Sweet Hell (Part 1)
‘When the ships put in, the crew marry; when they intend to leave they divorce their wives.’ wrote Ibn Battuta, the historian traveller from Morocco.
Queen Rehendi, victorious over three times, twice won the throne by assassinating her husbands in the 14th century. Women wore no dress. Queen abducted the historian, appointed him as judge, but she strictly advised not to interfere with marriage and divorce in his preaching of religious observance.
Ayyea narrated, “I haven’t seen such a beautiful sky, deep orange and glowing, bright rays streaming from the gaps of grey clouds flocked on the horizon. A rainbow on the eastern sky. Boat captain said it was a sign of rain. We beached at hip level with dead load of the band. Our boat was packed, six or eight families, mine too. We arrived at Thoddo. Jumped down into the waters and climbed ashore. No jetty. Waters pooling with blood in spots. Boats arrived with day’s catch and they cut the fish on the shore. There were many people and kids on the beach. I was tired, six hours on a bumpy sea, huge waves and kids vomiting, all sprayed wet.”
Thoddo was a big island with about 150 houses and the village located on the east. Climbing a block, ploughing the soft sand, they turned southwest down a lane with blood red hibiscus grown over the boundary low walls abreast. The ground of Syma House filled with white sand. It was still light up there amply but pitch dark interior through the doors and windows, night falling rapidly. Ayyea glanced blankly, “I saw these swift flashes of some smoky ghost-like thing, maybe a kid, crossed a couple of times across the hall, I heard rapid footfalls.”
A dim light lit the hall, after sunset, supplied by the 40kw generator owner. A 5w bulb lit his room in orange colour. Womenfolk wet on the trip hurried to touch some fresh water on them by the well-side gifili – the open-air garden bath expanse. A neighbourhood girl paused at his door observingly, shy and hidebound. A thirteen year lass, “Short hair, very fair and thin, wore a little parrot green frock, torn at the seams. Her name is Nazima. She started talking and asked about me. I learnt many people came here this holiday. Somewhere there I thought it was this girl I saw darting across the floor. I told her I’m from this place and this is my grandma’s home. She said she’s her grandma too.”
After serving a late evening tea his grandma left carrying her box of herbs to perform a ritual on a pregnant woman. “It was damn hot. I burnt my lips and sugar topping in that tea, incredible…”
In the seventies, islands were run by ‘social clubs’ and strictly no political parties. Most stratagems of offence and defence were carried out in accord with fanditha practices and strongly a belief system in their religion. Ayyea spread out in the moonlight to test his nineteen year old spirit. He came across lassies in the rope-woven perches, many from other islands.
“This island has three girls for every man and this invasion suddenly blew me,” he said. “They were running all over the place. I smelt paint, I went to the playground. They were setting up a stage for a concert on the occasion of Eid, music and dance, bandiya…
“After dinner that night, I climbed down the beach, a cool breeze and moonlit sand. Some girls called me to join. I met Sherin, she’s actually from Velidu and kind of popular in Male’, a party girl. She was talking about the band boys. She put her long hair down on my laps and that was the warmest feeling I ever got. She’s a single mom, in her late twenties with two kids. Then the wind caught us, suddenly turned nasty. We left, I came home. It started raining that night a torrent, within minutes the sand-filled ground turned in floods, clear water running. The light turned out. They switch off the generators sharp at eleven. I got a natural call and sadly entered the gifili with a brolly.
“You know the low latrine that you squat on top of it. I watched the flood waters rising and to my heels over the platform surface. I have no idea. I could not flush the toilet with a bucket of water, no way in the flood. I just got out. Grandma knew at once it was me and she was really mad at me. ‘I should have gone to the beach’, she said.”
Five members of ‘The Pythons’ picked five girls and logged accommodation at Kimbi House, further up behind the playground. It was a big house, pretty old, with six rooms in a row. So they had to enter one door after another to reach the rooms in outstretched access. Mannan, who produced a lot of beautiful melodies in the 70’s, said, “Our keyboardist, Sharif, was in the last room and it was raining heavily. I was next, all engaged with our girls. An hour later, Sharif tapped my door. I called back. He wants a toilet. I can’t hear a think over the patter. I opened. His girl needed a toilet badly. We tapped the next door and our drummer stuck his stick out. Following the bassist girl unlocked, she was naked. And we tapped our vocalist and he was hard rock. Sure, there isn’t a modern toilet attached to these rooms. She had to reach an open-air gifili. This wild crowd, imagine, ten guys, reached the last one and our sound boy won’t open the door. He who pulls the jacks was in plugs. We crashed the door open. We ran off mood, settled on a bottle and smoked through the rain.”
