We called it the Marina—the long stretch of coastal beach, the second largest in the world, on the edge of the southern city of Madras, now known as Chennai. For us Madrasis the Marina was a trusted family friend. We claimed the sea as our own. Strong. Nurturing. Reassuring, with the regular rhythm of the waves. A symbol of eternity.
The sea provided sustenance to fisherfolk while city people reveled in the sandy beaches and cool turquoise waters. The Marina beach was literally a breath of fresh air to us who lived in a crowded metropolis. Crowds came from all levels of society, and from every economic and religious group. Enjoyment and entertainment was free. The Marina lured young cricket players. Little girls played endless games with shells, women gossiped or unpacked enormous tiffin carriers of spicy snacks for their families, and young boys roamed up and down the beach carting heavy aluminum cans selling crisp muruku, sizzling sundal, and roasted peanuts. A game of tag kicked up a swirl of sand but the laughter of the children stifled our annoyance and we lay back on the soft sand and dreamed away the hours. The elderly settled down comfortably with flapping newspapers or religious books, and there, in the shadowed corner of an upturned boat, a young married couple held hands. Wooing twosomes quickly scurried past to a secluded, abandoned boat and whispered soft words that the sea wind carried away.
I grew up in Triplicane, barely a 15- minute walk from the sea. Going to the beach was a daily ritual. I remember paddling in a frock, later in a blouse and hitched-up skirt, then a davani (a half sari), and much later wading in a flowing, six-yard sari, holding my slippers in one hand and the bottom half of the sari in the other. We never left our slippers on the beach, because every few minutes my friends and I would saunter along the water’s edge, moving further and further along the coast.
The sea air was rejuvenating, and the salty water good for strong legs, my parents reminded me. But I was not concerned about a healthy regime for the body. I was simply mesmerized by the sea, the changing colors, the endless sunrises and sunsets, the possibilities of worlds beyond.
Every evening I waited for the first catamaran cresting over the twilight-darkened horizon. As soon as it was sighted, a shout arose from the fishermen’s families gathered on the beach. Shrewd buyers quickly purchased entire nets of fish. Fisherwomen sped across the sands with baskets of fish and crabs, racing to the markets, trading jokes and insults.
Meanwhile, the fishermen bundled up their nets, beached the catamarans, and set off to a tiny, concrete apartment, accompanied by their children to eat hot rice flavored with a spicy fish curry and topped off with a tot of arrack. The fisherfolk however hated the confining concrete apartments the government had built for them and many would sneak back to the sands at night and sleep under the open sky with the sound of the waves in their ears.
When my cousins came for their summer holidays from the sweltering towns of Andhra, we sped to the beach at dawn and walked for miles. Later, we went to the legendary Marina Restaurant on the water’s edge, the only cafe in Madras that had a jukebox. We popped in coins, rushed back with chips and samosas, and flung ourselves on the sand, listening to Pat Boone singing of heartbreak.
On a day like today,
we passed the time away
Writing love letters on the sand …
How you laughed when I cried
each time I saw the tide
Take our love letters from the sand …
I was an English literature student in Presidency College. I knew I was blessed because classes were held in the Sea View Room, so named because it faced the sea. Lectures on Wordsworth and Shelley skimmed past my ears. I was always distracted by the ever-changing sea. I saw the fishermen riding the waves and envied their life on the sea. I was giddy with images of their courage, the precariousness of their life among the elements, the daily struggle for a good catch of fish. The primitive honesty of this kind of livelihood delighted me.
It was during this period that I had the urge to write. My first story “The Sea” was published in the College magazine. It was about a woman who lost her fisherman husband to the sea and yet knew with a stunning clarity that her little son would one day become a fisherman.
And then I fell in love. Many were the hot afternoon hours we spent on the beach, which was a silent witness to our hopes and imaginings.
We married and moved away, but always returned to the beach for holidays. Now it was the children’s turn to play on the beach. My daughter Anuradha remembers happily ploughing through cotton candy and buying strings of tight white jasmine buds from the flower vendors. She remembers Sunday nights when friends would gather, strum guitars, and sing into the night. Sangeetha, my older daughter remembers the sizzle of the peanuts and hundreds of people so happy and content on the beach. Now, grandchildren look for shells and gurgle at the waves. The catamarans have given way to mechanized boats and trawlers but the sea continues to be a joyous, tangible part of our lives.
This year, we visited Madras and met cousins who had come from different parts of the world for a family wedding. We spent one precious day by the sea, reminisced, sipped coconut water, walked on the beach, connected. Then we returned to our homes across the oceans, remembering that we had always claimed the sea as our own.
When the seismic tsunami waves slammed into the lives of thousands of people, 131 people died on the Marina beach and thousands more along the coast. Everywhere, bodies and debris. And then I hear of 97-year-old Antony Pillai who has lost his son and wife to the ocean and continues to live on the beach near a graveyard of bodies. “I am not afraid of the sea,” he tells volunteers who want him to move away to a safe place.
Why did it happen? Bad karma, God testing humanity’s spirit, political corruption, unjust wars? Or shall I accept nature’s cycles and believe the sea is innocent, merely reshaping itself, a divine, eternal mystery?
My grief over the loss of lives is partly assuaged as I come across a picture of children running on the beach again. Some are selling sundal, peanuts, and muruku in the same aluminum cans, chattering and laughing in abandon. The sea remains.
Journalist and audio producer Prem Kishore lives in Los Angeles. She recently collaborated with her daughter Anuradha Kishore Ganpati on a book Illustrated History of India and also produced a CD Living Traditions of India.