TSUNAMI – DECEMBER 2004
Some recessed light entered through the white curtains of the French windows. She could see blurry green shades of the shrubbery outside in the white sandy lawn and by the white boundary wall. White walls in diffused light and a white ceiling that cast over, white tiles and bedcovers glowed out of the darkness. Doors and windows painted white and few furniture pieces on the floor finished of white Formica. White was cheap around and the new paint still stinking in air. She was told this little room belonged to her and not the kind of setting she used to sleep. She was comfortable to lie in bed with four pieces of pillows and no robe. She closed her eyes.
Only eight days ago she took a flight from Malé International Airport to land again so low, just a metre above water, at an empty and quiet domestic airport on the island of Kaddeu. No more than four planes touched down on a daily basis. She was accompanied by a cousin she met for the first time, nine days ago.
In a while she was introduced to a tall man at the Beach Rest canteen waiting for a boat to take them to her mother’s island. He was her stepfather. It wasn’t unusual to find knitted groups of family members and a maze of relationships on islands like these.
It took four hours, listening to deafening noise of the boat engine, to cross the channel to Kol Madol Atoll. The aeroplane took some forty minutes to reach the nearest airport in Haddummathi Atoll from the capital of Malé. The boat moved gradually into the vast lagoon of green waters, quiet and calm, the sound dead as the engine cut off.
Peaceful quiet was boring sometimes as she felt nothing moving and nobody talking. Sometimes those invisible breezes teased her hair. A hot sun burnt her skin to olive tan in a matter of hours. Her lips turned dry. She came without proper necessities and nothing Maldivian. Her dresses were Indian. She was born and raised in Gujarat. She gazed with hurting eyes at the distant island growing bigger as the boat approached the breathtaking paradise of her mother.
Islanders were mending the planks set on the wharf that she thought was torn by the wind. Later she learnt it was vandalised by the very islanders to hinder government officials climb the island of Vilufushi. The Maldives was going through political reforms.
The island of Vilufushi was typical in size and only a thousand people lived here. Some of the houses looked fresh, whitewashed, some painted and modern, with Dish Antennas standing in the narrow terraces. People who belonged to this island earned good income and it seemed a hard working community.
She was greeted by a young-looking mother, thirty-six years of age, with three kids; a half-sister and two half-brothers. She met her grandparents for the first time. They conversed in a tongue she could hardly grasp and she preferred to use some English to talk to her mother. Her mother knew a bit of Hindi fortunately. The rest preferred to speak the native Divehi Language and she applied body flicks in response.
It was frantically a surprise to find her mother more active and attractive than Ibthisham. Her mother was dating the local fishermen and rumours involved even the island chief in her affairs. Her mother played volleyball, bashi and bibala with island girls. Her mother was boisterous and hilarious, at times running up and down the narrow lanes. Children ran over the fences, roaring like aeroplanes, arms in full stretch and no fear of four-wheeled traffic. It was life that mattered not but life to live because you were born. Three things seemed to matter; sleeping, eating and spitting.
In a week’s time she learnt about her mother’s family and a colony of relatives on the island. She made picnic to nearby Fahala Island, the lagoon of emerald green stretched out on the blue ocean. Magnificent! This was paradise. She was able to use the telephone booths or her mobile phone to call her father and friends back home and that was a relief. She got an aunt working at the school as supervisor and that allowed her to use the computers in the island school and slow access to the Internet. Minutes passed like hours and hours like days, she sat in the shade reading books.
Those members of her mother’s family owned a fishing boat, a carpentry workshop and a couple of retail shops. Her mother, Layla Thoif, did schooling up to the eighth grade. Mother’s schoolteacher from India converted and married her. He was Ibthisham’s father. Six years later they got separated and Layla returned home, married a Maldivian, got rid of fashion and now she wore traditional clothes that only required a bottom wrap and a bodice; kandeki and libas – like the rest of the islanders.
Sometimes Ibthisham loved to wear traditional clothes, a black wrap and a top, simple as that, but she never appeared in the playground in these insufficient clothes whereas her mother got involved in the games wearing traditional clothes and tucking her kandeki too high to often render some embarrassment. Ibthisham’s grandmother gave a silver girdle called a fattar to wear around the hips. She did seldom wear while other girls never remove them in a lifetime.
This beautiful house contained four bedrooms, none with attached bath, new tiles and a new kitchen that cost a fortune. Her mother and aunt with families lived here, grandparents too, it was crowded. The open-air bath expanse, or the shower garden called a gifili on white shingle sand and mangrove plants, located in the backyard, got a secret exit to the beachside road. After a slight incident she was not familiar with, when a guy popped his head over the fence while she was in bathe and later learning from other folks, she got used to take shower in full clothes. She noticed the island girls took shower in kandeki wraps, go swimming, eating, sleeping and everything else they did wearing them. Get wet in the brine and dry in the sun. How uncomfortable could it be to dry in the sun wearing them on?
