01.1 A Broken Wing
When the island falls asleep, I wander to the wharf where the waves wash gently on the shore. Surrounding lit in a glow of amber from beacon lights hanging over. I can see the fish in water swimming beneath my feet and listen to the echoes of the ocean. When I look over my shoulder, I see a row of bungalows facing seawards and globes of garden lights in the pitch dark – a silhouette of a wooded black curtain that wrap the Island of Bathala; one of the thousand islands in the archipelago converted to a tourist retreat in Ari Atoll. A spectacular sky of the Milky Way shower down a hundred billion stars. I can see a shooting star in every five seconds.
It strikes midnight. Albert hangs in the bar to do a count of measurements – dipping sticks into bottles to derive some balance on sales. He says he could tell by looking at the bottle how much is left. There is always a free drink with him since he gets a peg or two in surplus. He stays until the last guest leaves the bar. All the guests are divers and repeaters. They exercise three dives a day.
My duty is not over yet. By four in the morning, departure clients assemble at the lobby. They sit for breakfast at the restaurant. I keep calling on a CB radio to catch a fast boat that passes picking departures from resorts in the vicinity. When the boat turns to Bathala, we send our clients out to mid-sea with their luggage on a couple of small boats to catch the transfer. In rough weather, it’s quite a hurdle. I keep an eye on what a guest might drop behind and wait until the boat crosses halfway through the sea channel. Airport lies sixty-six kilometres due east. Another group of tourists would arrive by noon.
For the record; I began my ‘resort life’ in Bathala in 1987. A tiny island with forty cottage bungalows facing the beach around. One unique feature is that these bungalows hold open-air bathe expanses with tall vines of bougainvillea rising from the gardens. Soil is rich for a tiny island that can grow pumpkins and watermelons. A moving sand accumulate in the west during a northeast monsoon and it extends sand towards east during a southwest season.
After hopping from island to island in my hunt for job, I ended my ‘resort life’ career here in Bathala under a different management in 1992. I was sacked.
On the wharf, I carry a magazine and a notepad. I sit there under the lights to write down my notes. There comes the watchman; Huzeir-bé – a fair bloke from Addu who was in his fifties – the Scorpion. I try to find some new idea for a story. He’s a man of true words.
“Have you ever seen a ghost?” I’d ask. And he’d wear that grin at me. After numerous attempts, he nodded to say he did.
“Where did you see a ghost?”
“She was standing over there, in front of the dive school, in a red dress,” he grinned, “You’d not be scared if I tell you!”
“Go on, tell me.”
“I followed her and she stepped behind those trees. It was a moonlit night. I caught her up. She was just about to enter Harun Kila.” That was an empty shed built of cadjan in the westside. “There in the moonlight I paused ten yards between us. And she stared at me. Then something changed. She has white hair, silvery body and silky white dress. She floated in.”
There was utter silence and a pause. I felt uneasy, “What happened then?”
“I went after her. Switched on my torch and flashed into the shack. I stepped in and checked the inner booth. She wasn’t there.”
“I just don’t know. There’s no way out. There’s no other door, no window, no skylight or a vent in the hut. She disappeared!”
That blows my mind. I want to be the ghost story writer. I have never seen a ghost but everyone else seems to have come across some sort of an apparition. Huzeir-bé has a lot of stories to tell. That sounds like a flat lie.
Once he told me about getting married. He was seventeen and made a promise to a girl in getting married. He ignored her for months and made jaunts to Feydu when night falls. He would turn up at dawn bruised and battered.
“How did that happen?”
He wore that grin at me. He did not tell me he was looking for girls but I figured that out later. Feydu was an island lying next to Maradu and a place where girls were easy to approach. A chain of islands between Hittadu and Gan were connected by causeways.
“I married her and fulfilled my promise but I never touched her for fifteen months. She sleeps alone in my bed. I go to Feydu but she never complains. Then one night we made love. She was terrified. We made thirteen kids, twelve actually.”
“One adopted. We came across a poor mother from Suvadiva with too many children. I decided to adopt one. Now this kid has grown an adult and working at a resort as a manager. Eight of my siblings are waged and five going to school. All of my children stay in Malé since my wife died two years ago.”
With eight employed, he could simply stay home but Huzeir-bé chose to work. And he didn’t phrase them in a single conversation over a night. It took me nine months to put the pieces together.
Two years ago, when he got news that his wife died in Maradu, he went to book a flight. There was no flight going to Addu Atoll that day. The only way he could fly a plane out was to charter one. Huzeir-bé paid seventeen thousand rufiya to cover 19 seats of a Dornier from Air Maldives and arrived in Addu only to learn that the body has been buried. He could not see her face.
“While I was in Maradu in 1990, I met the newly appointed Atoll Chief, Savari Abdel Shakir, at an evening tea,” said Huzeir-bé, “He saw me hanging there. He called me and said, ‘I haven’t done enough for you! Be now and name it!’ There were many women around at his service. He is frequented to have casual relationships with women and very flirting to show his arrogance. You know what I mean! I thought this was the best chance to ask for the impossible.”
Retired Colonel Abdel Shakir, alias Col ‘Savari’ Shakir – as attached to family roots – entered armed service in 1960 with a stripe on his shirt sleeve, promoted as a lance corporal shortly after a botched mission in Addu Atoll under the headship of Prime Minister Virgo. Shakir became a lieutenant by the time Virgo Administration retired. He was then decorated a colonel in the years of President Capricorn. However, following the 3rd November Incident in 1988, he was removed from duty. Later on, called back and channelled to administrative duties. In 1990, he was posted to Addu Atoll as the Atoll Chief.
Huzeir-bé named his wish, “I asked for a plot of land that lies in Feydu-half-of-Maradu and a disputed area but nobody seems to own it.”
In mid-50’s, when the British bulldozed Gan to build a base, that came known as RAF Gan, villagers in the fertile land of Gan were moved to Feydu; the island lying next. Feydu islanders were pushed to Maradu. And hence, Maradu came known as Maradu-Feydu. Tribal folks maintained a characteristic to belong to one, to the families, to the land and proudly to Addu with their own distinctive dialect.
Huzeir-bé asked for a plot of land lying in the heart of tribal dispute.
Colonel Savari Shakir responded to say, “You can have it,” and to some extent to show his eminence in front of the women.
Huzeir-bé rolled his sleeves to clear the wooded plot of land. He never thought it could happen. Maradu-Feydu was crowded of people and dwellings. Land was scarce. A guy came looking for timber to build a boat. “I will fell the trees, clear the area, erect a boundary and pay for the logs,” he offered. Huzeir-bé cleared the space in three days and without a drop of sweat. He even got paid.
“I can’t believe it! I understand an atoll chief has power to do whatever he pleases but you must be quite some guy for him to do a favour!”
“I saved his life,” here he goes again, “Have you heard of ‘Addu Gadu Badu’, a spark of rebellion in 1959 to relinquish centralisation and proclaim an independent state?
“United Suvadive Islands was formed and Suvadiva Uprisings, between ’59 and ’63, were neutralised by the central government. The republic dissolved and the great man fled the country in exile.”
I sat there staring at him.