Eid began yesterday on Kudafari as it should, with everyone running around the island eating short eats in house after house and trying to catch their friends unawares to smear their faces with food ink or push them over into puddles. I was uncomfortably full of short eats by the time the rain set in in the late morning. It rained as it only can in the tropics and went on and on raining all day. So the rest of the day's Eid celebrations were rained off: not only the business with the koadi, but the girls' bashi tournament in the morning and the boys' football in the afternoon were all deferred until today.
I often heard of bashi when teaching English. If the students had to write a letter to a pen-friend abroad (a meaningless exercise for them but one they were used to), one or other of the girls would hope to see their friend soon in Maldives and knew how much she looked forward to playing bashi, which she had heard so much about. Funnily enough none of them ever used the exercise to write the previous letter, where they explained the rules of the game. As I now discover, this is no great wonder as the game more or less defies description. So nothing has prepared me for the sight that meets me as I wander down this morning to what is normally a volleyball court.
Bashi is played with a tennis net, rackets and balls. On one side of the court, the side further from me, a dozen or so women in headscarves and bodu-burugas are standing or kneeling a few feet behind the net. Their side is marked out as a rectangle roughly tennis-court sized. Today's tournament pits under-30s against over-30s, and on the near side a number of equally headscarved girls mill around, apart from one who stands on a small square marked out roughly in the middle of the court, holding a tennis racket and facing me. The whole court is littered with tennis balls and in front of her is a hopper on a stick with a further supply, which is constantly replenished by an official. With terrifying speed and ferocity, she takes a ball from the hopper, smashes it over her head (backwards) into the massed ranks of matrons yonder, and repeats the performance. From time to time she is allowed to turn and smash one forwards. The women of the opposing team try to catch the ball with their hands (a catch using the body doesn't count) and generally to avoid injury. When they finally succeed, the girl gives place to the next player in her team, and the process continues.
Haseeb, a grade 9 student when I was here, tells me Bashi was introduced to Maldives ('invented' would I think be more accurate; one can hardly imagine it played anywhere else) by the country's first president, Mohamed Ameen, known as Ameen Didi. According to another source he merely codified the rules of an already popular pastime. These rules, it seems, are roughly as follows. Each team has ten minutes in bat. Twelve backward serves followed by one forward, then three more backward, entitle the team to a point. If a serve is out, or goes into the net, it is simply a no-ball and is ignored, but if it is caught the player serving must hand over to her next team member. The first eleven successful serves are cumulative: if a player's ball is caught, her ball count is passed on to the next player. However the last five serves in a point (one backward, one forward, and three back) must be served consecutively by a single player; if on any of them her ball is caught, the next player comes in to serve with the count reset to eleven balls. Once a point is scored the player simply continues serving towards the next point.
When serving backwards a player can't see where the opposing team are standing or kneeling, not that it matters because they are in a solid phalanx from one side of the court to the other, so her only weapon to avoid being caught out is the vicious power of the serve, at which the players are staggeringly good. (A forward shot is never caught since the player will aim straight at the body of an opponent who can do nothing except squirm out of the way.) The older team lacks nothing in strength but from what I can make out, which is admittedly not much, the younger team are probably winning, because of the incredible speed with which their best players can serve - delivering ten of the backward smashes in about fifteen seconds.
Bashi is played only by girls, though at Eid last year, as a special diversion, the bashi match on the island was arranged as a battle of the sexes, boys against girls. Needless to say the boys were trounced by their vastly more experienced opponents.