Jack in the Box

Ibrahim Waheed “Kalaavehi”

It was something past four in the morning. Time to go around the island and wake the crew up. Time to hurry to the best bait spots and head out into the wide-open seas to play tag with migrating schools of fat yellow-fin tuna.

Mohamed the head Keyolhu of the good dhoni ‘Maavaru’ reached for the old brass malaafaiy, which was normally stationed behind the back kanneyo pillow of the front room swing. Prizing open the slightly dented lid, he looked down with approval at the contents. A dozen good-sized arecanuts nestled inside with a couple of loose leaves of dried tobacco, right next to the off-white ceramic crucible containing purified lime. A small stainless steel nut cutter, recently imported from India, lay there in efficient readiness. Small glass pots containing cloves, cardamom and cinnamon completed the picture. It was obvious that Dhon Hawwa had been here in his absence. Everything looked so clean and orderly!

Cutting a few slices of arecanut for himself, Mohamed stuck them in his mouth, added some tobacco and a clove for that extra zing, and headed for the lhos tree in the garden up whose trunk the betel creeper ran in luxuriant green. Clipping a healthy green leaf from the creeper and adding it to his chew, Mohamed noticed that the area round the tree had been cleared of the rubbish that had accumulated there over the last two weeks. Yes, Dhon Hawwa had certainly been there!

Dhon Hawwa was certainly someone worth waiting for, Mohamed told himself. She was one of the most beautiful young women on the island. Unlike most young ladies of her generation, Dhon Hawwa did not waste her nights watching the latest Khans, Kapoors or Kumars out of Bollywood jumping around within the confines of a 21″ screen. She cooked and cleaned for her mother, went to night classes to improve her Arabic and sewed beautiful clothes in her spare time. While her contemporaries spent much time at the mirror, engaged in sweet dialogue with Loreste, Dhon Hawwa made do with a healthier, more natural look. While these traits did not make the local Romeos run in endless circles around her, she did attract the attention of some of the more serious, unattached men on the island, including Abdul-Qadir Younes, the Assistant Katheeb.

Abdul-Qadir Younes, nicknamed Manik, was a very serious man indeed. In addition to carrying out the administrative and social duties of the Assistant Katheeb, he ran his own shop. He also owned a fishing dhoni and a baththeli which plied between Male’ and its home port, carrying goods and passengers. Many believed that he had inherited from his father the talent of the benevolent magical power called fanditha. They came to him for help when their chicken suddenly failed to lay. When someone had a particularly opulent bunch of bananas stolen and needed to find out the guilty party, or when a particular fishing rod consistently failed to rendezvous with the plentiful groupers on the reef, they came to him. Manik usually obliged them with certain charms and incantations. Many swore that they worked. Keyolhu Mohamed pooh-poohed the practice.

Manik was attracted to Dhon Hawwa, not because she reminded him of his wife, now two years dead, but because she exuded that sense of responsible efficiency that was vital in someone who had to manage the Younes household. That was what Manik told some of his closest confidantes. The fact that her youthful charms excited him beyond measure remained a secret, known only to his knees, as the appropriate local expression went. That, perhaps, was why he struck up a quarrel with Keyolhu Mohamed when he found out that Dhon Hawwa had a thing going for the fisherman.

Smiling to himself at the sheer futility of the Assistant Katheeb’s plight, Keyolhu Mohamed spiked his chew with a lick of lime off the little finger of his right hand and went out into the road to perform his first duty as a head fisherman — that of serving as a human alarm clock for the rest of his crew.

Mohamed had just turned left on the new Friday mosque when he ran into Manik. Despite the fact that the two men, and the entire island for that matter, knew of the unstated rivalry that existed between them, they had always had the sense to exchange civil words whenever they met. No one knew, or even remembered why, that morning turned out to be the exemption to that well-respected habit. No one recalled who set off whom. All they could recollect was that very nasty insults and threats were exchanged. Both the Assistant Katheeb and Keyolhu Mohamed had to be persuaded to go their separate ways by the Katheeb himself.

Not much later, the whispering started. Kuda Ali the edhuru teacher told his wife that Manik had said that all he had to do get Keyolhu Mohamed out of his way was to point at the latter in a certain way at sunrise and chant a few magic words. Kuda Ali’s wife shared this juicy tidbit with her bosom friend Nuzuha in a highly confidential manner. Nuzuha, who had seen Manik standing on the beach with his friend Numan at sunrise, recalled that there had been a dhoni on the horizon at the time. She mentioned this to her grandmother. Grandmother knew that the dhoni on the horizon had been Keyolhu Mohamed’s ‘Maavaru’. The ladies’ grapevine soon had it that Abdul-Qadir Younes the Assistant Katheeb had hexed Keyolhu Mohamed in his bid to win Dhon Hawwa’s heart, her hand and her charms.

At four in the afternoon, the good vessel ‘Maavaru’ came home, filled to the gunwales with fresh tuna. As Keyolhu Mohamed jumped ashore with a broad grin on his face, someone warned him about the curse. Spitting a stream of red betel juice at a crow that had got too close, Keyolhu Mohamed laughed heartily and with obvious derision. He then turned to the more serious business of counting out the fish as per tradition. As a young and dynamic person who believed that trolls, goblins and curses lived on the pages of children’s storybooks, he paid no more attention to the warning than the crow he had missed.

At five in the evening, when he opened the malaafaiy for a fresh chew, Keyolhu Mohamed noticed that Dhon Hawwa had been visiting again. This time, she had even sliced some arecanuts for him. As he put them in his mouth, he noticed that there was certain bitterness on one of the slices. He attributed it to the pith of the nut. Then, when the pulse began pounding in his head, he told himself that the new tobacco he had purchased last week was really good. He spat out his chew and rinsed out his mouth. Later, when he started having chest pains and blurred vision, he knew what had happened and why. By then, it was too late.

When passers by heard the guttural, almost inhuman, screams emanating from Keyolhu Mohamed’s house, they came running. Keyolhu Mohamed lay writhing on the floor of his house, foaming at the mouth. As they carried him away to the Healthy Center, No one noticed the open malaafaiy on the swing. By the time they reached the Health Center, he had already breathed his last.

Soon, the grim news and a dire warning spread round the island: No one shall hereafter insult Abdul-Qadir Younes, good friend of the people. No one shall escape his wrath or his powerful fanditha!

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Comments

  • Lost-Soul  On May 2, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Enjoyed this one a lot! Poor guy though. The fisherman. Good one to get a mild kick of schadenfreude!

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