Next morning it was amazingly bright and cool after the rain clouds thrown out. Leaves and branches dripping in deep colours and the flash flood drained. Ploughing soft sand now turned wet and noisy to walk, rather on flip-flops splashing bottoms with droplets and sand. “Suddenly I heard a helicopter,” Ayyea continued, “I have seen a helicopter land in Male’, utterly noisy. I ran to the main road, glanced up and down, there was not a sign of a man or a thing. Then he turned up from the bottom of the lane I came, slow moving motor-roll-bike. That was the only auto or moto vehicle on the island. A gold-plated Triumph with a round license plate with digits ‘96’ and valves. He asked me to climb on. I was in my best clothes after the formal prayer but I had to catch him a couple of chicks. We ran all over the place, through the houses, over the fences, gardens, gifili, kitchens, trees and the neighbourhood…to catch a couple of roosters. They all did that, threw the wild fowl wild.
“This thin, dark guy, it was the first time I saw him, they call him ‘Multi-Ibre’ because he is versatile. He did repairs on his bike, he runs the dancing girls and he’s a musician, a teacher, a practitioner…”
It was Eid and island houses called passers-by to lunch. In an instant he was all splashed with water and colour spoiling his new clothes in water-play that lasted for few days. Ayyea got more paint on him as he joined the ‘Codi’ procession covered only in twigs and leaves. Women mostly engaged in games.
There were two social clubs in Thoddo; Sosun Club and Roshan Club. Multi-Ibre was in charge of the dancing girls of the Sosun Club.
“Bandiya dance is a synchronized performance, based on rapid footwork, turns and body movements and in forming patterns.” Ayyea explained, “They start in two rows and dancers carry water pots called bandiya made of aluminium. They wear rings on their fingers to tap. This rapid and awesome move of left and right turns throwing their long hair in the air is a trick they apply. I learnt from Farida, she’s the instructor and the singer. You press the toe promptly to bring the body to a halt and that throws you out in a swing.”
This dance was performed by men in ancient times. When it came to girls their long hair became key feature and dancers wore them long to the bottoms. They also performed carrying other items like clappers, pom-poms, girdles, etc.
Thirty girls on the stage danced on singing chorus lines. They wore short white frocks. Ibre played harmonium and two others carried on with percussion. A beautiful girl with natural red lips, fair skin and thick, long, curly, black hair sang out in a rather flat note. Her name was Farida Ikhtak. She wore a blue frock and her face full of talc and eyebrows drawn in lines.
A podgy guy sitting next to Ayyea on a low stone watching the show introduced, “I’m Ashwar from Mavah Island. I’ve been here for months working in the watermelon fields. I’m thinking of settling down, get married.”
“Have you found a girl?” asked Ayyea. He had a great evening making friends with plenty of girls. He was exhausted running after them in the turmoil of throwing water and fishy things. He paused in beat as he caught sight of an attractive girl among the dancers.
Ashwar replied, “Yes, but vague. These girls are under the influence. I’m going to marry that girl, third on the left, Gulish. These girls like outsiders.”
“Good. Pretty girl, marry her. Do you know that girl in the middle, fair, slim girl?”
“Golden hair...she’s Huda…”
“I know her…she’s albino white. I know that family. See, in the front row, facing back on, that girl in pink underwear…”
“Kish? Tailor’s daughter! You be careful! Tailor Don is a character. And that girl will not be easy.”
“Why? Does she have a boyfriend?”
He chuckled, “It’s not a boyfriend issue. She’s a hard case, haven’t seen associating with boys.”
“She could be seventeen?”
“Yes, but nobody knows her likes. Be warned, she’s a schizoid. Go after Huda…”
Ayyea laughed, “No way. She’s an innocent girl. I like her looks. Where can I find her?”
“You’ll find her on Women’s Lane. You better not go there alone. Many men see spooky things.”
“What kind of spooky things?”
“They see a harmless ‘hundi’…a woman in red dress. Let me tell you this. I go to Don’s place often. I will tell her you have fallen and looking for her…”
“Will you do that?” Abruptly, he was blinded with a sound like bluster on a sail. A mid-age woman dropped her kandiki wrap over his face from behind and held him. Other girls emptied a bag of smelly fish broth on his lap and ran away scattering.
The Bandiya Dance ceased. The Pythons began to play their electric guitars and the crowd joined in spontaneous dancing. Ayyea split to put fresh water on his clothes and tease turning dirty every minute. He even shrugged in an awe to notice those band boys wore bell-bottoms broader than his.
After the concert Sharif told the singer, “You have a beautiful voice, like Jameela Hasan. Just a slight correction can pitch you up.”
“Will you teach me?” asked Farida.
They matched perfectly. She was twenty-seven and single with two kids, married three times, nothing worked. No one in Bandiya remained married, it was a fact. He was thirty-four and still married with four kids. Marriage and divorce was common practice.
22-11-77, a nice date he would remember. He picked neighbouring cousin, Nazima, to Women’s Lane. On the way someone clapped from the rear. “Who is that?” He asked. The shy girl giggled. Again, a howl in falsetto of a ‘hoah!’ alerted them on the byroad.
Nazima cried, “Kish,” catching a glimpse.
“What is she doing here?” They turned a corner and he caught sight of Kish crossing the road across. She quickly turned her face away.
