Way back in the Sixties, when we lived in Madras (as it was then), one of the main attractions of a visit to the beach was to look for and collect shells. Especially after an exciting cyclone had churned up the seas good and proper and the waves had dumped a virtual treasure trove at your feet. Or when the fishermen emptied their nets on the sand. The beaches in Mumbai — where we shifted, and Goa where we went for holidays years later — never provided the same riches. And Delhi, alas, has no beaches at all, just a diarrhetic river.
I still have a small collection of shells — all personally gathered. While they all have their formal scientific titles, some of the common names given to them are wonderfully imaginative. Thus, we have top shells, button shells, tiger cowries, helmet shells, moon snails, silver conches, textile cones, captain cones, soldier cones, general cones and flag cones. As well as mitres, turbans, scallops and venus shells.
There are around 1,800 varieties of seashells found in our seas though there are more than 5,000 varieties of molluscs (freshwater, seawater and land) – to which great clans they belong. They’re an ancient group — 500 million years old, now lurking in tidal pools, rocky shores, and at the bottom of the sea. Some are filter feeders, ingesting microscopic plant and animal matter, while others (like the charming Conus textile) lurk around the depths harpooning their victims with a barb so venomous it can kill a man. (The venom is also useful for medicinal purposes). They are basically of two kinds: bivalves and univalves. The former have two half-shells hinged together (we used to call them “butterfly” shells) in the middle and which open and close, the uni-valves are single units — like the cowries and mitres.
It’s amazing to think that this apparently dimwitted creature has the technology to build and carry its own, usually very beautiful, home. The shell is made of calcium carbonate, which in turn is produced by calcium ions in the creature’s blood combining with the magic fluid present in the mantle — a thin layer of skin — covering the top of the mollusc. It’s all hardwired — the shape, patterns and size of the shell — and the shell-building is done systematically and rhythmically. The colours are added with pigments. I’ve often wondered if these creatures know just how beautiful they are.
We, of course, find them irresistible. We use them for religious rituals, we’ve used them as currency (cowries), we make ornaments and jewellery and trinkets out of them, we’ve decorated our houses with them, we’ve made musical instruments with them and sometimes we just collect them: to such an extent that several are now endangered and it’s illegal to collect or sell some of them.
It’s not so much the shells we find washed up on the beach — the inhabitant has usually died or been eaten; it’s the commercial collection of living molluscs that are taken from the sea bed that causes the problem. Frankly, where’s the fun in buying a shell; most of the allure lies in walking slowly along the shoreline, eyes glued to the sand, waiting for a glimmer to catch your eye, pouncing and picking up the gleaming shell, checking it and then deciding whether it’s good enough to keep.
She should really not be selling sea shells on the sea shore.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher
The story appeared in print with the headline A Thing of Beauty