There and not there

It is hard to imagine that this isn't my real world. There are no newspapers delivered here, no TV, no phones ringing, no computer to hook up to the net, not even a dictionary to refer to if I were suddenly seized by the desire to find out what the word 'trochee' meant.

And yet, it seems perfectly natural for me to sit here cut off from most of the world, in the veranda of Cottage No: 214, overlooking the Indian ocean and hearing the white noise of the surf ride the sand.

In each one of us, there exists a line, an imaginary one between who we are and who we want to be. The earth has one too. It is 24,902 miles long and crosses three oceans and nearly a dozen countries. It cuts through rain forests, savannahs, volcanoes and seas. The line has a name: equator. But the thing about the equator is that it's imaginary. Which is not to say that it doesn't exist. Of course it exists. But you can't see it, touch it, smell it, taste it or paint a Coke logo on it. But it's there all the same.

We know the equator from school days. Of how when you cross the line, day becomes night, summer becomes winter and even the constellations above are ones that don't populate our mythology books. So what happens when you are stuck on the vicinity of the equator, hovering at almost zero degree? Pretty much the same that would happen if one was stuck on the imaginary line within us. You just be…

On this island, on the equator, at latitude 3[degrees]15'N, longitude 73[degrees]0'E, just 500 yards long and 165 yards wide, it is the philosophy of life: to just be…there and not there.

On the flight to Male, I sit next to a teacher. She is an Indian and she teaches English at an island school. She is the guidebook I could never find before we set out on this holiday to a tiny little island in the Indian Ocean.

"Why do you need a guide-book?" The pretty young thing at the travel agency asked. "I'll tell you everything you need to know about the resort you are going to? It has 5 restaurants and 2 bars including a swim-up one. And they provide entertainment on a daily basis. If you like doing outdoorsy-things, they have a diving school, windsailing and big game fishing. Won't this do?"

I sighed. But here was Rajini who was determined to fill the gaps:

Male's, read that as Maldives, most famous architectural landmark is the Grand Friday Mosque. It has a shining gold dome and can hold up to 5000 worshippers.

Almost all islands are flat with no hills or mountains. Each island has a coral reef enclosed lagoon and swimming in it is like swimming in a lake.

The islands extend more than 510 miles (820 km) from north to south and 80 miles (130 km) from east to west.

Barrier reefs protect the islands from the destructive effects of monsoons. The rainy season, from May to August, is brought by the Southwest monsoon; from December to March, the Northeast monsoon brings dry and mild winds. The average annual temperature varies from 30º to 24º C.

Most Maldivians rely on traditional medical practices when ill.

Life expectancy is about 65 years.

Three types of formal education are available in the Maldives. Students must go abroad for higher education. Only about two-thirds of the school-age population is enrolled in schools.

Sea turtles are caught for food and for their oil, a traditional medicine.

The flight from Bangalore to Trivandrum was uneventful. Save for the irony that it costs more to get to Trivandrum from Bangalore than it does to reach Male from Trivandrum. But thereafter was chaos…

The mad rush to the international airport, paying the airport tax; checking-in; through the immigration and customs and all the time running dreadfully late. If I were to do this again, I would spend the night at Trivandrum and check in early the next day onto the Indian Airlines flight to Male.

The seats were all filled-up by the time we boarded. On the way back, I decided we would travel J Class. And pop a motion sickness tablet. The turbulence was dreadful.

The plane hits an air-pocket and the turbulence becomes worse. The airhostess speaks in Tamil. "Don't fill yourself with too much alcohol. You'll throw up and make yourself sick."

She has about her the manner and demeanour of a schoolmistress asked to handle a class of unruly ruffians, all set to have a good time. Most of the seats are filled with men from the southern tip of India - Nagercoil. They work as carriers/couriers who hop over to Male for a day or two and go back with as many electronic items as they can carry. The only good time they probably will have is on the flight to and fro. They beam and laugh; crack jokes and slap each other's backs. They hover in the aisles and demand more 'drinks'. The airhostess catches my eye and makes a complicated grimace. It says: Look at what I'm saddled with but I must go on smiling and asking: 'Beer or whisky for you, sir?' So don't blame me if my smile becomes a little plasticky towards the end of this flight!

