Higher Ground

The tarmac appeared to melt under the harsh sun. It was well past noon. Abdul had dozed off with his arms around his backpack and his chin resting on top. He dreamed again of the water following him. This time he was scaling a snowy slope. It appeared to be the Himalayas. Someone was walking ahead of him. The man was carrying a heavy backpack. He looked like a Sherpa. He was urging Abdul to hurry. Behind him, the water rose silently, already lapping up at his feet. Then there was a tremor and they both looked at each other, dread and knowledge dawning at once. When he woke up Aliya was playing a game on his mobile phone. She was trying to catch falling bottles on a cushioned pad by moving it across the screen. He yawned. ‘Ya Allah!’ Out beyond the glass walls was a vast tarmac strewn with planes and buses and ramps and people. And beyond the walls, a sprawling catacomb of slums, he had heard. He tried imagining how densely packed it must be. Men could be standing shoulder to shoulder and toe on head to fill up this small scrap of land. Perhaps twice as many people as all of Maldives combined lived there. No, it wasn’t possible to imagine, he decided. In school he had learned how gases expanded to fill the containers they are in. He thought of humans like that now, expanding until they filled out the lands they were in; whether it was a ramshackle hut made of corrugated iron or an island suspended teeteringly on an ocean.
“Aliyah, enough screen time now. Look at all the planes out there,” he said, holding out his hand. She handed back the phone without protest.
“Bappa, look, the road is moving,” she said pointing to the shimmering runway.
“It’s because of the heat, di. You’ve seen this back home too, haven’t you?”
She nodded, still mesmerized by the view. When they announced boarding at the gate, he got up quickly, strapped on his backpack, held his duffel back in one hand, and with his free hand, led his daughter at a trot to the rapidly expanding line of impatient travelers.

