Banished to Paradise
In the middle of the settlement stood one of the oldest banyan trees I had ever seen. Long aerial roots descended from the branches, most cut off to stop children from swinging on them. The roots that had reached the ground had grown into thick woody trunks, enveloping the main trunk with layers upon layers of hardy trunks. On one side of the tree, the trunk looked like it had broken off. Crows were resting on the jagged edges. We met a good friend of Aiman’s and a relative of Maimoona’s named Ilyas driving by on his scooter. Ilyas told us his mother, now 60 years old, remembers the tree being the same size even during her childhood.
“Am I the only one who’s sad about this tree’s death?” Aiman said.
“We didn’t cut it off,” Ilyas protested. “We heard great creaks and groans one day and a huge chunk just fell off. We think it must be because of the high salt levels in the ground after the tsunami. But we are trying to get permission from the government to cut the tree.”
“Why?” I asked, surprised.
“Well, the roots are blocking the sewage pipes, pushing up through walls and tiles in the bathrooms nearby. And still the central government talks about protecting the tree. Should it be humans or trees? Anyway this tree is not dying. It’s vulnerable to shocks, but very resilient,” Ilyas said.
He left after inviting us to his house the next day for Friday afternoon lunch. The women of his family were preparing a huge feast for the whole island to celebrate the name-giving ceremony for his seven-day-old child.
Aiman and I soon left the settlement behind, driving down narrow dirt paths carved out of the thick canopy, ducking to avoid getting hit by low-hanging branches and dodging thorny screw pine leaves. We arrived at one of Goidhoo’s three mangroves. In the afternoon sun, the still waters perfectly mirrored the surrounding canopy. Aiman told me Goidhoo islanders saw no use for the mangroves and dumped rubbish there.
We stopped at a secluded beach. Bottles, diapers, and other plastic littered the beach, while turquoise parrot-fishes played in the clear waters. A couple of bags filled with coral stone stood to one side waiting to be hauled off. Islanders often used coral stone to build homes. Across the clear lagoon, I could see the green flora and white beaches of Fehendhoo and Fulhadhoo islands.
Was it hard for you? To be banished here?” I said.
Aiman stood still for a long time watching fishes jump in the water. “It could have been worse,” he finally said.
That night, I sat with Maimoona in the yard, watching her slice onions for a curry. “You were so kind to Aiman. Why?” I said.
She skipped a beat in her rhythmic slicing.
“How could I be unkind? I’m kind to everyone,” she said. “My eldest son brought him to the house and said, ‘Feed him.’ I said, ‘I can only feed him what I eat.’ Aiman is a very good boy. My children have grown up, some have moved away. Aiman is the same age as my younger son, Ibrahim. I love Aiman like a child. He’s a very good boy.
“Kudabe [her husband] only had two issues with Aiman, same with Ibrahim. His hair was long, and he would not go to the mosque five times a day. Aiman told me he grew his hair long for a reason. Because of his bald spot. So I told Kudabe, the boy does not smoke cigarettes, he does not use drugs, does not wear those necklaces and bracelets that most boys wear these days, does not chase after women—so let him grow his hair. After that Kudabe left him alone.”
Ilyas’s extended family was up at the crack of dawn on Friday morning, preparing for lunch. When I woke up, Maimoona was grinding spices for chicken curry. Every household had been given a small pot of mixed spices to grind. Over 40 women mobilized for the feast. At mid-morning Aiman and I went to see the preparations. In the shade of palm trees near the beach, the younger women were rolling and baking rotis on wood fires, using more than 50 pounds of flour. Then we went to Ilyas’s house where the older women were cooking kandukukulhu, breadfruit and chicken curries, and over a hundred pounds of rice. I smelled the fragrance of spices long before we arrived at the house.
Enormous vats of curry sat boiling on wood fires. The men had caught 25 skipjack tuna for kandukukulhu curry and the women had collected wood for the fires the day before. The tuna was marinated in a rich blend of spices and bound up in pandan leaves for kandukukulhu curry. We arrived in the middle of a crisis, for the pandan leaves had come undone in the curry and the tuna had turned to mush.
“This will not do! The men will not eat this,” one woman said.
“Well, they will just have to eat what we cook. Or else they can cook for themselves,” a familiar voice said. It was Ameema, the woman from the ferry. As soon as she saw me, she shooed Aiman away from the cooking and pulled me into the kitchen. She sat down cross-legged on the floor alongside three other women to mix onions, lime juice, and chili for a salad. Large Tupperware containers of thinly sliced carrots and cabbages stood on the floor. The women kept up a constant chatter as they worked, teasing each other about their waist sizes, and talking about the benefits of living in a rural island community. They asked me to agree with every disapproving statement on Malé’s congestion, grime, crime, and heavy traffic. The food was ready by the time the Imam’s nasal call to prayer echoed throughout the island.
All of the men who attended Friday’s noon prayers came to eat at Ilyas’s house. As I was a guest, they allowed me to eat with the men. Some women had eaten before the prayer call, and others waited to eat after the men.
Over a sweet drink of kandhi, a mixture of coconut milk, rice, sugar, and cardamom, I asked Aiman what a typical day on the island had been like for him.
“I was lonely. It was hard thinking of my wife and child alone in Malé,” he said. “But I became a man here.” When Aiman was sentenced, he had been working for an NGO called Care Society on tsunami rehabilitation and reconstruction. Goidhoo was one of the islands included in tsunami aid and needed an administrator. Care Society decided to give the job to Aiman and he was fortunate enough to have a well-paying job during his banishment. In his spare time he had gone deep-sea fishing, cleared farmland, and dug wells. He had gone jogging on the beach every day.
“People treated me well. Well, most people. There are some who don’t like me,” he said.