Review: Descent into Paradise by Daniel Bosley - Hindustan Times

Review: Descent into Paradise by Daniel Bosley

BySyed Saad Ahmed
May 10, 2024 09:48 PM IST

A passionate and compelling account of the history and culture, political intrigues, watershed events, and journalism amid the brutal suppression of dissent in Maldives

What would you imagine comes next after this rave review of a Maldivian resort: “The spa is amazing, with glass floors so you can watch the fish swimming right underneath — if you don’t fall asleep, lulled by the therapist’s gentle hands and the soothing music and aromas”. Author Daniel Bosley juxtaposes it with “[T]hey put a baton standing up, and then they told me to take off my jeans and sit on the baton directly on my piles… [I]t felt as though it would break open the anus… that was [done] every day at least one time”.

The spectacular beauty of Maldives. (Shutterstock)
The spectacular beauty of Maldives. (Shutterstock)

While the former is from the travel site Tripadvisor, the latter is from a report compiling testimonies of torture survivors in Maldives. Bosley brings these disparate aspects of the island nation — the smallest in Asia — in his book Descent into Paradise: A Journalist’s Memoir of the Untold Maldives. And he is strongly positioned to do so. He was the editor of Minivan News, the “Maldives’ main English-language news website”. Since 2016, he has run Two Thousand Isles, a website chronicling Maldives’ history, culture, and everyday life, along with his wife Aishath Naj, a Maldivian national. He is also well acquainted with the country’s luxe resorts, which he reviewed as part of a travel writing gig.

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424pp, ₹469; Macmillan
424pp, ₹469; Macmillan

The “postman-turned-journalist’s” tryst with the archipelago began with an internship at the Maldives High Commission in London in 2011. Over the next seven years, working as a journalist in the Maldives, Bosley contended with a fledgling democracy facing political turmoil, Islamist extremism, and climate crises. While his account might not always be “untold”, it is passionate, compelling, and unique, more so considering the dearth of contemporary, holistic works about the nation. And for those who think Maldives is paradise with resorts plonked on uninhabited islands, the book presents a significantly more nuanced narrative.

Bosley begins the memoir with his desperate search for employment in London after completing a degree in International Relations and working in minimum-wage and unpaid jobs. After coming across the internship advertisement, “I set about learning as much as I could about a country I’d just realised was a country,” he writes. With this candour about his initial ignorance, he talks about mistaking the Maldives’ Dhivehi script for a coding error, labels the country an “incomprehensible island”, affixes “tropical” before too many nouns, and of course, refers to the country’s “exotic”-ness.

However, as he spends more time in the nation, we get more substantial insights. He delves into the history and culture of the Maldives along with accounts of political intrigues, watershed events, and journalism at Minivan News amid the brutal suppression of dissent in the country.

Moreover, he is aware of “the general tendency for small island societies to be analysed, categorised, objectified, and lectured to by outsiders — the textbook definition of Orientalism” and admits that his book “can’t truly escape” this “accusation”. Having lately had the misfortune of reading Orientalist fantasies by oblivious White men, I found his critical self-awareness refreshing. He also acknowledges that foreign writers have at times misrepresented the country.

Bosley’s characterisations of Maldives rarely come across as reductive. Even his broad brush strokes situate the sources and context of his observations and interpretations. The bonds he forged with its people and how he feels about the developments in the country shine through his writing. He even knows some Dhivehi, though as he writes in a blog on Two Thousand Isles, “A Dhivehi-speaking Englishman is like a tuna with a PhD — impressive but of questionable use”.

READ MORE: Daniel Bosley – “I never dreamed of going somewhere like the Maldives”

Bosley embraced the country and its culture beyond his work. One of the most evocative parts of the book is where he talks about converting to Islam, marrying Naj, and his first experience of visiting a mosque to pray. Initially, his conversations with other Muslims only yielded insights about “how a Muslim acts rather than how a Muslim feels”. Eventually, the writings of Mohamed Asad (born Leopold Weiss), an Austrian Jew who converted to Islam, and “mind-bending” books on Islamic philosophy helped him grasp the religion.

The conversion process was as bureaucratic as it was spiritual. He was required to memorise Arabic verses from the Qur’an and was quizzed about these during an interview at the Islamic centre. His interviewers also asked a rather stupefying question: “What do you think about the idea that all Muslims are terrorists?”

Author Daniel Bosley (Aishath Naj)
Author Daniel Bosley (Aishath Naj)

It is all too easy to bandy radical Islam as a catchphrase in a post-9/11 world. But Bosley is careful not to resort to facile explanations or stereotypes when discussing Islamist extremism in the Maldives, even as he notes that the country was per capita the biggest exporter of fighters to the Syrian civil war. He discusses how Islam took shape in the Maldives by co-opting folk superstitions and magic. These still reign supreme, even where many disavow the country’s Buddhist past and ancient belief systems. He mentions how the “Maldives’ liberal reforms of the mid-2000s were as useful for Islamic revivalists as they were for democratic progressives”. I wish the book had more insights on how extremists in the country justified their motivations, beliefs, and actions, though, of course, such paths of enquiry could be downright dangerous.

For two of Bosley’s friends, Rilwan and Yameen, both of whom wrote for Minivan News, lost their lives for speaking out against Islamists. He writes heart-rending accounts of their life and work and how they championed free speech and freedom of religion despite threats that materialised in their untimely end. He dedicates the book to them, his “brothers in disobedience”.

Beyond the political challenges, looms the climate crisis, which could potentially consign the entire nation underwater. Bosley asks, “If a tiny, prosperous, religiously and ethnically homogeneous nation can’t unite to combat this existential challenge, what hope does anyone have? What happens next to the Maldives — its culture, society, and democracy — is of profound relevance to the whole world.”

Bosley reinforces this relevance with his incisive account. One hopes it will open the door to more such grounded narratives about the country, especially by Maldivian nationals.

Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.

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