By Latheefa Ahmed Verrall
The heat of the day dissipates and I walk cautiously along Chandhanee Magu, towards Jumhooree Maidhaan. A crowd gathers. The road leading to the police headquarters is cordoned-off. I am told that Mariya Did is held there, to give information, ‘regarding a matter that the police are investigating.’ Mariya Didi? I recall instantly. The image of this woman, speaking at a pro-democracy gathering, has stayed with me. Courage, combined with a social conscience, is a potent mix which never fails to impress.
Beside me a woman begins to have a conversation with a young policeman; a young boy really, perhaps younger than my own children. He is separated from the crowds by a fragile stretch of yellow tape. ‘It’s not that I hate the police,’ the woman declares to the world. ‘My brother-in-law is a policeman. I just object to the fact that he is made to do things like this. He shouldn’t have to take orders from a baagee government.’ The young man smiles. He has no answer. It occurs to me that he is as helpless as the woman who wants her opinion heard. The victim and the victimiser are trapped together in someone else’s web of ambition.
Three young men stand next to me. Watching. Waiting. A pony tail, carelessly tied with a rubber- band. Levi jeans fashionably bleached. A pair of sunglasses pushed up to hold an unruly mop of curly, black hair. Normal sights at any city intersection, I tell myself. But within seconds I recognise there is a silent battle raging between these men and the aging policeman in the middle of the intersection. Droplets of perspiration seep out of their young, sun-burnt skin. Defiance is in their faces. It is in their uncompromising stare. It is in the way their words are held back- intentionally. The tension is palpable. Then, one of them whispers, ‘Baagee, baagee, baagee…’
As I walk away to put some distance between myself and the feuding groups, I think back to the previous six days of my short visit to the Maldives; part of it spent in Ari Atoll. Dolphins jumping in the distance…islands dressed in verdant green, floating in pristine, blue lagoons … Gauguin painted landscapes. And long stretches of white sand that trigger memories of another image. ‘On Linden when the sun was low, all bloodless lay the untrodden snow.’ But beauty is deceptive here as it was in Hohenlinden. Here too ‘we see another sight,’ one that depicts ‘fires of death’ as men in uniforms draw their ‘battle blades.’
At home, sitting on the udholi, I watch my friends and family prepare themselves for another long- haul journey to their illusive right to vote. How long will it take this time? Months? Years? Decades? I wonder. ‘You understand, don’t you?’ a friend says, as she places her sinewy hand on mine. ‘When you have suffered, when your whole family has been unfairly persecuted, there is only one thing you can do. Fight back.’ Another friend shows me her photos. Eight policemen in riot gear arresting her as she walks home. She talks about her bruises and the night she spent in prison. Then, quite unexpectedly we both laugh and think of Hermia, ‘And though she be but little, she is fierce.’ Our hollow laughter echoes round the room as I remember that this is not the first time she has endured such abuse. Later, on the street, I meet a nephew who staggers across the road to shake my hand. He is concussed, yet to recover from the impact of meeting a testosterone- high policeman, in possession of a baton.
I try to find solace in clichés- the times they are a changing. Yes, I have witnessed a few miracles: a young woman standing in front of a spell-bound crowd and calmly delivering an indictment against a self-appointed president, the latest incarnation of an old cancer; rivers of protesters flowing unrestrained, demanding the right to vote; and a sea change of attitude in a nation made impotent by brutality and fear. Rabindranath Tagore whispers in my ears, ‘Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.’
Later, as I leave Hulule’ airport, I look down towards the dark carpet of ocean below me. To my left, Male’ sparkles like a diamond tiara. Tall building rise skyward and are tinted by the glow of the street lights, creating a collage of vibrant match-boxes. Yachts wait in the harbour, lulling its passengers to sleep with the promise of tomorrow’s adventures. From this height and at this time of the night, the searing heat, the madding crowds and the impatient bellowing of motorbikes disappear. Only the heart-breaking beauty of the enchanted fairyland of my childhood remains. I feel the familiar tightening of my throat and my eyes water as I try to catch a last glimpse of this land which cradles my heart in her aqua-blue arms.
If beauty is truth, truth beauty, what is my truth for this land which hides so many dark shadows buried beneath its bewitching face?