| by Pearl Thevanayagam
(February 11, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) I went to Maldives in April 1973 to recuperate from failing to qualify for GCE A/L science stream twice due to sheer exhaustion from competing with fellow students. No amount of tuition classes could obtain for me the necessary two credit passes in science subjects to proceed to Advanced Level. My father had been teaching Geography and Art at Aminiya School for girls since 1966 administered by the British. Aminiya and Majeediya (boys’ school) were the only private schools for the privileged and the rest were attending local schools run by Maldivians. Even more wealthier children attended schools in Colombo such as HFC Bambalapitiya and St Peter’s including the President’s and ministers’ children.
My father truly believed I needed a break from studies and I showed enough symptoms of nervous exhaustion and panic to go on holiday with him, thus I was able to spend a blissful six months in Male. Male is just one square mile and the only person who owned a car was the President of Maldives. The ministers wore sarong and shirts not unlike President Mahinda Perceival Rajapaksa who wears national attire and kurakkan shawl when he is not jogging down Galle Face Green or Independence Square in Nike trainers to keep himself fit and fighting. I took regular walks with my father along the coast abutting sapphire blue waters starting from our house and ending there. If you reach out to the waters you could easily catch fish with your bare hands.
One did not need any fancy radio to listen to Radio Maldives then. There was just one announcer by the name of Lilani Perera and my father used to joke that all you need is a matchbox and some wires since the radio station was within hearing distance from our house.
One sad irony is that Maldivians believed Murunga sticks were poisonous and that it was safe to eat murunga leaves. They subsisted on rice and tuna fish which was aplenty. To the 100 or so Sri Lankan expatriates the air force would fly in vegetables and beef weekly and in the hey days of nationalism where Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike banned imports the few of the Sri Lankans domiciled in Maldives had the luxury of foreign imports of cheese, Nescafe, Cadbury’s chocolates, imported liquor and Lady Hamilton sarees from Singapore among other goodies. From the foreign exchange of salaries provided for school teachers they could also order from Andrew’s catalogue imported stuff from Hong Kong.
Presidents came and went or rather shot dead during the 21 gun salute on Independence Day celebrations until Abdul Gayoom. There was not much opulent living for the Maldivians although they were not short of the bare necessities of life. Their existence was one of simple unadulterated living in the ’70s. There was plenty of fish and coconuts. A three foot tuna could be bought for just 50 cents. Maldivian coconut trees are so short that you did not need a coconut climber. You simply picked it off your hands.
An absolute delicacy from the coconuts is the syrup which you can spread onto roti or bread. Then there was rihakuru, the remaining water from parboiling tuna to make Maldive fish boiled down until it resembled Bovril which you can substitute for Marmite. The only handicap is vegetables. There were plenty of honey-sweet mangoes,guavas and pomegranates but somehow vegetables were in short supply or the Maldivians had not bothered to grow them..
My father brought plantain shoots and vegetable seeds from Sri Lanka and we grew our own vegetables. As a result we had bumper harvests of plantains, chillies, brinjals and pumpkins in the virgin soil. Otherwise we relied on Air Force supplies weekly for carrots, leeks and other exotic vegetables. But there were plenty of imported canned vegetables, cheese, butter, luncheon meat etc.
Maldives was but a remote group of 3,000 islands out of which only 300 were inhabited and it was undiscovered and unspoilt and the people lived in absolute harmony. There was just one cinema hall where you could watch Hindi films and the radio blasted out Hindi film songs by Asha Bhosle and other pop singers from Bollywood.
The airport is an island itself and once you land there you need to take a boat to get to Male. I used to go on trips to the islands during weekends for a swim and barbecue which are virtually uninhabited with friends of my father who were his colleagues at the two schools and those who worked for WHO. Villingly was the island where prisoners were exiled.
What has become of Maldives is a tragedy and in the name of progress it has descended into anarchy. It is also under threat of global warming and predicted to be submerged in the not too distant future not unlike Bangladesh. My only wish is that it is restored to its past peaceful existence and towards this Sri Lanka and India can help a great deal and not let Western powers use this turbulent moment in Maldives’ history to confiscate it for their strategical interests in the Indian Ocean like they did with Diego Garcia.
The writer is Asia Pacific Journalism Fellow at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, California and a print journalist for 21 years. She can be reached at email@example.com)