In sunny Lakshadweep, jinnis are specters existing alongside tangible life forms, much like angels and humans. Jinnis who deviate, however, are blamed for everything bad that happens to the local people.
Jinnis live anywhere unsuitable for humans–the seafloor, cemeteries, thorny bushes–and emerge at peculiar moments of inconvenience for the islanders, wrongdoers or no. These islanders say the sea around their main atoll is haunted by an evil jinni of enormous power, demanding frequent sacrifice of young female virgins. Often girls are kidnapped and abandoned, tied to a pole on the beach at dusk, found raped and dead at dawn.
Aligulha (fireballs) are apparitions from the world of jinnis–spirits under the guise of flame. One day a fisherman motored up to our boat and described an phenomenon he’d seen while working with his crew a half-mile offshore the isle of Suheli. One twilight, he was tormented by one of these jinnis appearing as a fireball, first clinging to the mast then jouncing atop the sea surface aside the ship, taunting its crew.
The man attacked it with a fishing pole, but struck nothing solid. In the wake of the thing’s distaste for the animosity from the man and his crew, the fireball constructed illusions of great dimensions.
“Suddenly we found ourselves in shallow water,” the fisherman said. “Then, on the horizon, a whale surfaced, its mouth wide open, its teeth glowing. It was coming straight at us to swallow our ship!
“We quickly motored back the island and narrowly managed to dodge the whale by reaching the sanctuary of the lagoon. Then, just as soon as it had appeared, the beast and fireball vanished. The lagoon saved us.”
Other fishermen regaled us with stories of fireballs, detailing a pattern of similarity in the fireball behavior: they appear magically and stick themselves on the ship’s mast. Fisherman then dip a cloth into a fish paste and offer it to the fireball, which will leap onto the ship’s deck and roll overboard, not to reappear that particular night.
Back in the day, social life in Lakshadweep was steeped in fanditha, a combination of spirit charms, magic, and folk medicine; fanditha was used to combat the evil jinnis plaguing fishermen and sailors, many of whom vanished without a trace. Under these circumstances white magic flourished, also used in political intrigue, courtship and marriage rites, in launching virgin boats, ensuring good fishing, finding guilty parties when a crime had been committed, and treating the sick. Fanditha assumed less benign forms when it was employed to weaken or kill enemies.
Before our trip, rumors warned of inconsistency, high costs, U.S. resentment, terrorism, sharks, lack of access. The locals promised that black magic would maim–possibly kill–us if we ventured into ocean, where fearsome waves stroked the backs of diabolical jinnis hunkered invisibly inside the reef. After all, black magic created the breaking waves; they had taken many native lives and destroyed many good intentions from eons ago.
Magic as we saw it was a dreamy blue, not black, existing in the perfect waves spooling around Lakshadweep reef passes. Viewed bird’s-eye, the atolls were wispy rings of coral, shimmering, idyllic. From land, they were glary, sandy oases of searing heat, bristling with breadfruit and coconut palms, enhanced by fluorescent lagoons. And from the sea, they were hallucinogenic green smudges on the horizon, trinkets of coral atop a submerged volcanic ridge.
For the surfer, malevolence is boredom and flatness. For the Lakshadweepese, it is chattiness and ignorance. Benevolence for all would be a bounteous sea and absence of serpentlike behavior, both at home and abroad. To the natives, the otherworldliness of wealthy vacationers imported occasional drunken conduct and selfish motives–kayaking and windsurfing were seen as sporty narcissism, surfers being roguish myopics with poor taste in music.
Our wave-obsessed posture was regarded with acuute suspicion. We were not divers or snorkelers or fishermen or honeymooners. We were not European executives working in Delhi or Dubai. We preferred not the calm sanctuary of the lagoon, nor the reefy blue wilderness between the passes. Instead, we sought the hazards of shallow water.
To the natives we were purveyors of black magic. Our surfboards were harmful sharp spears, our scented sunscreen a slime of death, applied over our entire bodies to appease corrupted jinnis living beneath the surf. Reef passes with waves–especially those on uninhabited islands–were likened to the gates of hell, with Satan lurking below. The lagoons were Heaven, where God walked on water.
These lagoons were avoided. As such, we were investigated.