When I first came to live in Delhi from Bombay (as it was then), more than three decades ago, I quickly realised that Delhizens had a sneering contempt for those who lived one on top of each other, stacked like a pack of cards, in high-rise apartments. Never mind, that most of them lived squashed cheek-by-jowl with their own neighbours and were constantly at war with them. But, yes, Delhi beat Bombay hands down when it came to green spaces, parks, historical monuments and lovely trees.
“Didn’t you feel cramped and claustrophobic with all those buildings towering above your head all the time?” I was asked. Sure I did. But when that happened, all you had to do in Bombay was go up to the terrace of your building which, if you were lucky, faced the sea. If not, you could easily trundle down to the beach or places like Marine Drive, sit there and stare out at a pulsating, sun-spangled blue-grey horizon so vast it boggled the mind. Before Bombay, we had lived in Madras (as it was then), again just a hop-skip-and-jump away from the beach. Here, of course, the greatest excitement was when the occasional cyclone whirled into the city like a dervish and the sea churned and thumped its fists angrily on the shore. Of course, we battened down, but the thrill lay in scouring the beach afterwards for the little treasures the sea had flung out during its tantrum.
There would be intricately veined sea fans in red, cream and black, and, even stubs of coral scattered around. Once we found the remains of a seahorse which, over 50 years later, I still have. And there were shells. Gleaming cowries were the most prized. A hammerhead shark was washed up once (or hauled in by fishermen, perhaps).
The mind went into an overdrive buzzing with intrigue: where did that seahorse come from? What happened to that poor hammerhead? Did it hunt its prey by sneaking up on it and then hammering it left, right and senseless? Why the hell was it designed the way it was, while its cousins were such sleek, sinuous looking creatures? What made the beautiful chocolate-and-gold cowries look so glossy and lacquered? Had those beautiful sea fans and corals been torn from the sea bed — where had they lived their lives? It was an achievement to find a bivalve with both halves of the thin shell intact: surely these were sea-butterflies!
In Bombay we were fortunate to have the use of beach shacks at Marve, where we vanished for weekends. The beaches, stretching right from the INS Hamla naval training centre to a creek beyond which lay Versova (I think), were vast, and, in those days, mostly deserted. There were huge gleaming tidal pools to wade through, razor-sharp rocks, rusted by exposure, to carefully negotiate. They could draw blood with the slightest touch.
You could find your spot, sit down and stare out at the sea, and let your imagination go for a wild kite ride! The creamers would race up in their kamikaze way and then shatter like broken glass on the rocks, the sea charging and churning into the rocky channels as if manically possessed, gurgling in a way that gave you the willies. If you went into the sea (on calm days, of course) you could feel the immense lazy power of the waves as they gently toyed with you, lifting you and putting you down, and, occasionally, the tug of invisible currents, urging you to come along with them.
Walks on the beach could never be boring: you plodded usually with your head down, scouring the sand and watching the crabs skedaddle sideways and then just wriggle under and disappear. In summer, the sand could roast your soles, so you splashed along the lacy tide line, eyeing what each wavelet left on the beach as an offering: a gleaming leaf, a twist of blue fishing net nylon, a glistening white shell. You avoided the purple and green stains left by what you were told were the Portuguese Men Of War – jellyfish which could sting viciously – and which washed up especially during the monsoon. Getting into the water at this time was out of the question, but it was a time of wild exultation to be wandering on the beach. The creamers thumped down on the sand, making you feel like you were inside some massive woofer and the wind buffeted you in the back like a commuter on the local. You bent your back and plodded manfully on, looking as if you were so deep in philosophical thought that it would make Rodin rise and hyperventilate, when actually all you really wanted to do was to throw your arms up and shout with exultation. But there was something else going on here, too, because the first place I wanted to visit after returning from a major surgery in England (so cold and damp) was the beach.
The dog, perhaps, showed us what it was really all about. Off the leash, she raced out on the beach, full pelt, ears flapping, heady with freedom. She would run till she could run no more. And then, back home, she would spend the next two days asleep, her paws twitching as she dreamt, no doubt, of the great wide open spaces we would probably be heading towards, the coming weekend.