When they deplaned at Dubai, it was already dark. They didn’t have to step down onto the tarmac. The gangway led straight to the terminal. Aliyah was overawed by the lights and glitter. She kept pointing at kiosks selling gelato, or water cascading down giant walls, or palm trees decked with golden lights.
“There are total 12 trees, Bappa,” she beamed, proud of her counting skills.
Abdul looked on incredulously. All he had heard from his friends who had moved to Dubai was true. A mirage in the desert! Like a place that stood unmoored of its surroundings, without context. An homage to human endeavor, vainglory or recklessness, he could not be sure. They walked on and on in search of their gate. For a while he thought he had lost his way. Aliya complained that she was tired and could not walk anymore, so he had to pick her up. There were still a few hours to kill before their final flight to London. Already it seemed like an endless trip to Abdul. He was exhausted by the weight he was carrying. He crashed onto another chair in another airport and the scenes reenacted themselves. Aliyah sat next to him and asked for his mobile phone. Thankfully he had charged it on the flight using his travel charger. He closed his eyes and tried to shut out the noise around him – the constant shuffling of people and bags, the wail of a child in the distance, the final calls for flights headed to destinations he had learnt in geography textbooks. Travel always put him in a peculiar mood of reflection. To be honest he did not have many long travels to boast of; a couple of trips to Colombo, one to Chennai, and then one to Thailand as part of his hotel management course. Travel within Male meant a scooter ride not exceeding 15 minutes. Like ants on an endless voyage from one corner of the room to another, the distances within the island had stretched out to fill their days and lives. Once a year he and his family would visit their family in Kulhudhuffushi which took many hours by boat and which made him believe he was undertaking a cross continental voyage of epic proportions. Often, on these annual trips, he would imagine how cool it would be if he could just think of a place and arrive there instantly; travel at the speed of thought. They could reach their aunts place in a moment instead of hours, where he and his cousins could go snorkeling in the reefs all morning, come out for short breaks and talk excitedly of the magnificent shapes and colors they had seen, the elegant Moorish idol, or the blue and yellow Surgeon fishes, or the Parrot fishes that abounded the reefs, or the more solitary and aggressive Triggerfish guarding its nest against intruders, talk too of fishes they had not really seen but painted colorfully in vivid imagination, inviting the envy of others, hunt for the biggest sea shells and carry them back home where they languished in forgotten drawer corners, lounge on sloping coconut palms, their bronze skins glistening with sweat and water, quench their thirst with tender coconuts cut down from the tall trees in their yard by his uncle, and sit down, famished, at his aunts table, ready to devour the freshly made fish cutlets and rice and yellow tuna curry cooked with coconuts felled from the same trees in the backyard, and then, tired to their bones with sweet intoxicating sleep hovering over their eyes, they could drop down on the straw mats on the verandah, legs wrapped over one another, and slumber till the light evening breeze and the sun, now milder, gently woke them up and lulled them back to sleep at the same time. Or he could imagine one of the places from his geography textbook that sounded so fancy – a glacier in Iceland, the Trans-Siberian rail journey across an endless subarctic, the shores of the Lake Baikal or the Patagonian Mountains. All within a moment’s reach. He thought of it now with amusement. A child’s mind could not fathom that despite the miseries of travel, it was an essential linkage between departing and arriving. Without it we were like a thousand fireflies that disappear and appear at random places in the night sky, unhinged and free-floating. His train of thought was broken by bits of Dhivehi that entered his ears. It was coming from a couple of seats away.
Assalaamu alaikum,” he gestured towards the thin bespectacled man who looked to be in his thirties. Next to him sat a lady, also with glasses, presumably his wife.
Waleykum salam,” he smiled back.
“Are you off to London as well?”
“Yes, as part of the re-settlement program. And you?”
“Same.”
“I’m Mohammed Waheed. This is my wife, Nasreena.”
“Nice to meet you both. I am Abdul Mohammed.”
“And what is your name, little one?” Nasreena asked.
“Aliya,” she said shyly, only briefly meeting her eyes.
“And who do you have there?”
Aliya was now playing with her giraffe with the unusually pointy ears. She smiled awkwardly but did not answer.
“Tell her your giraffe’s name, di,” her father encouraged her.
“His name is Munaf,” she said.
“Munaf the giraffe? That’s nice.” the lady laughed.
“Hope there isn’t much trouble at immigration in London. Our councilor assured us it should be smooth. Inshallah.
“Do you have family back home?” Mohammed asked after a minute.
Abdul hesitated.
“Hmm, yeah, my parents. They did not want to come. It’s more difficult for them to gather everything and move to a strange new country, I suppose.”
“I know. Nasreena’s parents are on the fence as well. They want to wait it out till the last possible moment. Doesn’t make sense. It’s only going to get more chaotic. And you may not have the good fortune of getting assigned a country like UK or America, you know.” He looked briefly at Nasreena who eyed him reproachfully.
“My parents are not around anymore,” he added, without being asked.
“Sorry to hear that.”
“How about… your wife?” Mohammed asked hesitantly.
Abdul shook his head. And then realizing it could be construed in many possible ways, added, “She passed away few years ago.”
The couple looked at Abdul with a mixture of awkwardness and pity. Abdul wondered if he was oversharing with this stranger couple. But moving into uncharted territory always made men seek out their own, however remote the similarities may be.
“Who knew the situation would get so dire so quickly,” Mohammed added rhetorically.
Abdul thought, ‘We all did but didn’t want to accept it.’
He did not say anything. He thought now of the underwater cabinet meeting that the then President of Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed, had chaired. It was 2009 and Abdul was in his teens. It was quite a spectacle and all over the news. A bunch of men in scuba gear holding a meeting underwater. A bit of theater to wake up the rest of the world. But like in all staged performances, people applauded and then moved on with their lives. In the decades that followed, the rhetoric reached new peaks, bold goals were set in COP summits, carbon neutral had become a buzz word, and yet the temperature rise could not be arrested. Over a hundred low lying islands of the Maldives were already reclaimed by the sea. Other island nations like Kiribati and Tuvalu suffered and were suffering the same fate. Maldivians, with the help of countries in the west had tried a host of adaptation techniques including restoring the bleaching corals, building water breakers and walls to protect their more populous atolls. ‘At best they bought time,’ thought Abdul. The only intervention that seemed to be working in the end was the migration program that the Climate Vulnerable Forum had managed to come to an agreement with US, EU, Canada and Australia on.
“No place is secure, you know. It’s just a matter of time,” he said out loud to Mohammed as if concluding his train of thoughts.
“True.”

