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Friday, July 10, 2020

Why, after 40 years, I still miss the sea

A beach gives you a sense of freedom unlike any other landscape and in these corona-riddled times, especially, it seems like an ideal place to escape to.

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi | Updated: June 28, 2020 12:52:54 pm
the wind beneath its wings: A white-bellied sea eagle. (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

I’ve lived like a landlocked landlubber in Delhi for over 40 years now – and still, especially at this time of the year — I sorely miss the sea. My childhood and adolescence were spent in coastal metros — Madras and Bombay (as they were then known), where, without even realising it, you kind of imbibed the sea. If your mind got overcrowded or you ever felt claustrophobic, you could always wander down to the beach or the sea’s edge and feel your mind open up as wide as the horizon in front of you. It gave you a sense of freedom that no other landscape could provide — the mountains have you gasping in awe, forests make you tense and twitchy with excitement and arid plains desiccate you. Perhaps, its only true rival would be the vast rolling desert, provided you had enough drinking water and didn’t die of heatstroke.

But to fill yourself with sheer exultation, there was nothing to compare with the beach on a monsoon day. Not only you, it affected our Boxer, too. Well before we reached the beach for the weekend, she would be a quivering mass of excitement in the car, happily treading on your toes and drooling copiously into your lap. Out on the beach, she would freak out — flying so fast her feet barely touched the ground. Gentle to a fault, in sheer, unbridled joy, she once chased a rheriwalla onto his rheri, where he stood among his clinking multi-coloured soft-drink bottles, yelling for help. Back home after a lunatic weekend, she would spend the next two days sleeping it off on the sofa, her paws twitching as she chased crabs in her dreams. (They always befuddled her.)

As for you, you could walk for miles on the varnished sands at low tide, wading through shallow tide pools, keeping away from the purple bottle-cap-like stains the stranded Portuguese men-of-war left on the beach, but eyes skinned for a gleaming cowrie or stranded starfish. It was astonishing to think that some of the most beautiful shells provided homes to some of the most venomous sea creatures in the world — step on them and you would never forget the experience unless it killed you. There’d be tiny fish and shrimps twisting this way and that, crabs which would scuttle sideways. The wind would buffet you in the back like a friend meeting you after ages and silver bullets of rain would make you head for cover.
When it calmed down, you could make your way gingerly over the rocks — serrated and scalpel-sharp — which could viciously lacerate you the moment you touched them unthinkingly. Sometimes, you would hear a clattering amongst the rocks — giant green crabs making their way around ponderously. If you were exceptionally daring (or silly), you could settle on a rock right near the edge to brood but it would be wise to keep an eye on the great bruised purple front of the next battalion of clouds advancing across the horizon. Ignore it at your peril. Suddenly, you’d be sent staggering back by an explosion of shrapnel, as a giant wave barreling in like an express train, and rearing up like a wall of glass would commit harakiri on the rocks just ahead of you, all thunder and boom. Time to retreat, on the double.
Certainly, the ocean and the beach cast a strangely magnetic pull on you. Back home in Bombay after a surgery that kept me away for three months, the first place I wanted to go to was the beach. Every time I visit Goa and take my first draw of the briny, fishy air, it’s like a homecoming (even though I’ve never lived there).

On calm sunny days (in summer), you could sit at the tideline and watch the wavelets wash up to you, all lacey, as a cool breeze fans your face. Suddenly, you are aware of a deep truism: the briny sea air does make you hungry very quickly. And there is always a bounty from the sea — baskets heaped with fresh prawns conjured up into delicious curries for lunch (washed down with beer, naturally, and followed by a nap). Of course, you weren’t the only one thinking of lunch! Perched high up at the top of a casuarina tree, a majestic white-bellied sea eagle contemplated her realm and kept an eye out for her lunch. Beach-brown sandpipers scuttled back and forth, deftly picking up their fare while trying not to get their feet wet! Stock-still amid the rocks, patient as the best fisherman, an Indian reef heron, in smart ashy grey waited in ambush.

Especially today, in these corona-riddled times, the beach seems like an ideal place to escape to. Perhaps, the wind would whisk any signs of the virus to kingdom come and enable you to shout with exultation. But be respectful. Regardless of who you are — billionaire or beggar, crook or saint, prime minister or pretender — a single wave can send you and your dignity tumbling head over heels in a welter of froth and mirth.

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