Since this column is about the Maldives, I thought, why not lagao one more image????
Our man in the Maldives….
Surprises start at the Male airport itself! I was in the Republic of Maldives last week to attend the first ever Hay Literature Festival, which in the words of Festival Director Andy Fryers, was to ‘celebrate the archipelago both as a global treasure and as a rich and diverse heritage drawing on two thousand years of poetry, music and art.” The lovely lady who met the flight looked like a model ( she blushed when I asked, and confessed she did indeed model as a teenager).Now her sights were set slightly higher - she was looking at a career in politics, while working closely with the 42- year-old President Mohammed Nasheed . As we waited in the VIP Lounge for other writers from Britain (‘Atonement’ author Ian McEwan, and Peter Godwin ), she filled me in on what was going on in this unique nation made up of over a thousand islands that dot the vast, startlingly blue ( fourteen shades – I counted!) Indian Ocean. The current President is hugely popular she said ( others beg to differ ), and is savvy enough to attract world attention to the plight of his nation that just may disappear from the face of this earth due to global warming and rising water levels. Yup. He’s the same bloke who had scheduled an underwater cabinet meeting during the Copenhagen Convention in order to underline the gravity of the situation. Oh dear, I thought to myself as I stepped out of the airport and straight into a waiting speedboat at the jetty which was less than twenty metres away. What if the airport sank while the Lit Fest was on ? What if the island where the swish Soneva Gili Resort( an eco friendly, but pocket unfriendly at $1,000 a night) is located, went under during my short stay? Shudder, shudder. Durga! Durga! I prayed as the speedboat’s dashing captain ( surely a can of gel went into spiking his hair into those impressive peaks?), took off jauntily, hitting top speed in under a few seconds. Soon we were in the middle of the choppy waters and I could swear the levels were rising even as we slapped the surf hard and my spine felt like it would snap into several pieces if this insanely rough ride carried on much longer.
That was some introduction to these mysterious and magical isles, where locals sound like they are conversing in Tamil, look Malayali, but insist they are Indo-Aryan. At the world famous resort, with its ‘Robinson Crusoe Villas’ ( built on stilts over azure lagoons and only accessible by boats ), my Man Friday Nawaz pointed helpfully to a cycle balancing against the bleached wooden door and said, “ Remember – no news, no shoes. That’s the rule here.” The cycle stared back cheekily challenging me to give those stiff calf muscles an instant workout. I definitely needed a drink. A gallon of champagne. My nerves were seriously on edge. I looked towards the horizon and saw storm clouds gathering. An ominous sign. The tsunami had claimed 86 lives, and 26 more are still missing. Tidal waves were not unheard of in this part of the ocean. There were sharks in dem waters… and I don’t swim. Nawaz grinned wickedly and said, “ Relax… you are perfectly safe here.” Oh yeah?? Then why was the cabinet meeting held underwater? Big fat raindrops fell over my head as I tried to follow Nawaz’s advice and relax. In this scrupulously eco- friendly resort – the brain child of Sonu and Eva Shivdasani, the emphasis is on nature and open air living…. the shower area is a small walk away over wooden boards and you can technically wave out to passing fishermen as they haul the tuna into the nets. I can see why this resort is so popular with Europeans in search of strong sun and complete privacy. Imagine my distress – the only other guests besides the pale Europeans were paler Japanese honeymooners canoodling in shady corners. India’s ‘official’ honeymooners ( Shashi T and Sunanda P) were expected but backed out at the last minute. So…there I was rattling around in this vast space all by myself… and sorry to say, I wasn’t thinking about global warming. I was looking at those menacing clouds and wondering how I’d survive the night with the wind howling through that thatched roof ( what if it blew away?).As it turned out, after a splendid solo dinner at the main restaurant ( a couple of glasses of New Zealand White, and I was ready to swim with the sharks) my nerves had settled sufficiently to handle a crowded day at the Lit Fest…. then on Male. But first there was the time difference to figure out. For some really odd reason, most islands operated on their own sweet time which varied from an hour to two hours from Male time. Visitors have to adjust and re-adjust their watches three times a day if they do go island hopping.
I decided to hop on to my guide Yasser’s bike in what is considered one of the densest cities in the world. With a population of 1,20,000 on a tiny island that can be covered at a leisurely pace in under an hour, the natives are getting restless. Very restless. Democracy is alien to this 900- year- old Islamic Republic which has actually been built by several friendly countries over the years. The Chinese have donated a spacious mosque next to the main square that accommodates 5,000 believers, the Japanese have built the schools, the Germans have contributed a stadium , Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and others have done their bit, while India has given them the Indira Gandhi Hospital. We have also trained their Coast Guard and army , and will be building two out of the three new airports. Lucky guys, these Maldivians. Sab kuch moofat! Yasser told me proudly there were no ‘poor people’ in his country. No dogs, either, I commented. He shook his head and stated emphatically, “ Dogs have never existed on these islands. We don’t allow dogs … they are un-Islamic. But people can keep cats.” Phew! Dogless. But not Godless. That’s a relief.
By the time I reached the residence of our man in the Maldives , Dnyaneshwar Mulay ( High Commissioner), I was dehydrated and ready to head home to Mumbai. Shri Mulay is a Sanskrit scholar and the youngest ambassador in South Asia. This bright IFS guy from Kolhapur is obviously doing an efficient job of keeping the Maldivians in good humour while safeguarding India’s interests in the region. He has big plans. One of those involves making sure all three new airports are built by Indian companies. He also spearheads inspiring programmes ( Project DynanDeep and Gram Parivartan) to provide quality education to under privileged kids, and an ideal village, back in his hometown .After a quick coffee and chivda at his home, I had to rush back to my Robinson Crusoe existence. But at least my Man Friday was around to make sure I didn’t fall off the jetty and end up in those amazing waters as a pre-dinner appetizer for those hungry sharks.