Her mother planted plenty of roses and orchids in pots and decorated the gate top. Bright red flowers of hibiscus and bougainvillea spread against the tropical green and the bright blue sky created a contrast. A Dish Antenna standing in the foreground required manual tuning by pulling the support wires connected to hold the globe. Apparently it wasn’t in use for sometime until Ibthisham arrived. Now during the nights she got some island friends in company and watched the air channels from a South African package.
She felt reluctant to mix with island girls. They watched any kind of movie with children around and she removed herself from the crowd centred on explicit pornography. Her aunt called students to watch those movies scattered candidly on her bed. They expressed feelings to an extent of openness that caused extreme discomfort, cringes and cries aroused from indiscreet utterances. An indigenous community raised on blunt morale values and ignorance. There was a night when a schoolgirl spilt to her kandeki while she watched a sex movie with family crowd and aunt who was her teacher. She got no brain or nerve to get up and walk away. More to the point she was deeply focused on the movie, not because it was a blue movie but just because it was any movie. Then someone uttered to go and wash the spill using such unrefined language. She left leaving a damp splotch on the floor.
Every issue turned out to be of personal matter but every action apparently impersonal. Relationships linked with concatenations regardless of gender, age, issues, money or property, even one’s self – the body. Islanders poke or grab their privates on public roads. They treated his child like mine, his matter my concern, his money I decide, his problems I solve and his spouse envies what I do mine.
Issues grew contentious and bickering by the gates. Lifestyle was so contiguous that in most houses they slept in one deck of bed usually called an ashi and shared their clothes. Ibthisham also learnt that her aunt borrowed a vibrator for overnight use from a neighbour. It ended in an argument when the owner came to fetch it in the midnight hour. It was proper for the rightful owner to collect it anytime and aunt quarreled that she borrowed with consent and the owner should know she would be occupied once it was borrowed and cope one night without it and call in the morning. But the owner claimed others were having more fun with it though it belonged to her and she was not there to go without it. Aunt removed the alkaline batteries she had purchased before she threw it in the sand, perchance, to borrow it again.
At home her mother appeared in kandeki wrap tucked under the crotch in the manner natives called fugelhun. She carried her child and a plate, feeding him and scattered in the neighbourhood. Her youngest child, Arsalan, was almost three years old. He sucked his mom climbing on top of her, pull out a breast clawing with long fingernails and suckle just like a dog on four limbs, while Layla sat on a joli perch outside the gate talking to folks. He knew to bite his mother’s nipple and laugh at people.
Those children got intelligent minds to solve an equation and to steal from a pocket. If someone hugged a child, that child would instinctively go for the pockets for sweets and money.
Someone tapped on the door. She opened her eyes. It was daylight, seven-thirty. She hurried to put on a gown before mother came peeping through the French window. Ibthisham got out of the bedroom with a towel and toothbrush, headed to the gifili for a wash before breakfast. She was back in her bedroom in no time and decided to dress in a red skirt and a white blouse; dress simple as a Maldivian, dress simple as an islander. And she was free of undergarments, wearing only a top and bottom with that silver girdle on her hips.
Ibthisham was nineteen and a tall skinny girl. She could hardly digest a Maldivian breakfast, typically fish curry and tortilla, strictly no vegetables. She could barely eat with the locals because a Maldivian ate less compared to what an Indian consumed in a day’s meal. She learnt in no time that the islanders only ate white rice, white sugar and white flour and nothing of staple food if tainted in colour. She was told, her grandmother washed some sugar with a brownish taint in water to make them turn white and eventually dissolved them in water. That was downright mulishness and obviously, these islanders were aristocratic.
An hour later, Ibthisham was lying on the white sandy beach under the foliage and by the shrubs coated of thick green leaves and aromatic herbs that blend the scent of salt and coral in the atmosphere. Two girls and Cousin Iffé sat with her. She watched some thick foamy tides creep the beach and recede fast to catch up with other playful waves blocking their path, collision, rolling over wet and weighty beach sand, making hissing sound and kissing crabs, keep busy all in a motion washing the white beaches already washed again and again. The sun shone bright in the early hours warm and soothing to the skin. No kid came down to the beach and normally they would be on the western coast. Birds touched down seeking for morning bites.
