This old man Yahya was the life of our household when he was in his thirties and I was just a child. He would chop firewood, climb tall coconut trees to clean these of beetle and rat infestations, brave the high seas in the monsoon time to get to uninhabited islands to collect firewood and coconut for our household, he would cut and clean the hundreds of fish that would fill our backyard sometimes that our mas-dhoni hauls in, into the wee hours of the night, and then sometimes even join the fishermen of our dhoni that dawning morn as a supplementary deck hand. He would carry heavy bundles of firewood on his head to the house and carry away the trash to the beach-side for disposal. This trash was primarily vegetable matter in those days with little non-biodegradable content. He would help the neighbor with mixing the mortar for building or repairing his wall or house, and through all this also help out to keep our home livable daily by meticulously cleaning the coconut-oil wick lamps that would provide the dim illumination to our house and keep the dining room laid out for our meals on time. His long strides from the wood-kitchen to the dining room in the backyard was often the moment during which he would munch his large mouthfuls of rice and fish that would be his meal for that time with little time spent actually sitting for a meal. Such was his energy and dedication. And yet during the sparse free moments he got, he would spend with me, fashioning little items of play from coconut fronds or pieces of drift wood that I would marvel on for hours with imagination let loose to as far as I could wonder.
Now he is truly old, touching ninety and spending most of his time lying on his side on the bodu-ashi that is his bed of his little ramshackle abode he calls home. With little to say except responding to his call for meal times, he lays there alone in his reverie. His only provisions are packed in the old suitcase he has tucked at the corner of this ashi along with another cardboard box that has the stuff for his immediate needs. He is now blind in his other eye too, and like a child, has to be helped with food and drink. He traverses the little space from his ashi to his bathroom with only the room’s side wall to help him navigate this space, sometimes his incontinence dripping to the floor the urine which we have to wash away with a bucket of water each time.
While our family still takes care of his meals and major cleaning which my sister orchestrates so well each day, this little neighbor boy is his friend now for we have all grown up and moved on our way in our lives dispersed through Maldives and the world. I met this little boy when I visited my island a few months ago and I was fascinated by the attention he gave to Yahya. The affection in the photo was not doctored but was the natural move the boy made when I pointed the camera at them. The sight of his little hand on Yahya’s shoulder was to me very telling of nature’s imperative of the connection between the young and old, yet unexpected now in a society that seemed laced with an increasing intensity of selfishness, competitiveness, and greed that come from the enticement of the growing materialism in our country. The root of this connection was momentarily sparked in my mind by this loving moment. Yes, and this is not just a solitary moment of affection it appears; the boy visits Yahya several times during his weekend away from school and gives him foot and back rubs with the touch of a vestige that I believe he got from the genetics of compassion of a distance past. We all must have these genes but their potential need to be sought out from the mire of our selfish selves. We will then realize that this is the real treasure we are blind to as we are blinded by the glitter of the world.
Caring for the old will spark that search. It does not have to be an aging household help such as Yahya, but given our nation’s longevity, our own grand or great-grandparents may now be in this grand old age when we can re-energize our engagement with compassion in real time and space.