It’s 3 in the afternoon and I sit next to a “small merry-eyed, russet-coloured old guy with a mostly toothless mouth.” That’s how author Elizabeth Gilbert describes Ketut Liyer, a ninth-generation Indonesian medicine man. It’s my very first visit to Ketut and he’s reading my palm. He tells me that I will find creative work that I’ll be passionate about. He also says with absolute certainty that I will find my soul mate soon. Very soon.
Gilbert is right when she says Ketut looks like the Star Wars character Yoda. The wizened shaman has rarely journeyed from his humble home in Ubud, Bali. Yet this autumn, he’s likely to become a household name when the film version of Gilbert’s best-selling memoir, Eat Pray Love , starring Julia Roberts, is released.
According to Gilbert, Ketut is responsible for the prediction that changed her life. It was his prophecy that enabled her to formulate the concept for Eat Pray Love (EPL) – a year of her life spent in Italy, India and Bali – and secure the book advance that carried it all.
And her enchanting depiction of Ketut has resulted in throngs of foreigners appearing at his doorstep. His previous life of gentle obscurity, prescribing herbal remedies and rituals for his Balinese neighbours, is a distant memory. On my most recent visit, I counted close to 20 people waiting patiently to have their palms read, many with the book in hand.
Fact or Fiction?
My introduction to the world of Ketut came while browsing an airport bookshop in Hong Kong. It was early 2008 and I was going to Bali for the very first time. EPL was prominently featured on the displays and I figured it would make an inspiring read during my four-hour flight to the ‘Island of the Gods.’
Call it what you will; fate, providence, kismet or just plain old-fashioned dumb luck, but as soon as I found my seat and pulled out the book to read, the lady sitting next to me whipped out her digital camera and excitedly began to show me photographs of a happy-looking, elderly Balinese man. She enthusiastically informed me that this was the Ketut the Medicine Man who had helped the Elizabeth Gilbert get out of her funk and find success.
Intrigued, I dived into the book’s pages and decided to pay a visit to the soothsayer. I wondered if he could live up to the otherworldly expectations created by Gilbert? I hoped so. If he truly helped her writing aspirations, perhaps he could breathe life into mine.
The Medicine Man
I enlisted the help of some fellow travellers in tracking down Ketut’s address and in no time, we’re making our way to Ubud. Entering the front gate of his house, we noticed a cheerful man fitting Ketut’s description sitting on the porch, just like Gilbert had written. He was in the midst of giving a palm reading to two Australian women.
Ketut glances up at us with a perky smile and gives a quick, friendly wave. When it’s our turn to sit with him, his prevailing sense of happiness proves to be contagious. Although his English is very basic, Ketut’s simple words are universally understood and singularly positive.
The precise details of Ketut’s own life are hard to pin down. They’ve also seemed to shift slightly after subsequent visits. Influenced by Gilbert’s musings, many people ask him his age, but the number remains a mystery. It appears that he honestly doesn’t remember the year he was born. This is pretty common for Balinese people, who believe that the day of the week is the most significant fact about their date of birth.
Ketut started out as an artist and a woodcarver, but his grandfather later imparted to him the knowledge and art of the medicine man, entrusting him with centuries-old sacred scrolls. These ancient Balinese texts contain many different doctrines, such as cures for common ailments and sacred rituals.
I returned to Bali several times after that first visit. I’ve always gone to see Ketut on each trip. His appeal lies in the mystique of how he influenced a now famous Elizabeth Gilbert. People want to re-enact Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love journey, in much the same way backpackers in Thailand continue to seek out The Beach from the Leonardo DiCaprio film adaptation of the book.
Ketut’s not a guru or yogi in the traditional Indian sense. He doesn’t attempt to pierce into the depths of one’s soul with burning eyes and assist in the journey to enlightenment, nor does he seem to take on students as he did with Gilbert in the book. However each visit presents an opportunity to bask in an aura of uncomplicated happiness that emanates from him.
Most recently, while accompanying a friend, I mentioned to Ketut that I had seen the movie trailer for EPL online, and he immediately asked if I could play it for him. His son Nyoman went to make us a strong cup of Balinese coffee (always served unfiltered with the heavy grinds filling the bottom of the mug) while I drove to a nearby Internet café and loaded the movie preview onto my laptop.
Eat, Pray, Love
Ketut watched with a curious interest as the trailer opens with his onscreen likeness making the prediction to Julia Roberts: “You will live a long time . . . You will lose all of your money . . . Don’t worry you will get it all back again and you will come back to Bali and then I will teach you everything I know.” The actor breaks into a wide and mostly toothless grin that is satisfyingly similar to Ketut’s.
Ketut asks me to replay the trailer for him a few times. He remarks, “Yes, those are the very same words I spoke to the woman from New York.” He means Elizabeth Gilbert – whose name he always has trouble remembering, even though he spent months with her and visitors have given him copies of her book in every available translation.
His gaze then pops up from the laptop screen and with a twinkle in his eye he enquires, “Why didn’t they use me? I’m much better looking.” His question is actually a serious one.
Ketut, who is as far removed from Hollywood as one can be, doesn’t fully understand why he wouldn’t be the one featured on-screen. I tried explaining that being an actor is quite tedious, what with having to repeat the same lines over and over again all day long – it’s a much different job description than that of ‘Holy Man’. I also say that normally people don’t play themselves in movies, pointing out that “the woman from New York” was being played by Ms Roberts. Ketut still isn’t completely convinced. For him, it’s literally the part that he was born to play.
The Wisdom of Happiness
The sun is setting and this magical little man begins a palm reading for two American ladies. I listen as he describes a future similar to the one he predicted for Gilbert.
“You will meet someone now for life who will be very happy to be with you, and you will not be divorced again.” Their eyes brighten the same way mine must have during my first visit.
Success doesn’t necessarily create happiness, but happiness in itself creates success. I think this adage rings true for Ketut. With each encounter, I realise that most of my original expectations of him, garnered from the pages of EPL, were misguided at best. His profound joy and contentment energises his visitors, acting as a beacon of encouragement in following our own aspirations, as Gilbert herself did.
Ketut’s real magic rests in the much more subtle and seemingly human possession – the wisdom of happiness.