“Other Side Sitting”

Ibrahim Waheed “Kalaavehi”

Things were going hot at the saihotaa, the local teashop. Spicy-hot fillings of fish, onions and coconut, wrapped with flour and deep-fried, titillated expectant palates. Oily-sweet blocks of rice flour, ghee and jasmine water vied for the attention of the more sweet-toothed. Hot cups of dark tea, pre-sugared to expected perfection, ensured the flow of heated conversation. Animated discussions twisted around healthy chews of betel leaf and areca nut, spiked with slaked lime and cloves. Smoke rose from cigarettes and home-rolled bidi, and became a gentle, soft-focusing haze that surrounded everything.

“What is the world coming to?” A middle-aged gentleman, for that was what he looked like in his starched white sarong and high-collared green shirt, said to his captive audience, “When we lose even the basics of our poetry, our very own lhen, what else can we have to call our own?

The captive audience of two T-shirt clad young men looked very attentive. One already had a receding hairline and was sporting a mustache, perhaps to offset the negative effect. The other wore glasses and had a hint of a squint. They were almost certainly in their early twenties and probably remained captive at that point in time because Green Shirt was paying for the treat. The man with the glasses had a notebook open and was taking notes. The other had a look of rapt attention on his face.

“Take, for example, the tradition of the lhen baith. It has to have a sadr and an ajz. How else can you even pretend to say you are writing poetry when you don’t even know this? You know that all good poetry comes in the shape of the baith couplet!” Green Shirt paused and looked at the blackened tip of his bidi. It seemed to have gone out. He reached for the plastic lighter on the table, flicked it into life, and held it to the slim, elongated cone of tobacco-filled newsprint, which dutifully sputtered back into useful existence. “And now we have these bird-brained, foreign-educated johnnies recently-come-back who think that they can take any liberties with our language, our culture and our nation!”

The two young men looked at each other, each with the totally expressionless face which is so highly regarded as a mark of good manners in the Maldives. Everyone knew it as a fact of life that all members of a Maldivian of dancing girls can best be identified in a foreign theater by their collective lack of stage smiles. The young man with the receding hair swallowed, cleared his throat, and asked Green Shirt, “Sir, what about front rhyming? Is that necessary? We see some famous poets like Mr. Hussain Manik ignoring that now.”

Green Shirt, who had been folding a fresh chew of betel into the customary triangle, looked shocked. He exploded, “Famous!!! You think fame means propriety? No, it does not! And Hussain Manik! Just because the British gave him an award in what they call poetry, it does not mean that he is a poet in the proper sense of the word. What do the British know about poetry? No! No! They gave him that so-called award to ruin our language, our culture and our nation!”

Green Shirt banged his fist on the table. A Bangladeshi waiter, bustling by, nearly conceded defeat to gravity’s pull on a suddenly-unbalanced tray of steaming cups. The latter apologized profusely in the best Dhivehi he had acquired with great effort in three months of yet-to-be-remunerated employment, “Sir is giving the little forgive. I not British. I not Hussain Manik. I Bangladeshi! Hussain Manik Sir is other side sitting.”

“This is what I mean. We have to listen to broken Dhivehi all day, everywhere. Why can’t these idiots learn some decent Dhivehi? And why can’t they learn how to make some decent hedhika? The gulha tastes like rotten bajiya and the tea tastes like muddy water.” Green Shirt observed with loud conviction. “Where was I? …. Yes! Hussain Manik. Now, that is one man who has no respect for our language, its poetry and its poetic forms. He breaks all the time-honored and respected rules that even school children like you know how to follow. Still he calls himself an artist! How can he when he does not follow the rules? Don’t follow him. He is a useless man.”

One of the young men looked at his mobile phone and said, “Sir, it is almost time for class. May we please leave?”

As the young men left, leaving Green Shirt in the excellent company of his betel leaves and bidi, another middle-aged man, who had been sitting two tables away, smiled to himself and sipped delicately at his decaffeinated coffee. He thought, “Poor man! Someday, some time, I hope someone shows this man the works of someone like Picasso and how the great artist blossomed through the near-perfect realism of his Blue and Rose Periods into cubism and surrealism. Someone should show him Picasso’s Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur, last sold for more than a hundred million dollars. Someone should buy him a cheap poster of Guernica to look at and think over. Someone should tell him that great artists are always those that learn through, master, and then transcend established norms into their own style of self-expression. But that someone is certainly not me! Not me, his hated Hussain Manik.”

Through the haze of tobacco smoke that sometimes unfocused unwary eyes, through the din of animated debate on subjects ranging from education to politics, Hussain Manik sipped his coffee and thought of the other side of the coin, “I shall stay on the side of greater hope, wider vision and better days to come. Days when people like that jealous old man will no longer attempt to strangle adolescent minds, forcing youthful eyes to bulge into tunnel vision. Days of stronger hope for the greater development of our language, our culture and our nation.”

The Bangladeshi waiter had been perfectly right after all, even through his limited foreign language skills, “….Hussain Manik Sir is other side sitting.”

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