Abdul followed along through the dimly lit corridor. It was a tower block in a gentrified locality in Central London. When he saw it from below, the first image that came to his mind was that of the burning apartment block in London from almost a decade ago. Aliya slept on his shoulders, oblivious of the chatter ahead of them. The volunteer’s name was Sian. Her accent was peculiar. Abdul hadn’t heard anything like it before. She went on and on, from the weather, to cheap grocery stores, to apartment rules. Abdul drifted in and out of the conversation. He was exhausted. He was carrying his bulging backpack, a duffel bag, and with his free hand dragging what felt like a giant slab of stone through the stained and bruised carpeted floor. He couldn’t wait to unload everything and crash into a bed. He hoped there was a bed. But failing which, a mattress would do too. They had to spend 4 hours at the immigration, during which time he was called thrice by three different officers. Thankfully, he had Mohammed and Nasreena for company. They were assigned a room in the same apartment as him. He craned his neck to get a look at his wristwatch which he hadn’t yet adjusted to London time. It was past 3 AM. They stopped at door 602. Sian handed two sets of keys, one to each of the men.
“Poor thing, she must be exhausted. Hope she sleeps well tonight,” she said to Abdul.
“Hope so.”
“Right, then,” she said addressing everyone before she left. “I hope you all get a good night’s sleep. All the information you’ll need should be in the docket we handed over to you. Should you need anything, just give a call on the helpline number in there or you can just drop by the facility on Warrington street. The address is on there too.” Then she smiled, said goodnight and left. There was a mattress of questionable condition in their room. There were some basic pieces of furniture too, perhaps left behind by previous tenants – a chest of drawers, a collapsible plastic and fabric wardrobe, two chairs. It was functional but dirty. He couldn’t be bothered to start cleaning up just then. He set Aliya down on a side of the mattress, removed a bed sheet from his suitcase, which his mother had had the good sense of packing for him, and covered the mattress with it. He moved Aliya to the center, changed into his t-shirt and pajamas and dropped down as if dead.

He was woken up by terrible dreams. He could only remember them vaguely now. He went over to the kitchen to get some water. The floor was sticky. Fortunately, he was wearing his flip flops. He wasn’t sure if he should drink the water straight off the kitchen tap, but he was thirsty and he wanted to keep the last bottle of water for when Aliya woke up. There were some dirty dishes in the sink, which meant the third room in the apartment was probably occupied. He hoped it was not some kind of weirdo. He went back and sat down on his mattress. He felt suddenly gripped by an overwhelming sense of nausea and regret. He thought of Saba after a long time. No matter how hard he tried he could not conjure up her face though. But a deeply lodged sense of remorse came back and clung to him. He opened a photo of her on his mobile. Smiling absently at the camera, hands over her belly as if holding in her arms their unborn son, she looked peaceful. He went over by the window and looked at the skyline of this slowly unfurling enigma of a city. The stars shone brightly, and it comforted him to think certain views remained the same whether he was in London or in Male. He went over and lied down next to Aliya, one hand gently wrapped around her belly. He smiled in the dark at the thought of her as a young woman of this country, going to university, falling in love, getting married and having children of her own. But he was getting ahead of himself. First, he had to get through this night. It was still a few hours until dawn, and he tried going back to sleep. When they woke up, he half hoped it would be to the sound of the Azan, that they would be served Mas Huni with Roshi just the way his mother made it, that he would ride his motorcycle across town to drop off Aliya at her school, and that on the way back he would stop by at Salim’s to pick up the catch of the day – perhaps some tuna or mackerel. He had until dawn for new realities to replace old ones. He slowly eased into sleep imagining silent little waves washing up at shore.

Ajay Pisharody is a writer masquerading as a Project Manager in an IT firm and is based out of Pune. He writes fiction, primarily short stories, while toying with an idea for a novel. His book of short stories, titled The Weight of Days, has been published by Rupa Publications. Through his writings he attempts to reveal the literary in the ordinary. Themes of identity, memory and nostalgia recur in many of his works. He has been heavily influenced by writers like Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Milan Kundera and Indian writers like O V Vijayan and Jeet Thayil.