Some people have been asking for personal reminiscences, especially of the out-of-the-way sort. Well, I have some pretty odd ones, but I don’t like much to write about them, because unembellished they don’t sound very exciting, and I hate embellishing or caricaturing real-life memories: I’d much rather write full-blooded fiction if and when I can. But here goes. If some reader’s fancy is tickled enough to ask for more, I might be encouraged.
This happened way back in 1986, when I was still at the university. I won’t go into irrelevant details, because I want to cut to the really interesting experience, so suffice it to say that we were a largeish party of students in their early twenties who were visiting Gopalpur-on-sea in Orissa. I have heard that things have gotten much more shabby and crowded since, but at the time it was a lonely sort of place, with hardly anything on the beach except the (rather forlorn-looking) lighthouse; there were certainly no cheek-by-jowl hotels and swarms of importunate hawkers selling foodstuff and knick-knacks of the sort that have been spoiling the beachfront scenery in Puri or Goa for a long time. We had checked into the Youth Hostel, and were putting up cheerfully with the rather spartan facilities available, because we were there only for a couple of days, and most of our time was spent revelling on the beach. Now this beach, unlike other places I have visited, was rather remarkable in that it sloped down very steeply, and unlike, say, in Chandipur or even Digha where you can walk a long distance before the water comes up to shoulder height, here you were out of your depth almost immediately you stepped into the water – which was a most disconcerting experience for landlubbers like us. And the sea was choppier than elsewhere, too: it didn’t seem
Anyway, for two successive days we spent most of the daytime on the beach, splashing about, yelling and shrieking and cursing and laughing wildly (there were several girls with us), swallowing large mouthfuls of sand and saltwater in equal proportions, sunbathing, singing raucously and tunelessly, gorging ourselves and getting slightly drunk late into the nights – enjoying ourselves foolishly, thoughtlessly and rather vapidly, as all youngsters are wont to do. The odd thing happened on the third morning. We were supposed to pack and drive off to the nearest railhead in a few hours: most of the girls had gone for a last-minute dekko around the little bazaar inland, most of the boys were still lazing in bed or tottering around groggily, complaining about the cloudiness and the slight chill in the air and the imminent prospect of departure homewards. In the event I found no companion to take a last dip in the sea with me, so I went alone.
Well, maybe I was still a bit sleepy, but I saw or sensed nothing out of the ordinary, and the sea looked unusually calm, and although the water seemed cool in comparison to the previous days (which I casually put down to the early hour), I had no premonitions at all as I waded in, and in fact, though I am most certainly not overly adventurous or brave, I didn’t think much about swimming out… and I kept swimming for quite some time, lazily, comfortably, without a care, until I began to feel slightly out of breath. Then I stopped, treading water, and turned to look back at the shore. And that is when I got the fright of my life.
It suddenly seemed to me that I had come out much too far, and for a panic-stricken moment the thought
I struck out desperately. I swam harder than I have swum before or since. In the process I probably did harm to my muscles and my nervous system, and actually lowered my chances of getting back to shore safely, for I could have exhausted myself and got the deadly cramps. In any case, I did get back to shore without much real difficulty, and already by the time I was heading back to the Youth Hostel I had begun to feel foolish about having given myself a fright for nothing. Oddly, though, they were looking worriedly for me by the time I got back. The sky was overcast, a wind was rising, it had started drizzling, and someone said something vague about a storm warning heard on a transistor radio. Well, the jeeps dropped us off at Berhampore station without incident, though it was raining now, not drizzling any more; but we even boarded the train and got going before all hell broke loose. The cyclone had struck with infernal fury. The thunderstorm was so violent that within half an hour the inside of our coach was dripping wet even with the windows tightly shut; the train crawled along at a snail’s pace for a couple of hours more before being forced to stop at a small wayside station, and we were many hours late in arriving at Howrah terminus – but we were the lucky ones, because the news told us that overhead power wires had been torn and railway tracks washed away in several places soon after we passed through, and the trains that came after us were delayed not by hours but by days. In Gopalpur, which had taken a direct hit, the banshee wind had driven thousands of tonnes of sand hundreds of yards beyond the usual limits of the beach, half burying buildings like the Youth Hostel we had stayed in, and enormous waves had pounded the shore with titanic power, hurling buses like toys off the roads a long way inland.
The point of this story is, I had found the sea behaving so oddly because that monster of a hurricane was coming up: it was the classic lull before the storm. Why had I been foolish enough to think of taking a bathe in the sea that morning, and why did I live to tell the tale?