Banana Patch Girl

Ibrahim Waheed “Kalaavehi”

When I was a child, I used to start my day sitting on my private chunk of coral under the banana fronds in my little private corner of the yard. The always-wet smells which surrounded the banana shoots as they shot out of the soil somehow comforted me, as if I somehow belonged. And every day, as the light of day slowly took its brush of colors and filled in the surroundings, I could hear all of nature waking up. If I listened carefully, I could hear the rhinoceros beetle larvae wriggling like fat bananas in the vegetable litter that squelched underfoot if I moved. And even if I didn’t listen particularly hard, I would hear proud roosters crowing in gleeful cacophony from far and near. And on some days, I would hear Mom shouting for me just before breakfast. Today was no exception. Her exasperated voice came to me over the chickens just beginning to cluck around in the yard, “Now where’s that little genie-crazy miscreant! I am sure she has gone out into the banana patch without washing her face! Aishy!!! Where are you?”

For any innocent child on God’s own earth, its mothers’ sweet voice would normally be the supreme source of comfort and protection. Thus, I would not deny that I took reassurance and a sense belonging from my mother’s presence. I even took a certain sense of comfort from Mom’s constant shouting at, about, or even for me. But I must also make a dread confession. Sometimes, Mom’s voice seemed to envelop me in a suffocating blanket of superfluous warmth which I had always shied away from. I could never explain, even to myself, why.

Not really thinking of an explanation as to why I was in the banana patch, I stepped out into the yard, startling a fat brown hen, her brood of chirping golden-yellow chicks trailing dutifully in her wake. As Mom’s voice pulled me out of my dawn refuge into a supposedly more organized world, I heard an angry koel bird reaffirming its territorial stake in our neighbors’ breadfruit tree. The smoky aroma of the wood fire starting up in our kitchen heralded breakfast. An aluminum kettle of pre-sweetened black tea would already be on the boil as hot wheat-flour roshi and deliciously piquant tuna-coconut mashuni would soon be made. Somewhere in a lane nearby, I heard the echoing call of an enterprising hawker trying to sell local viands to the neighbors – smoked fish, lime, fresh chili-peppers, “Valhoamas, limbo, roa mirus, gannaaneh baa!

Like the breakfast mashuni eaten by almost every family in the neighborhood, I was expected to conform to a set of standard rules for little, well-brought-up children. Every day in the morning, I was expected to wake up at dawn, attend to my bodily functions, brush my teeth with clean white sand, do my ablutions and perform the fajr prayers. Then, I was expected to help Mom sweep the yard and join her in the kitchen. Unfortunately, I had failed in carrying out some of these tasks, my banana patch having summoned me well before dawn. And as soon as Mom saw me, I was reminded of these grave transgressions, “Aishy! There you are! How many times do I have to tell you that little children need to listen to their mothers? Now…”

It was not that I did not love Mom or that I ignored her exhortations to be good. I had always wanted to be good, too. But what had always grated on me was that I had always been treated as an afterthought, an almost unwelcome visitor in a house that wanted just one child in the form of my sister. From ever since I could remember, I had always been compared to my sister Fathimath.

Fathi, as we all called my sister, was just a year older than me. However, when it came to being a model daughter, a model student of the venerable Edhurudhaitha which was what we called our grandmother-like teacher of religious scripts, or even an industrious helper in the family kitchen, Fathi had always been held in front of me as model par excellence. And that was a piece of glass which never became a perfect mirror. Perhaps my failure as a following, conforming girl had been the beginning of my seeking greater solace in the peaceful warm of the family banana patch.

Years later, I was once again forced to look into that piece of clear glass which I had always known with happy conviction would never become a mirror. Fathi had just chosen to give up her studies, any ambitions she might have had as an individual, and any claims to individuality, by getting married to a family-procured young man of apparently perfect conventionality. Soon after, it had been my turn to accept my ‘fate’. Even though I had sometimes heard of some socially Jekyll-and-Hyde traits my ‘fate’ had sometimes given reign to, Mom would not hear of those. Thus, my refusal to follow Fathi’s example had only one conclusion: I had to go look for my banana patch. However, since our family banana patch had long surrendered its claim to existence in the face of a new high-rise that was to occupy the same physical space, I had to seek a close substitute. I flew the coop and set up home in a little bedsitter as a single, working girl.

Today, as I sit on little balcony, my ornamental ‘monkey banana’ plant keeping me company in its little plastic tub, I begin to think whether my nonconformity has been worth all the heartache. I still miss Mom’s voice, her wood-fire cooking and the beetle lava in the banana patch. Mental pictures of hens rooting around the yard for small insects, the remembered sound of the iron pestle and mortar beating aromatic spices into powder, and the mouth-watering taste of unripe mango dipped into rihaakuru fish paste still make me want to go back to a time when…. Wait a minute! When all I had was a patch of bananas to keep me company?

I see in front of me now four hot roshi and a small tub of mashuni for breakfast, delivered to me before dawn by the local deli. A steaming cup of decaf keeps a bunch of grapes company on a little glass-topped table, waiting to complete the repast. And as I look outside, I see a van driving by with a huge ad on the side. It shouted at me in multicolored letters, “Smoked fish, lime, fresh chili-peppers…. even bananas, delivered right to your doorstep! Call!”

I call for a ripe bunch of local Sanfaa bananas.

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