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Monday, October 12, 2009

Fool in the sea

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 wise to take risks with those rather scary, noisy, foamy swells as they came crashing on the beach. This was, by the way, just after the pujo-season in Bengal.

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 flashed across my mind that I’d never be able to swim back all that way; the landmarks on the beach looked tiny and hazy, and the sea seemed to be tugging me gently outwards. The bigger scare was the bizarre sight of an absolutely deserted beach: there was not a human soul as far as I could see, from the left horizon to the right, not a stray dog, not, when I looked up, a single bird wheeling in the sky. Why hadn’t I noticed such a huge and obvious oddity when I stepped into the water, for God’s sake? If I drowned, no one would notice, no one would know! But this wasn’t the worst of it. What really made my skin crawl was the out-of-this-world sensation of the sea in which I was bobbing gently up and down: there were no breakers, no foam, no noise at all, but the gigantic thing was heaving slowly up and down, as though it were a living thing breathing, a vast, silent, cruel leviathan which knew it had a tiny mite of a lonely human in its inexorable clutches, and was enjoying itself, biding its time…

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?


Shilpi said...

Good Lord, I'm speechless and I've got the bone-chills and the goosebumps but I've got a nervous grin as well (you've lived to tell the tale). Brrr...I can't imagine though bobbing up and down on the heaving sea so far away from the desolate shore and yet curiously enough I can feel it too…….Right before a cyclone. Brrrrr…… again. How far out were you, do you reckon?

I could write yards for a comment (and heckle you with questions) but I'll say a couple of things more.

Anyone who goes swimming out into the sea is certainly brave and adventurous by my estimates. How on earth do you get past the huge monstrous waves, and once you do how on earth do you get back to the shore? This is coming from someone who half-sank in a swimming pool when she was 12…..

Don’t see any reason for calling yourself a fool though. You wouldn’t have gone in if the sea had been spewing out massive waves of foam and the cyclone was in motion, would you? And you’re not a fisherman – how could you have known that a cyclone was brewing?
Brrrr again.

Absolutely engrossing and thrilling read this one. I don’t know whether my word will count – but I’m asking for more essays of this sort please.
A huge thank you by the way for sharing this tale, and a thank You to the One upstairs and to the sea for keeping you alive for you to be able to share your tale and more....
Take care and love,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

There were no waves that morning, besides the beach being absolutely deserted, which was quite unlike the two previous days. The weird thing is that neither of these strange things triggered off warning bells inside my mind...

Sudipto Basu said...

Your words played out like a film, Sir. The description of the sea playing gently (reminds me of that poem - name sadly forgotten - we read with you in our school-days) with you alone and completely at its mercy was both quite discomfiting and amazingly real.

Says much about our helplessness in the hands of Fate - God or mathematical probability, choose as you please. A portrayal of man from outside - a small tiny dot from above. A lot of lines (one from the Bard, one from Orson Welles) rush to my mind, but I'll hold back.

And please do share more memories of this sort.

Shilpi said...

Oh, I didn't seem to connect the "unusually calm" to there being no waves. Sorry! But absolutely no breakers along the sea-shore? That should have seemed disturbing. Now I see....come to think of it the absolutely deserted beach would look a little odd although I can somehow imagine the dormant bells not pealing out for this oddity. Maybe it will take another some days for me to process this one!

Krishanu said...

Dear Sir,
This article is, in my opinion, one of the best ones that you have written in a while, the reason being it's rather personal nature, and the fact that it did get a bit scary, even while reading it.
Now, I don't know whether this is the opportune moment to mention it, but I was reminded of Indranath,the immortal character created by the peerless Bengali author, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhay. I mention the author's name because some interested readers of this blog might be unaware of him.To me, Indranath has been the quintessential Bengali youth, as indeed he has been to millions of other readers: caring, gutsy,sympathetic and idealistic. I figure that the episode of Srikanta's fear of drowning in the swamps, while fleeing the rogue fishermen pursuing him, and the subsequent response by Indranath, probably triggered this chain of thought as I read your article. Please excuse me, Sir, if I have strayed a bit too far, but I really feel that people like (the semi-fictional) Indranath are rare indeed these days.
I have a request, Sir: please keep on writing such articles in the (near) future: they make for excellent reading!
Krishanu Chatterjee

JM said...

The description of the sea while you realized that you were far from the shore is really accurate. It was as if I could sense the danger in the situation.

I guess, these experiences, given that we get out of it makes us realize the uncertainty of life and the intricacies of the nature.

Thank you Sir for the good read.

Nishant said...

Dear Sir,

Thanks for sharing this incident with us. Seems pretty frightening though I am sure you are the only one who would actually have known how much so it was. The last line of the fifth paragraph really gave me a creep. I could well imagine the whole situation. But all's well that ends well. You got out safely from the sea and didn't have any real trouble getting back home and I'm thankful for that.
Nishant Kamath.

Amit parag said...

Dear Sir,
I could not help comparing this incident with that tiger-cave experience which you shared with us once.Was it afterwards when you came to know that a tiger did really live there?And was that incident as scary as this one? If the tiger was present in the cave it would surely had felt " a vast, silent, cruel leviathan which knew it had a tiny mite of a lonely human in its inexorable clutches, and was enjoying itself, biding its time…"

Suvro Chatterjee said...

No, that was a different place, and a different time, and the shock came much later, when we were told that a tiger often used that cave as its lair...but I can see there were some similarities. I have had a lot of narrow escapes of that sort. My guardian angel seems to have done a good job so far!

Neel said...

I had visited Gopalpur after the typhoon. I had seen the destruction it had left behind (now that's a tourist spot). I wonder the feeling of perverse pleasure in seeing a tragedy. Or is it the sense of humility that one feels when standing in awe of the power of nature ? Gopalpur, when I visited, had its hotels - but somehow they did not disturb the tranquility of the sea. They were there - and the sea was there each oblivious of the other, in total ignorance. I mean you can see the sea, without your vision getting clouded by the ugly scars of development. I had liked the place. Your description of the sea reminded me of the Ancient Mariner that we read in school.

Shilpi said...

What's all this about a tiger cave and a tiger? What happened? How come we've never heard any of these stories?!

Oh, and for the oddest reason or maybe none really (...apart from the sea and you and old Santiago at sea) your account reminded me of 'The Old Man and the Sea'....

How far out were you? You never did answer that one. I keep trying to measure the distance in my head and I'm sure my head is exaggerating.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Oh, don't get too interested, Shilpi, that wasn't much of a story (just one of those numerous instances of 'what might have happened if...').

As for the swim out to sea, it couldn't have been more than a few hundred yards. Only, yours truly being not the heroic type, is seemed dangerously far.

Shilpi said...

Oh that won't work, Suvro da. You know how the 'what might have happened if...' sometimes make some of the best sort of stories....If I weren't 34 years old I'd be poking and prodding you and yelling my head off for the tiger story to be told, and right now. Now I'm just requesting in a staid and most proper manner for the story to be told some time, some day, and only if it's not too much of a trouble to the storyteller.

As for the few hundred yards bit: a regular pool is only 50 metres. Twice that is a 100 metres, which would be a little over 109 yards. So my head wasn't exaggerating in this instance. 109 yards out into the open heaving sea....Nothing heroic - no, no, but - brrr....brave rather, if even unknowingly and unintentionally so.