Monday, March 28, 2011

Much Addu

When we come across places whose first characteristic is immense, startling beauty, we tend to sigh — and we tend to want. The sharp equatorial sun of the Maldives, the many layered shades of blue, the eternal shadows of coconut palm contrast so keenly with our own grey streets, that comparisons are human, and inevitable. But the poet Wordsworth has an admonition for travellers who do that: “But covet not the abode,” he tells us sternly, “O do not sigh /  As many do, repining while they look...”. He was right. These islands are best approached with a firm intention to sample but not crave. For which purpose, my three days in Addu Atoll were perfect.

Addu is the southernmost atoll of the Maldives – a little apart culturally from the rest of the islands. It is the only atoll (the country has 26 such natural groups) to fall just south of the equator – a fact that took me in an Anne-of-Green-Gables kind of delight. I forgot, however, to check if water does swirl down the sink counter-clockwise.

I was here with Make My Trip’s very first charter to Maldives. The package is designed to render these isles more affordable to the Indian tourist and there is one sure way to do that: make up the numbers. Special flights from Mumbai make their way straight to Gan International Airport from where Herathera, our resort, was 20 mins away by motor boat. I slightly feared a claustrophobic three days – would this resort be large enough to hold over 100 holidaymakers without making it seem like something out of Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd?

In the event, it was just right. Herathera is a thin, elongated island with a 4km long beach and it uses its features wonderfully. About 300 villas are arranged along its length; hedges and design guard your privacy and give you your own access to the beach that practically laps at your doorstep. Mealtimes were communal but comfortably so, and for the rest, I could almost imagine myself Robinson Crusoe if I cared to. Very nice.

But I was lost to all this the first morning. The red-eye flight, followed by a cradle-mimicking motorboat ride... when I got to the room, I noted that it was bright and pleasant but succumbed to sleep many fathoms deep. Privately, I have a scale of how much I take to a place by marking how well I sleep there – the Maldives has performed superbly. I did nothing more strenuous that morning than lounge in the patio, gaze at the sea, read, take photographs and take in lunch. As I returned along the garden way, I spied a quick furtive movement on the ground just outside my front door. A small slanting hole but its occupant was now hidden from view. A vole or shrew, maybe?

Shrugging, I detoured to the waves that formed the backdrop to everything. I like the sea but, I must confess, am not overly fond of sand. One visit to the beach and you’re coming up against gritty particles all day — some that sneakily go so far as to infiltrate bed-clothes even. But that was before I walked on this soft whiteness they have laid out here. And on the back-steps leading up to my room, forestalling just such a complaint such as mine, stood a mud pot of cool water and a ladle craftily made of coconut shell and a crook of wood. So I was able to happily wash off every time before stepping in and, in consequence, rushed out to the water as often as the mood came upon me.  I took my morning coffee out to the waves every day – the simplest thing but so exotic!

About a dozen of us clambered into a local doni-boat that evening and chugged into the sunset. I was looking out especially for a particular bird: the white tern, or the dondheeni as they call it, is a resident and they make quite a symbol of it in Addu. I couldn’t see it on Herathera and I was told they were likelier on other islands with generous supplies of breadfruit. But there was no hint of the white bird, there were no dolphins either at Dolphin Point; however, to compensate, as the sun sank, a patch of golden yellow leached spectacularly into riven bands of purple and orange.

During dinner, at the mellowly-lit Kilhi restaurant, there was music. Young men from nearby villages came to sing, accompanied by drums and beats. They wore white shirts and lungis that they call ‘feyli’ in these parts. Dark bodied, lithely muscular, their smiles friendly but a touch sardonic. The songs tugged at me – the language curiously familiar but elusive. There is some Arabic, some Persian, some Sinhalese and I could swear to similarities with Kannada. The airs were familiar too – I discerned a Salil Chowdhury tune, which put me in a quandary. The composer was known for being widely influenced but music in the Maldives draws heavily from Hindi movies – which was the original? In the face of the joyous recitals, it didn’t seem to matter.

The next day, as I ambled around the island looking up at fruit bats, a bizarre sight met my eyes. A resort cart glided by and I glanced at it idly: it was occupied by some six people, all blindfolded with black tapes. Yes. Blindfolded. Terrorist attack! Wild incoherent images of slavery or bulk kidnappings! Well, not. Mercifully for my nerves, I had been told the day before that I might encounter this extraordinary cartload. What was actually happening was that we were sharing the resort with the crew of Survivor South Africa. These captives were contestants of the show, who were let loose on one of the neighbouring uninhabited islands as part of the game. While the ‘surviving’ took place in the genuine wilds, the ‘tribal council’ sessions were filmed in a hut-like structure at the far end of Herathera, where they were now being transported. The blindfolds, of course, were to keep them from seeing the civilised environs of the resort and ruining the ‘wild’ mindset.