Rajini decodes the grimace as well. She makes a face. "Even Indians don't like Indians," she says. "So why would they?"

The people she works for, she complains, are hard to please and not fair. When she's travelling on official work, speed-launches, pick-ups and tickets appear magically. On her own, she has to wait till a boat is ready to leave and sometimes she has no choice but to opt for a Dhoni which takes six hours to get to the island she is stationed on.

The airport is swank. Clean and sparking and extremely efficient. Moreover the Maldivian customs officials by now know who is a carrier, who is a potential trouble-maker and who is a tourist.

As we wait in the line where an elderly customs officer and an assistant scrutinises every piece of baggage carefully, I die of mortification. You don't need a visa to go to Maldives. It is stamped on arrival. But this is an Islamic nation with its own set of rules on what you can carry into the county and what you can't. Plants, Icons, pork are all forbidden. I wasn't carrying contraband but my suitcase was going to trigger embarrassment and maybe even a few laughs when it would be my turn to open it.

One of my travel-kit books advocate lining the top of the suitcase with sanitary pads. It has a great many use apart from the obvious one. It protects, pads, wedges, and you can always use it mop a spill…So far it's worked. So far, I have never ever had to open my baggage to any custom official in any airport…

The customs officer waves his hand. He tells us that we don't need to open up our baggage. The other passengers ahead of us and behind are not given this dispensation. I murmur a word of thanks. My travel star was shining bright and clear even though I was on the equator.

At the exit, Moosa waited for us. He leads us to a speed launch and loaded our baggage. The boatman smiles. "You from Pakistan?" He asks.

"No," I say wondering if I should say yes. Would that make a difference?

Riding a boat on the deep seas feels like riding a spirited stallion. Spray licks at my face. I lick it back. It is salty.

I sail past a resort. In the horizon, an island is visible. Once it was called Velassaru, but now as a resort, it has a name that suggests luxury; the sun, the sea, the stars, siesta, …everything in fact, the tourist freezing in his northern winters, dreams about - Laguna.

The Maldive Islands, with a total land area of 298 square km, are built of coral on the crowns of an ancient, submerged volcanic mountain range.

The atolls have sandy beaches, lagoons, and a luxuriant growth of coconut palms, together with breadfruit trees and tropical bushes.

Fish abound in the reefs, lagoons, and seas adjoining the islands.

Paradise has a price. Ours is about US$ 800 for five nights at half-board.

But everything seems worthwhile when I walk into the ocean. The colours defy description. If I had my oil pastels, I would have tried merging aquamarine into azure into turquoise into cerulean blue. The horizon is navy blue. The skies are blue with giant puffs of mauve tinged with violet.

Fish streak through the water. This is mainstream traffic hour. On the supplies jetty, a resort employee stands, scattering stale breadcrumbs.

Melanin is the god worshipped here. Winter pallors are banished and the skin turns a deeply broiled crab red.

I, one of the the melanin-enriched race, sit in the shade of a shrub like tree that is planted all along the shore. The locals call it Geragoo. But in the romance novel I'm reading, breaker trees in the Indian Ocean islands are called sea grape.

The heat descends on the island. Even though the equator has no seasons, the best time of the year to visit Maldives is in the winter. From mid-November to mid-February.

In the shade of the sea grape, it is still pleasant even if dreadfully humid. I lie on my back and stare at the sky. Satiated and in a stupor like state after the enormous breakfast.

Breakfast and dinner are the two meals we are entitled to as part of our package. So we have to eat as much as we can. The trick is to try and avoid lunch.

