In a sleeve of water, a chameleon

The sea is many mysterious things, imagined and otherwise

By Crossings - Uddalak Mukherjee
  • Published 15.10.17

THE CLOUDS were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea." - The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

I am not an old man - not yet. But I have a story of the sea.

Not of any sea. The one that I am writing about does not resemble the oily waters that surround Mumbai or the temperamental waves that lash at the rubescent laterite hills in Kerala's Varkala. Neither is it like the impish ocean in Puri, changing its mood frequently, turning from harsh to mellow, in accordance with the law of the tides; nor can it be compared to that grey, watery expanse that envelops the shores of Goa or Ratnagiri.

The sea that I have in mind, when first spotted from the skies, does not look like water at all. Funnily enough, it resembles land: a solid, sombre, cerulean mass. Once you touch ground and are at eye-level with the water, be it in Port Blair or on the pristine beaches in Havelock - the two islands are separated by a bewitching, azure stretch - you realise that this sea, apart from being a shape-shifter, has other tricks in its bag. For instance, if you were to take a boat and travel a few nautical miles, you could watch the sea changing colour like a chameleon - from blue to emerald to grey - or even put on all three shades at the same time. It is only when you go underwater - snorkelling, diving or seawalking near the North Bay island or at the quaintly named Elephant Beach - that one understands the sea's compulsion to be an enchantress. For the sea hides a secret in its belly. Unlike its radiant surface - the source of my enchantment - what lies below is a stark, bare universe. One would see stretches of lifeless corals, and also fish swimming away, probably disgusted with the intruders from terra firma.

A beautiful ocean with an ugly, inner world. Another trick held by the sea in its sleeve.

But not all of its tricks are benign. On one of my trips to the islands, I had met a man - a fisherman, a settler, and not one of Andaman's indigenous people - who told me that he had once believed that he knew the sea well. Their intimacy, the man looked at the sea as his own, had been shattered on a December morning 13 years ago, the year the tsunami struck the Andamans. He said that the sea had recoiled like a serpent, the wall of water akin to the reptilian hood, and stung the land, leaving scars that have not quite healed. But then again, over all these years, the sea has also been a giver of life and many pleasures. He admitted that he still loved fishing at night with only his boat, nets and the dark waters for company.

Blue muse

I thought I could imagine the old man during these nocturnal trips. Sitting on the beach late into the evening in Havelock, I often watched fishing boats heading towards the darkening horizon, a snaking row of twinkling lights amidst the gathering gloom. It is a vision that stays in your mind - just as the sea does - long after you have left the place. For in the city, in the depths of sleepless nights, the sea returns to you, carrying with it the sound of the breeze and the smell of salt water and ancient rocks.

Even our bodies are not left untouched by the sea. A tan spreads on the skin while tiny granules - specks of sand and mica - stay lodged in the pores, reminders of the now-distant waters.

One night, I had thrown a question at this sea: can a restive mind find a place to call home, eventually? The phosphorescent waters had lit up, a streak of whiteness amidst the blackness.

They say the sea does not take away everything. Some things - such as answers that one has sought over many a journey - are returned with the waves.