The producers had chosen their spot well, for that is the magic of the Maldives. Of the 1190-odd coral islands that form this beautiful chain, only around 200 are inhabited. The rest either have resorts or are left to be. There is something so right about the arrangement of land and water. All this makes the islands very difficult to run, of course. Everything is imported – rice, fruit, vegetables, which made me worry slightly for the ‘survivors’. Resort islands generate their own electricity, purify their own water. Staff is ferried back and forth everyday.

This knowledge made me slightly guilty about my carbon footprint at lunchtime when I dug into fresh vegetables, olives, cheese and the wonderful desserts the chef had concocted. It didn’t, of course, make a difference to how much I dug into them, which is as it should be. As I returned I stopped short on the path as I had done before, but it was too late. My shy ground-dwelling neighbour had made a quick getaway. I was now seriously intrigued. Clearly, a little guile was called for. I went in, waited a little and parted the curtains from within. And sure enough, there he was, sitting meditatively by his burrow. Not a mammal at all but a small crab, unaware that I was snooping on his afternoon siesta. A little communion with Google-God has been done and I fancy my friend was a ghost crab.

To the Indian mentality that is so centred on ‘activity’, the isles, no matter how pretty, begin to feel like a trap fairly quickly. I heard tales (vastly exaggerated in the service of humour, hopefully) of honeymooning couples driven to suicide or murder by the end of a week. At least two women in our group told me on Day Three that they had had quite enough.

But Day Three held some activity for me: I went snorkelling. As we sped our way across to the reef, I gathered my gear. I’m myopic, and it cost me a pang to put away my spectacles and don the plain-glass snorkelling mask. The discomfort of entering an unfamiliar element was going to be heightened by the handicap of extra-blurred vision. But that couldn’t be helped. Life-jacketed and sun-blocked, my mouth dry with fear, I slid off the doni and into the water. All around, the orange figures of my companions bobbed in the sea. Reluctantly, but knowing I must, I flipped on my belly and put my head under the water. And, just like that, entered another world. The reef teemed with life – corals of amazing variety, sea anemone, schools of thin shimmering fish, broad vividly patterned families. The corals were so close, I was afraid I’d damage them. I let the sea toss me where it would for a bit. The experience was so physical, so holistically sensory, I didn’t even notice the lack of my spectacles. Some 40 mins later, I felt a tap on my arm; the instructor was motioning me to head back to the boat. I had been so lost, I hadn’t noticed I was among the last to heave myself back in. Heavy-bodied, so tired and so happy.

That evening, I jumped at a chance to visit Gan. Given its geography and its dichotomous approach to tourism, it’s quite possible to visit the Maldives and not meet its people. Gan is linked by bridges and a 17-km paved road to the islands of Feydoo, Maradhoo and Hithadhoo, the atoll’s capital island. The drive was most telling. To the south, Gan bore its history on its face: between 1941 and 1976, this used to be a British Royal Air Force base. Wide roads, white colonial buildings... a memorial here, a cannon there, military neatness everywhere. Then a clutch of souvenir shops and general stores, self-deprecatingly attempting commerce. As we passed over the bridges, the scenes changed. Shops, banks, schools, government offices, residential areas, the homes...I could see what stood for affluence, which residences indicated more modest means. In Hithadhoo, a heartwarming sight – young men and elders hunched over tables in concentration, engaged in a local tournament of chess and checkers.

It was time to leave. At Gan Airport that night, we suffered a frustrating delay with our 3.30am flight. Resigned, I spread my shawl in a corner and managed a half-decent snooze; when I came to, it was dawn, the plane ready to leave. We stepped out of the lounge to a rain-washed runway. Light was streaking gloriously through the clouds, the sea glinted a very fresh blue. In the trees to one side, a pair of pure white birds circled, flexing their morning wings. The white tern. I stood transfixed for a few moments, and walked into the waiting plane.

This was carried in Outlook Traveller, February 2011. The link is here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Kise pesh karun

These past couple of days have gone in a nostalgic haze – revisiting songs we loved when we were younger. What a wonderful thing youtube is. I took one trip down today to enjoy songs from this 1964 film called Gazal. Before my time, but I saw it on trusty old Doordarshan. Given my affinity for Sunil Dutt, old film music, the ghazal, Sahir Ludhianvi and black and white cinema, what was not to love?

So many things to say about these songs that I don’t know where to begin. The music is by the melodious Madan Mohan, the poetry by Sahir and the movie features the wonderfully emotive Meena Kumari and an earnest Sunil Dutt. A love story, mostly.

The protagonists meet, banter and woo in poetry and song. When I heard it again, I yearned for the song to be an integrated part of the film again – not a disconnected ‘item’ number, not an elaboration on happiness or grief or drama that is already happening, not entertainment but song as conversation, song as advancement of the story. And when it takes the form of ghazal, subhan allah!

Ejaz – our hero, the atheist revolutionary poet – is taking a leisurely stroll on the banks of the Yamuna in Agra when he hears a voice longing for love. Kise pesh karun, she is singing, to whom shall I present these gifts of verse, these brimming feelings? These warm breaths, the secrets my lips hold, the inky darkness of my tresses?

