, but now I don’t want him. You know what I mean?”

Koman nodded slowly.

“What shall I do, Koman?

“I don’t know, Kit. But here comes our order. Perhaps in the course of the evening, I’ll think of something.”

They ate and talked. About Balinese music, about the subtle differences between Javanese and Balinese dance; about the integration of work, love, death, birth, sorrow and joy in Balinese village life; about the sculptural depictions of sexual congress in the ancient temple clusters.

“Those were the days when population growth was encouraged and therefore, so was the enjoyment of sex,” he said. “Now, of course, things are different.”

“Not so different,” she said.

The complex rhythms of the gamelan hammers and mallets swelled and faded in the distance. The faint scent of gardenias drifted through the courtyard.

Kit looked around at the tables. They were alone. The waiter had left the check. She looked at Koman. A candle on the table was reflected in the brown pools of his heavy-lidded eyes. He smelled of clove and palm wood.

“Don’t you ever take off that little hat?”

“Oh, the turban. Yes, when I’m off duty. I just forgot.” He raised the turban over his head and placed it on the table His lustrous black hair fell across his eyes. She reached over and brushed it back with her fingertips. She let her fingers drift down his cheek, his neck, across his chest, pushing aside his unfastened tunic. He took her hand, kissed it and brushed his tongue between her fingers, then released her hand and looked into her eyes. She picked up a pen and signed the check. “How about dessert at your room?” she said. “We can explore these symbolisms more fully.”

She left Koman’s room at 3:00 am, smelling of clove and palm wood. Gil, snoring, lay in his clothes where she had left him. She crept into bed without waking him.

* * *

The next morning, Koman slept until noon. He got up, lit a cigarette and opened the porch door. The harsh sunlight made him wince and swing the door shut. He went to the sink, looked in the small mirror above it, took the mirror off the wall and dropped it in the trash bucket. He tore the sheets off his bed and threw them into a corner. His phone rang. It was the front desk. Someone to see him. The clerk was excited. A Deputy Minister.

Gatot Sudarso sat across the courtyard table from Koman, smiling, his tie loosened, his Armani suit unbuttoned, his Bintang beer half empty. Koman was not smiling. He hadn’t touched the beer Gatot had ordered for him.

“Well, Koman, I don’t know how you did it but you did it. Sanders was wavering yesterday but he called early this morning and said he was ready to sign. They flew me here with the papers, and we closed the deal. The Trade Minister will ask for your reinstatement as a professor. And this is a big plus for me too. Cheers.”

“And Kit, Mrs. Sanders, what did she have to say?”

“Nothing during the business discussions. But after the signing, I asked her how she enjoyed her visit. ‘Great,’ she said, ‘especially the performance last night.’ She’ll be coming in for the first month and then once a month after to help with the transition. And Gil thinks highly of you. He wants you to be her liaison with the labor pool. You could be an informal source of information for us. The Minister would like that.”

“I don’t think I would.”

“Well, I just talked with the Minister on my cell. I don’t think you have much choice; that is, if you want to stay a professor. But hell, Koman, it could mean a lot of money for you, your family, your village.”

Koman remained silent. He took a sip of his beer, made a face, then took a long drink. “Yeah,” he said. “Cheers.”