“She looked the other way,” cried his cousin. And called her offensively, “Shy born! Shy born!” She asked, “Do you know her?”
“No. Could be somebody talked.”
Women’s Lane was a long and slightly winding path through the woods to the southwest end of the island. Only women took this path to reach the woods to pick cadjan and twigs for fire log. This path was amazingly scenic, neatly kept and undergrowth cleared, trees fell, gave an abundant view of the fields on both sides. Palm trees planted in two rows abreast the long way in cool shades dividing watermelon sides for the two social clubs. They reached the end.
Behind the brushwood appeared a breath-taking horizon and an endless beach out of eyeshot, vacant and white lying lonely in the November breeze.
“Not so. Sherin with a bunch of Male’ girls were there. They called us for a treat of eating ‘maja’, mango in hot fish sauce. They were in briefs and T-shirts, the kind of stretch-pants we call ‘sea-shorts’, very popular among bathers. I picked a piece of grit and dropped it in her briefs from the rear, ‘a crab’ I cried.”
Sherin threw her plate and cried, “Amayai! Eek! Eek! Eek!” She drew her pants down and got rid of them. She was terrified, jumping and shuddering.
Ayyea cried, “Calm down! Calm down! It’s just a piece of stone. It’s not a crab.”
The crowd laughed. Sherin tucked her shirt in the crotch, “Are you sure! You scared me to death.”
“Come on! It’s nothing, just a piece of pebble, I swear…”
Her screams made other girls pop out from the bushes. There were quite some and Kish with a group of four girls. Ayyea approached her. She dashed into the woods and up Women’s Lane. Ayyea chased her. She ran like the wind tucking her wrap on the hips. As Sherin described, “She zipped through the palms. If you watch her, those palms keep moving and cascading like a film reel, zap, zap, zap. She runs upright, with her chest out and shoulders back, just shoot off. Her slim legs turning like a bicycle wheel. Ayyea runs in a stumbling dive. One moment he was this close but she paced away. He failed to catch her. He has no guts.”
Ayyea returned, exhausted.
He woke up next morning in the break of dawn. He stepped outside the gate. On to his right he saw a reddening sky at the end of the lane covered of trees. On his left it was still dark. This lane reached to the Old Road some distance away. Somewhere up there stood a mosque. He reached the beach. A gushing wind threw sand in his face. The sun was about to rise but the cool breeze turned him back. He saw a woman coming up the lane carrying a water pot on her head. She fetched drinking water from the mosque well. At times he could hardly see a person carrying the pot. Ayyea reached his gate and paused. Now it was very clear there was no one carrying the bandiya but it was hanging in mid-air. He could tell it was spilling full.
Gradually he captured the long black hair and shockingly naked legs. The bandiya pot and the pair of white legs reached him and stopped. She gave a giggle, “Kiki Kiki! It’s early. Nobody is up.” She exposed a face, smiling white teeth and red red lips. She dropped her kandiki tucked in her teeth to expose her shoulders. She was topless. She used the black wrap to cover her bosom and in the darken backgrounds totally absorbed to give an image of a torso-less woman.
“It’s you! Farida!” uttered Ayyea.
“I hear you have fallen for that girl, Kish.”
“People are talking. She is good. I can give you some help.”
“Of course, you are the leader of the band.”
“Yes, I am. Come to my place. I’ll give you rice pudding.”
“Where is your place?”
“Three gates from yours,” she moved away.
“When shall I come?”
She turned, “Come now.”
Ayyea followed her to Badi House. She crossed the main hall. There was an old man sitting in the dim light of an oil lamp. “He’s my father,” she said. “Here’s my room. I will leave this bandiya and come.”
She ushered him to a room fairly lit by an oil lamp. She returned. Picked the long golden necklace and dropped on her neck. Tossed the thick long hair, “I have to wear this when I interact with people.”
“Why?” asked Ayyea.
“Self-protection,” Farida dropped her wrap and stood stark naked. She was evenly protected, another string around her neck with a tiny talisman, many silver lockets hanging on the silver girdle wound around her hips, a black band on the left biceps and absolutely a stunning figure.
“What happens if you don’t wear them?”
“You might not see me. I’m under the influence and so are many girls. That’s normal life here, nothing to worry about.”
“Who did all this on your body?”
Ayyea expressed, “That was the best time I had with a woman. She’s class, a beauty in great shape…”
He fell asleep in her bed. He woke up around nine. She gave him breakfast. He came out to find the old man digging to his tray of nuts. “Come, son! Have some nuts.” Ayyea helped himself, slitting nuts and wrapping in a stimulant betel leaf after adding types of spices.
The old man dug a knife into a film canister and brought out some sticky substance that he heated under a kerosene-filled lighter and mixed in the row tobacco.
“What is that?” asked Ayyea.
“Opium. You roll a thin, straight, long bidi; you can have a pleasant evening. If you rolled a short, thick one, your day is upside down.” He left.
Ayyea tried and rolled a short thick one, a shutta, with his impractical hands. He only reached his gate. He was knocked out. He slept until the afternoon.