Maldives is one of the poorest countries in the world. The Maldivian economy is based on tourism, fishing, boat building, and boat repairing. The gross national product (GNP) per capita is among the lowest in the world. Most of the population subsist outside a money economy on fishing, coconut collecting, and the growing of vegetables and melons, roots and tubers (cassava, sweet potatoes, and yams), and tropical fruits. Cropland, scattered over many small islands, is minimal, and nearly all of the staple foods must be imported.

But you wouldn't know any of this from the breakfast buffet. Juice and fruit. Cereals and breads, Biscuits and cakes. Kedgeree. Cold Cuts. Bacon and Eggs. Irish butter. Fresh honey. Swiss Jam. French marmalade. We have a steward assigned to us. Mohammed. He is not an islander. The true Maldivian male has broad features, is genial and smiling. And is ugly as sin and like sin, very pleasing. Mohammed has a pinched face, is taciturn and stiff. It takes a hefty tip to loosen him up and coax a smile on to his face. On the island[s], dollar speaks…

I go back into the cottage. Every cottage faces the sea and has a huge plate glass window so that even when indoor, the sea is still there. And not there.

Each time I enter it, I think this is all one really needs. A tiny seating area with wicker furniture. Two very comfortable chairs and a couple of occasional tables. Three steps lead up to the bed that fill up most of the raised area. You can lie on the bed and gaze at the sea through the plate glass window. Behind the bed is a wall. The wardrobe, dinette with an electric kettle, mini-fridge. The bathroom has a tub, w.c and a marble-topped wash basin.

Right now a storm is building up. The skies are turning grey and the water has a green-about-the-gills look.

When the rain begins, the horizon dims into a fine spray. I go back to the sea. The rain cascades into the waves. A million stars twinkle at my feet.

I go for a walk on the supplies jetty and see a monster fish that belongs to gothic fantasies and macabre paintings. Green with a yellow face. Huge body and a tiny tail. A lone fish frolicking among the usual schools of blue-grey elongated fish, stripped smallies and flat blackies.

A school of fish lines almost all of the shoreline on the side of the island I'm on. And in pursuit, another school of predatory fish. Even here fish eat fish. Suddenly I realise why each time I go into the water, I come back with my stinging skin. I have been nibbled at by a million tiny fish that probably think I'm a giant stale breadcrumb.

A waft of fish floats up on the beach. In just two days time, I have learnt to smell a school even before I spot them. I know for sure that I don't want to ever go underwater exploring. The thought of getting caught amidst a school of tiny pesci horrifies me. Fish in my hair; fish in my mouth; fish in my eyes; fish against my skin…I prefer my fish coated with an inch of masala and fried to a crisp. Not rubbing shoulders with me. 'Legless, unloving, infamously chaste.'

Naseer, our bar steward, is the weather man. Each time, we drop by for a drink, he thinks he ought to tell us what the weather is going to be like. "Beautiful Day. Very good Day. Not like yesterday. Tomorrow even better."

Naseer is a firm believer in what the future holds will be infinitely preferable to what the past bequeathed.

While Islam is the state religion, the Maldivians themselves are a mixed people, speaking an Indo-European language called Divehi which is also the official language. Interestingly enough, Arabic, Hindi, and English are also spoken. The first settlers, it is generally believed, were Dravidian and Sinhalese peoples from southern India and Sri Lanka.

Naseer is from an atoll, south of the island we are on. With the exception of those living in Male, the inhabitants of Maldives live in villages on small islands in scattered atolls. Only about 20 of the islands have more than 1,000 inhabitants, and the southern islands are more densely populated than are the northern ones. The birth rate is relatively high in Maldives, but the death rate is fairly low. More than two-fifths of the total population is under 15 years of age.

Naseer must be about eighteen and is still finding his feet in the world of tourism. Which perhaps explains why he is the only person we have met who is genuine and didn't think it necessary to roll out the usual hospitality industry platitudes.

