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Gods and Demons : exposing Bali’s underbelly

18 September 2020 153 views No Comment

Deborah Cassrels, ‘Gods and Demons’ (ABC Books, 336pp, $34.99).


Bali is a special place for Australians. For some of us it’s a touchstone, a much-loved haven.

Until she died in January, my darling wife Lyndal, who spoke Bahasa Indonesian and some Balinese, travelled with me each year to Bali. We always stayed at the Puri Saraswati Bungalows, a home away from home in culturally rich Ubud, next to the Royal Palace.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. Yet despite an influx of immigrants, mainly from Java, Bali remains predominantly Hindu.

In 2009 journalist Deborah Cassrels left Sydney to settle on the tourist island. She became this newspaper’s first Bali-based correspondent, covering events throughout the Indonesian archipelago.

Her memoir, ‘Gods and Demons’, has a rather intimate opening, dealing with the unravelling of her 20-year relationship with the then editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell. After that, the book, dedicated to their children Jake and Ruby, moves to its main purpose.

Cassrels unpeels the tourist veneer of Bali, and other parts of Indonesia including Lombok and Java. She writes about a web of power, corruption, pollution, tainted alcohol, vigilantism, gross overdevelopment, sexual exploitation and Islamic violence and terror. She was acutely aware of the clash between traditional Balinese culture and incursions from the West.

Cassrels writes well of the early release and return to Australia of ‘‘celebrity prisoners’’, Renae Lawrence and Schapelle Corby, and of their “fickle and ambiguous” relationship.

She writes of the vicissitudes of life as a writer and her troubles with people she met and/or reported on. One man, arrested with a small amount of drugs, threatened to sue ‘The Australian’, accusing Cassrels of phone hacking, “defamation and bribing police for information”. As she puts it, “How easy it is to pierce the reputation of a journalist.”

Cassrels’s narrative is absorbing at times and the illustrations are a highlight. I like the undated shot of beautiful Balinese girls in ceremonial sarongs and elaborate head-dress, celebrating the annual agricultural festival in Plaga, central Bali. This is the exotic Bali we know and love.

The most poignant one is a colour photo of Cassrels, with one of her Indonesian assistants, at Bali’s Kerobokan jail in November 2013, interviewing Australian prisoner Myuran Sukumaran, who was a key member of the so-called Bali Nine, convicted for trafficking heroin.

As we starkly remember, Sukumaran, 34, and his co-ringleader Andrew Chan, 31, along with a number of non-Australian prisoners, were executed by firing squad on the prison island of Nusa Kambangan in Central Java on April 29, 2015.

In the final chapter, ‘Full Circle’, Cassrels, back in Sydney in 2017, travels to the Campbelltown Arts Centre to see Myuran Sukumaran’s posthumous art exhibition, ‘Another Day in Paradise’.

“Many of his disturbing self-portraits, painted in Ben Quilty’s style using thick oils, had been created in [Sukumaran’s] last days from Kerobokan and Nusa Kambangan jails.” As Quilty, Sukumaran’s artistic mentor and the exhibition’s co-curator, suggested, “he had turned the mirror on himself”.

Ross Fitzgerald’s most recent book is an updated edition of his memoir ‘Fifty Years Sober’ (Hybrid Publishers: Melbourne).

The Weekend Australian, Review, 19-20, September 2020. 

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