The Maldives is the "It" destination for anybody who wants to share the indescribable magic of the iridescent blue-green of the sea that embraces the island nation made up of a chain of 26 atolls, covering a territory of 1,192 islets, 250 inhabited islands, with a population of 306,000 spread over 298 sq km.
Gosh! Cuffe Parade alone is far more crowded! So much for perspective. The Maldives is the smallest Asian country in terms of area and population, and also the smallest entirely Muslim nation in the world. But hey… India cares! India wants to shower love on the Maldives. Now more than ever. India is reaching out in more ways than one. And the island nation’s President, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, is now showing signs of thawing towards a neighbour who lives less than 500 km away, while the crafty "good friend" stays a good 4,823 km north, and is showing too much attitude! China’s "loan and own" strategy seems to have backfired in this piece of paradise which lies in the Indian Ocean. If we play our cards right, we’ll successfully woo the man who is likely to take over from President Solih and is seen as a buddy of India — 55-year-old Mohamed Nasheed.
Thanks to the outreach programme in Male, Maldives’ capital, organised by the far-thinking team behind the first edition of the iconic JLF (Jaipur Lit Fest) at Sonu Shivdasani’s equally iconic Soneva Fushi, I met the future Prezzie Nasheed in a great setting. There he was, to talk about his latest book, happy to delay his next appointment where he was to chair an important meeting! As 19th Speaker of the People’s Majlis, the former President was in full flow at the JLF event as he candidly traced the troubled political history of his country, stared pointedly at the lovely Yumna Maumoon (minister for arts, culture and heritage), and cracked up the audience with his bon mots. He spoke about the hazards of being a politician in his country where "leaders disappear mysteriously, are exiled, imprisoned, kidnapped or murdered… but here I am… lucky to be alive!" Nasheed survived a brutal IED bomb attack in 2021, that required multiple emergency surgeries. He has been arrested 20 times during former President Gayoom’s despotic 30-year-rule, and was in solitary confinement for over a year.
He missed the birth of his two daughters, and some claim that he was subjected to torture in prison. Despite the horrors of incarceration, Nasheed’s spirit remains unbroken — he wrote three books on Maldivian history in jail.
I found him a really cool guy. Since we were seated next to each other, I wanted to share how our JLF team had risked life and limb on a violently stormy morning to keep our date with him. In retrospect, every moment had been worth the risk — starting with a 30-minute speedboat ride over choppy waters to Dharavandhoo, a tiny island (one of the 86 domestic airports), where we had hopped on to a propeller engine aircraft, landed in Male, and taken another boat to the jetty… and with wobbly knees, plus wildly beating hearts, rushed to keep our appointment with "His Excellency".
What we poor writers do to keep the flag flying!
While it thundered and poured buckets outside "Salt", the trendy venue for our programme, I gazed at the local fish market across the street. The Maldivians eat tuna for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I had sampled tuna in all its splendour by now, and was longing for some desi daal chawal. Some crisp, white wine too.
But… banish the thought, I was sternly warned. There’s no alcohol in Male. And there’s just so much coconut water I can consume, without fearing for my bladder. I was also gently advised to not discuss sex, religion or politics during my talk with the urbane, suave and super-intelligent Sanjoy Roy (one of the three high- powered directors, along with William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale, who run JLF). This was the really tough part — the three subjects I am reasonably competent to discuss in public weren’t available to me on this momentous occasion. Stumped, but still gung-ho, Sanjoy and I carried on an hour-long, animated conversation regardless. And the audience clapped! We’d passed!
Bringing JLF to the Maldives was such an inspired decision! Here we were — three former Indian ambassadors (Pavan K. Varma, Vikas Swaroop, Navdeep Suri), a colourful mathematician (Oxford don Marcus du Sotay), award-winning poet (Ranjit Hoskote), erudite historians (William Dalrymple, Peter Francopane), celebrated Michelin star chef (Suvir Saran), Sahitya Akademi award winner (Namita Gokhale) — baap re! So much brain power on one tiny island! There were other distinguished speakers as well, but they had gone back to their shores, before we arrived. The Intellectual Quotient was pretty damn hard to beat. And then, of all the islands in all the world, I had to meet one of my perennial heroes in this unlikely, almost surrealistic setting — ladies and gentlemen — Gopalkrishna Gandhi was in da house!
For a few minutes, I stopped breathing. We missed meeting my other hero, B.N. Goswami, who had had to rush back a day ahead of schedule. But here was Gopal Gandhi, as luminous as the full moon hanging over the fabulous Soneva resort. When Gopal Gandhi spoke, with his beautiful wife Tara looking on fondly, the softness of his voice, the elegant movement of his fingers, failed to camouflage the power of his words and thoughts.
There are lit fests and lit fests — and then there is the JLF at Soneva Fushi. The dates are already in place for next year. 2022 was just a dry run that turned out pretty wet given the unseasonal rains. Somehow, those dramatic downpours added a special something to the magic of the Maldives, as authors and delegates, barefoot and soaked to the skin, scurried through forested pathways, arriving at Villa 11 or the other outposts, to share ideas and words and music and laughter… Alas, I will have to wait for a whole year to do a repeat!