On the island, we meet several kinds of men. There is the islander. Then there is the Bangladeshi who forms the majority of the skilled and unskilled work force on the resort islands. However it is the Sri Lankan who seems to have carved a niche for himself. Nugera, a front office clerk tells me that his mother is of Peruvian origin and that his ancestors came with the Dutch to Sri Lanka as mercenaries. Nugera with brown eyes and very Indian features tells me that his 'mother-tongue' is English. So what does that make him? A citizen of the world. He is suave enough to pass for one.

The nervous magician isn't suave. He seems stricken by stage-fright. He keeps pacing the floor smoking one cigarette after the other. When his act begins, his first trick is the disappearing cigarette.

Maldivian magic is easy to dispense. The resort magician has no disbelievers or hecklers in the audience. Lulled by the sun and the sea, everyone lies back in their chair sipping an after-dinner drink willing to be entertained by even the most amateurish of magicians.

The nervous magician is no David Copperfield or Houdini. He is no master of illusion or an escape artist. His tricks are average but he performs them with a roguish grin and a flourish. He seems to be having a great deal of fun doing it. Unless, of course, that is his best trick of all.

Would he rather have been a fisherman or a diplomat?

I go back to stand by the ocean. In the distance, the inhabited atolls are ablaze with light. In the less inhabited ones, a lone light or two gleamed.

What should have been the most awesome experience of this holiday turns gruesome. The glass bottom ride begins well. The boat races through the waves. All of a sudden, it slows down and we are asked to look down. Behold!

Coral gardens. Bushes. Branches. Arbours. Grottoes. Even debris that seemed heaped and ready for a bonfire. Fish move through them. Gentlemen and ladies out on a stroll.

The boat slows down further and rocks. My equilibrium disorder surfaces. I begin to feel queasy. I unwrap a chewing gum and chomp on it furiously. The jetty was only as far as the eye could see. But there are a few thousand of feet between land and me.

An hour later, we return and I rush to lie down. To settle my churning stomach and swimming head.

Early in the evening, I go back to sit on the edge of the supplies jetty. The monster fish [a pair] swim into view. Even monsters need companionship!

A dhoni's moving slowly towards the jetty. There are five vessels anchored to the coral beds below, bobbing gently.

Fishing, the traditional base of the economy, continues to be the most important sector, providing employment for approximately one-fourth of the labour force as well as accounting for a major portion of the export earnings. Tuna (tunny) is the predominant species caught, mostly by the pole-and-line method, although a good deal of the fishing fleet has been mechanised. Most of the fish catch is sold to foreign companies for processing and export.

As I walk back to my strip of the beach, a man climbs up the jetty from the dhoni. In his hand is a sack and it's moving. We will dine tonight on 'fish & salad'.

While the breakfasts will satisfy even the most fastidious of eaters, the other meals will raise the hackles of even the most meek food critic. Every dish has been tempered to suit the European palate. Which means even the Maldivian curry is bland and tasteless.

To make up for the horrific boat ride, I lunched on seafood. Squid. Drenched in tomato sauce and pineapple juice. It could have been sea cucumber for all I knew. Garlic prawns. US$25. All through lunch, I try very hard not to think of all that I could have bought at Russell Market for the same amount.

I tell myself that it is unfair to expect the resort to cater to what must be the odd fish - the Indian. This is the island where Germans, Spanish and Italians flock.

I sit neck-deep in water and feel the sun warm my face.

The island could be utopia; where there is neither crime nor any need for governance. But the hand of law is present as subtle reminders on the beach: Nudism is strictly prohibited. This is an Islamic nation after all.

Rather like the colours of its waters and flora, Maldives has had a chequered history before it became what it is now. The archipelago was inhabited as early as the 5th century BC by Buddhist peoples who were probably from Sri Lanka and southern India. Islam was adopted in AD 1153. The Portugese forcibly established themselves in Male from 1558 until their expulsion in 1573. In the 17th century the islands were a sultanate under the protection of the Dutch rulers of Ceylon, and, after the British took possession of Ceylon in 1796, they became a British protectorate, a status formalized in 1887. In 1932, before which time most of the administrative powers rested with sultans or sultanas, the first democratic constitution was proclaimed, the country remaining a sultanate. A republic was proclaimed in 1953, but later in that year the country reverted to a sultanate. In 1965 the Maldive Islands attained full political independence from the British, and in 1968 a new republic was inaugurated and the former sultanate was abolished. The last British troops left on March 29, 1976, the date thereafter celebrated in the Maldives as Independence Day. The Maldives became a member of the Commonwealth in 1982.

