By Latheefa Ahmed Verrall
I remember that first day you burst into my childhood. You stood on our veranda and behind you a backdrop of chandhanee and husnuheena trees tossed and twirled their flowers in the twilight breeze. My sister was outside, willing the lilies to open. As dusk approached, they popped open in quick succession, exposing the yellow centres, heavily laden with pollen. Their tendril-like petals imitated the large spiders which frequented the dusty corners of our home. Not to be out-done, the strong scent of jasmine drifted in from the trellis outside, to mingle with the slow, rhythmic murmur of the old man saying the evening salawaifulhu.
‘I hate the sea,’ you said. ‘In any case, Masveriya wasn’t too happy with us women travelling in his fishing boat.” I studied your face and how the long, black hair was pulled to form a careful knot at the side of your head. But there was no time for a quiet assessment of you, the stranger. You had other stories to tell. ‘I may never return to my island again, not because I don’t want to, but the sea…’ I lost interest in the adult- talk and looked down to take note of the fact that you did not wear any shoes. I approved.
Then you laughed.
Instinctively I realised, as children often do, that you had introduced me to an unknown world. Your laughter defied familiar conventions. Its force transformed your face and spilled in unrestrained glory to the dirt-floor around you. Its cadence rose and tumbled and held me captive. I looked at my grandmother. Would she approve? She, who knew the fearful consequences of loud and uncontrolled laughter! My young mind filled with visions of a Koranic hell, boiling and bursting at its seams and flowing in belligerent single-mindedness towards Handhuvarudhey Goalhi, tracking us with the accuracy of a smart bomb. Yet, can I admit now, that I loved that sound? Was it perversity that made me want to be part of its fearless resonance?
In your hands, you held your dreams. Your girl-child. I knew what this meant. The previous evening, my uncle had explained your presence as I lay on his lap, hidden behind the folds of his sarong, pretending the undholi was taking me away over the seas. He sang, trying to lull me to sleep, while the inquisitive child in me wanted to stay awake and belong to that adult world of secrets that is the night. ‘You understand why they are coming, don’t you? The island ones,’ he said. ‘They want to work for us and we will send the daughter to school here in Male.’
Like the monsoon that played its raucous symphony on our rusty tin roof, you took my childhood by storm. I lived your stories and dreams in which the boundaries of fantasy and reality merged. Others were critical of this. But you and I knew that the power of a story is not in its exactitude, but in the telling. For what are stories without the soul to enchant and move? I followed your long battle with the single electric light we acquired years after you came to live with us. For months afterwards, you continued to light the bathi at night-fall, because in some intuitive way you did not trust the trickery of electricity. Age and experience has taught me that you were right; too much light distorts. Life is not black and white. Its edges are always blurred and our minds achieve greater clarity in the quietude of half-light.
The last time I saw you, you were an old woman. I expected the grey hair, the inevitable wrinkles and a thousand little signs with which age carves its ascendency over the human body. But it was the eyes that shocked me the most. Where was the glow that held more magic than the Arabian Nights? That sudden burst of recognition and the smile that welcomed me home? Then, I remembered the advice of a favourite poet, ‘Humankind cannot bear too much reality.’ You had lost your dreams in Male’. They had been desecrated by thirty years of political rhetoric and equivocation. You came dreaming to our world and left it clinging to your tattered memories.
Understanding comes too late in life. I know now that you are every woman and every parent- the endless streams of Maldivian mothers and fathers from the outlying islands who follow the yellow brick road to Male’. People who come with their children, their extended families and their meagre possessions to live, work and crowd into dark, dingy rooms where their dreams are shattered as harshly as their sleep in shifts, under beds, on beds, on the floors and god help me, suspended in hammocks from the roof.
History exists only if someone relates it. Our journeys through this tumble-stumble universe disappear without it. In a world obsessed with politicians and celebrities, who tells the stories of those seeking the gods of small things? Who questions the systems that impoverish a population through greed and indifference? Who documents the courage of those who are forced to leave the comfort of familiar surroundings to start new lives on distant shores? Who points out that it is not their failure, but an aberration of social justice; the failure of a regime, which had for so long, neglected the basic needs of Maldivians living outside of Male’?
When I visit Male’ now, I do not smell jasmines. The craving for modernity had allowed cement and brick to suffocate things that speak of a gentler time, and the beleaguered land breaths restlessly on the verge of collapse. Someone pointed out to me that, ‘people here will have to experience much worse, before they are motivated to make things better.’ Perhaps he is right; perhaps breakdown is a necessary precursor for regeneration. But the breakdown is here and now. The current ground-swell of anger against injustices may give belated validity to your life.
So, here’s to you Dhon Aisa, the island one! Let me laugh outrageously. Let me dream passionately of a land where dignity for all triumphs over the ambitions of a few.