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A coral-island hop

Photograph by Preeti Verma Lal

Boalha Kinkirimaa. Woozy after a turbulent sea plane ride from Male to Velavaru island, it was not dimpled Nhu’s drawl that had me foxed, but her first muttering sure was pure baffle. Boalha Kinkirimaa, she repeated with an edgy smile and handed the keys of my villa. Standing by a bunch of coral turtles and a platter cluttered with miniature coconut, I wondered what Kinkirimaa was. A horned turtle? A coral gruel? Snorkelling jargon? A castaway island? In Maldives , everything was getting lost in translation. “Boalha…?” I uttered rather diffidently. “Oh. That’s the name of your Angsana villa; Kinkirimaa is a flower,” she beamed. That simple! I sighed.

That, however, was just the beginning of a tongue-twisting hop in the chain of 1,199 coral islands that was first settled in 5 th century bc. The islands sit smug in the middle of the endless Indian Ocean , the shores laced with thrashing white waves and dainty corals; everywhere you can hear the swish of the palm fronds, the air is forever redolent with the whiff of the salty sea and the water is so crystal clear that you can see ten feet under. Calling the Maldives beautiful would be stingy; drop-dead gorgeous perhaps is a more appropriate adjective. But before I could stick my toes into the powdery white sand, snorkel around in the coral garden and jump into the dhoni (fishing boat) to throw a line for the barracuda fish, the tongue-twisters returned to haunt me at Angsana’s Kaani restaurant where a lavish Maldivian buffet lay amidst sunflower yellow table linen. That sultry monsoon evening little did I know that the monosyllabic tuna would be my nemesis; it was everywhere - mashed with potato for Fuhggehi kebab, tossed with grated coconut and onion for Mashumi, whipped with rice flour to make a cake called Kulhiboakiba, stuffed inside the flaky, buttery sheet for the triangular Sambosa (think samosa), and rolled with lentils and deep fried as crunchy Muggu kebab.

“Vegetarian? Tough to be one here; fish is food.” Chef Ibrahim Zahir’s proclamation came as no solace on the sandy beach. I was distracted by the flickering flights of the InOcean Villas that stand on stilts in the middle of the ocean and a hermit crab that scampered by the table. “Wait, there’s Boakuri Barabo,” Zahir threw in a consolation hurriedly. Lumpy and glazed with jaggery, caramelized pumpkin is barely my definition of dinner, I reluctantly settled for roshi (salted roti) with mango chutney and Ban Boakiba (bread pudding). Then I heard a thud, a rhythmic thud of the bodu beru, the traditional Maldivian drum. Performers in sarong, white tee and bandana shattered the monotonous din of the mighty waves with music that reverberated in the silence of the starry night. They say it was African sailors who brought the bodu beru into the Maldives in 11 th century. But facts were irrelevant, so were the lyrics, for I know not a word of the local Dhivehi language. But when the guttural singer hit a frenzied crescendo, I forgot all about the travails of being a vegetarian in the Maldives ; I forgave the tuna for monopolizing the cuisine.

Curled up that night in the four-poster bed, it was the corals that I dreamt of. The Maldives is known for its coral islands that were severely damaged by 1998 El Nino mass coral bleaching disaster. I dreamt I was in Banyan Tree’s Marine Lab in Vabbinfaru Island and having wriggled into Speedo and diving fins was planting finger corals to rebuild the coral reef. Two days later, that dream came true as I reached Vabbinfaru, all prepped to plant that one calcareous finger coral on a wet cement block and to catch the gluttonous crown-of-thorns starfish and pincushion starfish, the coral predators that can gobble 65 sq.ft of corals in a year. Some hungry starfish these! Trust me, these predators are pretty, but if coral reefs are not restored, Maldives would sink into the sea sooner than predicted.

The thought of Maldives being gulped by the sea unnerved me; I bunked the snorkeling safari and hopped into the speed boat to see more of corals in Male. From the seaplane, the Male Atoll looks like a hurried scribble – high-rise buildings interspersed with squat structures, the pink Presidential Palace, the blue Republic Square and the golden dome of the Grand Mosque. All that had to wait, for I first wanted to see the oldest coral mosque, where neither an inch of wood nor an ounce of iron is used – it is made of handcrafted coral, blocks tidily stacked over each other. Built by Sultan Ibrahim Iskander in 1658, the mosque is replete with tombs of the royal family, a sun dial and the imperial insignia chiseled in black coral. The recently added aluminum roof looks anomalous, but even after 352 years the piety of the place has not diminished. However, this is not the only mosque in Male; there are 29 others in a city that barely stretches 2.5 sq.kms and is perhaps one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Male is so small that one can do a walking tour of the city in nearly two hours; I plodded through the wet streets for less than hour walking into the dry fish market where lay mounds of dried tuna, jacks, snappers, barracudas… The scent of sun-dried fish was heady, so was the sweetness of bondi, a coconut and honey sweetmeat that an old shopkeeper with walrus moustache and lace skull cap generously offered.

As raindrops pitter-pattered on the jetty, the thought of Maldives sinking into the sea gnawed at my soul. Will this sun-kissed paradise be lost forever? Sooner than we assume? I was vexed. That moment all I wanted was to head back to the Banyan Tree Marine Lab in Vabbinfaru, wriggle into Speedo, dive into the emerald water and plant a coral. I know that one coral will not rescue Maldives but that is how change begins - one gesture at a time.

Jetwings International, 2010

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