The head of state is the president, who, upon nomination by the Citizens' Council (Majlis), is elected by popular vote to a renewable five-year term. The unicameral Citizens' Council has 40 members elected to five-year terms--2 from Male island and 2 from each of the 19 atoll groups into which the country is divided for administrative purposes--and 8 who are appointed by the president. The president appoints all judges, who administer justice under the tenets of Islam.

I set out on a walk around the island. Shellfish walk along with me on the sand. Tiny crabs retreat into holes when they sense presence. Otherwise they line the shore like ardent sun-worshippers working on their tan.

For the first time, in my world, here is a universe that I can circle with my feet in less than twelve minutes. I like the thought.

But this is my fourth morning here and I find the walk, the island too limiting for my quirky restless soul.

Maldives is a place god created for romance. And man perfected for canoodling. A few yards away, a couple are necking. On the beach several others walk hand in hand, their other hands hold their beach sandals.

In the cottage next to ours, there is a hugely pregnant woman and her helpless looking partner. Every morning, he drags a floating mattress to the water and helps her climb on to it. When she has settled down, he wades alongside and drenches her with a splash of his hands.

Lucky baby, that. I think.

Ibn Batuttah, the notable medieval North African traveller and the world's most prolific blurb writer called Maldives Paradise on earth. Half a dozen other tourist destinations claim that for themselves and have it authenticated by ascribing it to Ibn Batuttah. Never mind that the average tourist is going to wonder: who the f___ is Ibn Batuttah?

Nevertheless the island as it is now seems like paradise.

The fragrance of frangipani fills the air. Closer to the waterfront, a combination of salt and the white waxy blossoms of the sea grape cling. Everywhere flowers have been encouraged to bloom. Ochre and red hibiscus; white and pink frangipani; arbours of violet, orange and white bougainvillaea, pink and yellow oleander…huge terracotta urns laden with plants deflect attention from cemented floors.

In the still heat of the morning, the plants heavy with the morning's watering breathe out a humid loamy scent. Late in the night, caressed by the reckless breeze, they unfold their true fragrances.

The grass is not the shy or retiring kind. Stubborn survivors, they gleam an iridescent green, eager to compete with the colour box, the ocean is.

Lizards dart. Chameleons nod their heads. Wasps hum. Sand coats the skin. Powdery white coral that is as fine as talc. Penetrating even the tightest of clothing. Encouraging you to seek the water again and again.

When the sun disappears into the horizon, the island takes on the aura of an ice floe. Floating in the middle of an ocean. On the Northern Hemisphere, there is a landmass, on the southern side, there is nothingness, till you reach the South Pole. Never mind that there are 1,300 small coral islands that form the Republic of Maldives, in the night, each bit of land is alone. Booming with loneliness. Trembling in its isolation.

Reassurance comes from the stars above. A billion other beings sleep under the same stars.

In three hours, I will bid farewell to this island of the sea grape. I sit in my favourite spot and watch the heron that struts past this stretch every morning.

Last night, I said good-bye to Naseer. A queer pang rocked my insides when we shook hands. He was the closest I came to forging a human bond on this island.

I would like to have said goodbye to the monster fish. Titan triggerfish, I discover its name. But I think I saw it grilled and lying on a platter. All fish, no matter how they glow in the water, when cooked turn a listless brown. This one was no different either.

I shake the sand off my feet, wash my soles clean at the tap outside and slip into shoes shodden with reality.

I was there. And not there.

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Maldives - Man's World June 2000

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