Koi humraaz to paaun, koi hamdam to mile,
Dil ke dhadkan ke ishaarat kise pesh karun

To whom, the promptings of this beating heart?

Ejaz is delighted. Later, at a mehfil that Naaz Ara is also attending, he uses her radif and qafiya to put his own spin on it. See how Sahir converts everything that was soft and feminine in the first version into something robust and very masculine. To whom shall I present the heat of my feelings, these searing nights and days?

And see how Meena Kumari listens to the poetry being recited… multi-layered responses flitting across her expressive countenance. Her outrage at being plagiarised, then her indignation at being countered by this audacious young man, then being moved by the tributes he’s paying her and finally agitation that he is repeating her very own couplet back to her – by now she has figured that he’s too talented to want to rip her off, what he’s doing is appropriating it, syncing his own explosive feelings with hers. This was the stuff of the old Muslim socials – to fall in love with a beloved you haven’t laid eyes on yet.

Things go wrong as they are apt to do in love stories and Naaz Ara is marrying Akhtar Nawab (the suave Rahman who, poor man, always seems to be put in the position of hankering after someone else’s woman). Ejaz is singing at her wedding. The same radif and qafiya; something like their song. Ye mere sher mere aakhri nazrane hai… it is one final gift of poetry.

Madan Mohan alters the mood dramatically. And Sahir alters the form – this is not a ghazal but a variation that filmi shayars (for instance, also Shakeel Badayuni) achieved. The first lines form a couplet but the following ones have three lines, of which the first two rhyme and the third takes on the radif and qafiya of the first matla.
Like so:

rang aur noor ki baraat kise pesh karun
ye muradon ki haseen raat kise pesh karun

kaun kahata hai ki chahat pe sabhi ka haq hai
tu jise chahe tera pyar usi ka haq hai
mujh se kahde main tera haath kise pesh karun

There are other ghazals in this movie but that’s for another time.  However, I must say how much I miss the Muslim Social. The delicacy involved in all social transactions, the shayari, the use of hijab and purdah as delicious plot devices… it makes me sigh. Koi lautade mere beete hue din…

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Creatures, great and small

I have said once or twice before how flattered the Vyases feel when wild creatures come visiting. We like stray cats and dogs to stay in the yard but we had a parrot swagger into our drawing room once and we nearly kept it.

Some part of our delight must’ve been due to this Enid Blyton that Shweta and I read over and over again as children. The Children of the Cherry Tree Farm had four city kids visit the English countryside. There they meet a wild man called Tammylan who introduces them to the wild. I’ve blogged about Tammylan before, here.

Blyton gets a lot of rap these days for very many reasons but as millions of our generation know, she gave us oh, so much joy and excitement. She held up all manner of traits we could emulate – if she made the aggressive Elizabeth Allen her protagonist in the Naughtiest Girl series, she could make an ideal of the shy, retiring sorts as well. In this book, Benjy is a timid, dreamy type of lad… unremarkable, except he has a deep quietude about him. He has “the low voice and the quiet hands of those who love the wild creatures”, and it is Benjy whom Tammylan first invites to come and meet his wild friends – rabbits, hares, snakes and badgers.

I suppose for children like me - susceptible to that sort of appeal - the capacity for being still became a virtue, reining in of unruly energy became a matter of discipline. We put our spins on what we receive but that was a good lesson, I’ve always thought. Needless to say, I longed to be Benjy. I have never succeeded with getting a squirrel to come to hand but I must tell you about this tailorbird.

He has been coming to roost in our back verandah everyday for more than a week now. It was spring-like weather and surely all god’s creatures must be out there, wooing and mating, building and breeding. And here was this fellow, coming to bed at 6.30 pm daily. He sits at the edge of this washing line, holding onto the wire, wedged tight against the roof and his head snug under the wing.

At first we were delighted. Shweta theorised that nest-building work was ongoing and that our tailorbird was here on a temporary basis. Now it does not appear to be the case – our bird has the air of someone who has found excellent living quarters going very cheap and does not mean to vacate it. Then worry struck. Was this tailorbird of a slacker ‘kaljugi’ generation… you know, just lazy? Had he not inherited the skills necessary to be ahead with the world? Preeti, who came by one day and caught sight of him by torchlight has been worried and seeking regular updates.

We have other problems also. For fear of disturbing this bird, we have been forced to forego use of the verandah every evening. Unfortunately, since he is perched just above the washbasin, it is very inconvenient.

However, we are now a little relieved of our concerns. The Wikipedia entry (which should have been consulted sooner) says:
“The birds roost alone during the non-breeding season but may roost side-by-side during the breeding season, sometimes with the newly fledged juvenile sandwiched between the adults. The roost sites chosen are thin twigs on trees with cover above them and were often close to human habitation and lights.”

So our guest is probably a carefree bachelor who has made do with a clothesline and roof – what’s life without a little jugaad? He likes the lights, so we don’t have to tiptoe around him. And he likes us, so that is a very, very good thing.