Few blocks away, she could see her house with white boundary walls, rear side and the gifili entrance facing east. She could sense someone was in the gifili as she observed the dani stick waving over the wall. Every well used a dani which was a long stick attached with a tin container to pull water from the well. How blessed it was, she thought, clean and freshwater available in a metre’s depth from anywhere on an island. In other land masses she knew about; waterbeds are deep and usually unclean. A row of houses stretched on the coastal front, palm shades and shrubbery before the beach. Generally black coloured Dish Antennas stood over the roofs. Her house was beautiful with a blue roof and white walls.
Somebody coughed and spat to the ground, a usual morning habit of the islanders. He chewed a hand-rolled tobacco, bidi, and spat again – workers getting ready for the morning. She heard an electric saw in the carpentry run in hiatus repetition. Someone hammered on making a clanging noise. These islanders known as fishermen and yet very few made out to the sea.
For a while she observed the swells dying and the distant sea disperse, bright and calm. It was such a beautiful day. The breezes were refreshing. For a while she saw the brown rocks of the outer layer emerge from the clear blue waters most probably in a low tide. Those busy waves and clamours died. It was peaceful quiet.
Iffé stood up. She wanted to move to another position. A change in the environment naturally brought change to her instinct. So would be for the island girls who couldn’t find a moment in one piece. At that point Ibthisham felt an eerie rumble but Iffé was pulling her up already. She got the flip-flops on her toes and rushed into the woods after the girls.
Right there she heard the noises of people and turned to find quite a number of children running up the beach. Surprisingly, they weren’t there a minute ago. People were yelling to climb and to hurry, “A huge wave! A huge wave! Run for your life!”
And she saw through the foliage, the reflection of the sun on green tide that climbed a couple of metres high; the mad sea rolling in. She saw the fish swimming in water and the height already curved the horizon over the palms. It came rushing in through the branches and over her, hitting hard with salty water and the book in her hand thrown away. She was washed deep into the undergrowth, many yards away. Iffé carried on the wave and more water thrust in, running between the narrow lanes. And yet more water swept over the entire island of Vilufushi.
She held to some branches but the waters were too strong and hitting hard like concrete, she let go to reach another tree. She heard children crying, some kids drowning in the strong current. The sky was clear blue. She cried Sundhya recitals. She heard local cries for help and God. She saw boys climbing the limestone walls. At that moment, the drill beneath her feet grew stronger tripping her off and drawn back further into the woods. Yet again she was pulled intensely into the water. There were men and women clutching to little children but she was far from them. She could hardly hold her feet in the current. She grabbed and grabbed at the branches and they came torn, gulping saltwater and grasping for air. She saw a boat maroon into the undergrowth. The cries were loud, hysteria, prayers, yelling for help. Islanders who got used to these islands panicked. Ibthisham was helpless for a while hanging to the leaves, water running away and ripped off her skirt. The island flooded and totally submerged.
One girl washed in the tidal waters wedged to a tree trunk. Iffé risked a move towards Ibthisham. She grabbed her naked leg. Further away, another man was holding two little children. He left one child on a wall and suddenly, it collapsed. By then the waters rushed in an outward direction and the swell going down in full thrust. It picked the soft sand drilling beneath the walls and one by one the brick walls fell down.
Some people called not to go near those walls, get out of the houses and move to the mosque. So there wasn’t anytime to save anything inside the houses. They were falling down. Women folk carried babies over their shoulders and waded in water up to the waist making way towards the mosque and the playground. Ibthisham and Iffé reached the girl holding on to the tree and the other girl safe with them, slowly made way. Ibthisham could see foamy waters bubbling and fizzing around. They were green waters of the lagoon. By then land and sea was lagoon.
“What’s happening?” One of the girls cried.
“Let’s catch up with the others,” Iffé said. “My brother, I hope they are safe with mom! God! Help us!”
The waters were still strong but subsiding fast. Many other items now seemed to float around. Empty cans, bottles, coconuts, clothes, barrels and the rubbish picked from the bushes. Island girls used to dump their sanitary carelessly into the bushes. They emerged along with plenty of empty liquor bottles thrown by the youth growing wild these days. The waters turned murky and mixed with the lagoon, still bubbling. The girls clutched wrist to wrist and headed through the trees. They heard a rumble and a house fell down in four pieces. The roof stumbled in one piece intact. The walls fell without a crack. The soil washed away under the walls, loose and eroding rapidly. These houses looked beautiful but none built on concrete foundation.
As the four girls approached the houses, a wall came down and there was a terrified boy standing on a water tank beyond the capsized wall. An old man was pulling an old granny from a tiny room. He could not hold his feet on the smooth cement screed and he kept slipping. The girls hurried over the fallen wall to help them. The old man was naked. They were inside a gifili boundary. They were fortunate to pull out the woman before the