the beach/ 87

At the beach, even the air is different. You can taste the sea- the salt hangs in the air, and as you walk, you walk through every particle, every molecule of the sea. The breeze doesn’t feel harsh. Instead, it brushes past your face as if to welcome you, to tell you: this is a place for you. This is a place for everyone.

The first time I saw the sea, I was twelve. I was on holiday in South India, living in a quaint little town called Tranquebar, and I still remember my first reaction to the sea. It was nothing like I had ever expected, and nothing like I had ever experienced. Having grown up in North India, in a city that specialized in having small streets and a large population, I had never witnessed anything so big. Where I was from, the city was like a blanket around a body; it was all encompassing. There had never been any way to leave the city behind because no matter where I was, the crowd didn’t diminish. Even outdoors, skyscrapers towered on either side of me, like giants. The city always felt cramped, and harsh. I had always known, almost by instinct, that the city I lived in was unyielding. It didn’t make a difference whether I was there or not, it would continue to thrive.

Everywhere you looked, people were smiling. Beach blankets were spread over the sand and little children ran around. Your feet sank into the ground whenever you took a step. Despite the crowd, the noise wasn’t unbearable. Instead, it faded into the background as you looked at the sea, which stretched as far as you could see. Everything faded into the background- when you looked at the sea; it felt like you were the only person there- miniscule in the grander scheme of things, and yet the most important.

Ironically, Tranquebar seemed vast. Much smaller in size than the city I grew up in, it nevertheless felt bigger. I had driven down from Pondicherry, and on entering the town, it felt like I was entering a different era. The houses were built in typical colonial fashion, with slanting roofs and decorative pillars. The streets were lined with bricks, and were broad. There was no traffic to speak of. For a girl who had lived her entire life in a city with another 800,000 people, a town with 20,000 people felt like a neighborhood. My mother decided that we should take a round of the town before we reached our hotel. Thus, my first glimpse of the sea was literally that- a fleeting glance through an open window at the largest blue thing I had ever seen. We must’ve driven next to the sea for around five minutes, but to me, time had slowed down. I had fallen in love with something I had only read about before, with something that I had imagined a million times, but never quite realized the magnitude of.

You climbed over the rocks that led to the sea, and kicked off your shoes before you waded in. The water came up to your ankles at first, and then till your knees. You stopped walking forward and just stood there. You could feel the small pebbles below your toes, smooth from the centuries of water that had run over them. You had never realized how alive the water would feel. Unlike a swimming pool, the water didn’t stand still. It rocked gently as waves rolled in to the shore. The sea and air moved in tandem, like they were perfecting a delicate dance which relied on balance and coordination. The water flowed around your legs, and that’s when you realized, it wasn’t just the sea that felt alive. You did too.

We reached the hotel about ten minutes later, and almost immediately, I was begging my mother to let me go explore. An hour or so later, I convinced my family that a walk on the beach while the sun was setting was the perfect way to end our first day in Tranquebar. Coming from a city with clearly defined areas and sectors, I had assumed the beach would be the same- a small section of the town that had been clearly demarcated. I hadn’t expected what I saw- the beach was not a small section, or area of town. Instead, it ran at the edge of the entire town. From far away it just looked like a strip of sand before a larger strip of blue. From far way, it didn’t look like anything special.

When you looked back at the land behind you, it looked special. The people were inconsequential figures in the larger picture of the sky and land- the way both met through the buildings that occupied a section of both, and the way the color of the soil and buildings stood out starkly in contrast to the soft hues of the evening sky, a mix of red, orange and purple.

By the time I reached the beach itself, the sun had already begun to set. But it didn’t matter. Though the light was fading, I could still see the sea, slowly heaving up and down with each wave it sent to the shore. What I couldn’t see was made up for by my other senses- at the beach, even the air is different. I don’t know how long I stood there for. I remember looking at other people enjoying themselves, and I remember what the water felt like. But mostly, whenever I think about the first time I went to the beach, I remember how it filled me with an unexplainable joy, but also with an understanding of the world that I had lacked before. Mostly, whenever I think of the beach, I think of how in that first instance, I knew that this is where I belonged. In that first instance, I know now that what I felt wasn’t just awe. It was an aching familiarity. It felt like the sea was welcoming me. It felt like the beach was telling me that it was a place I could be myself. When I think of that first visit, I think about how, even then, I knew the truth: I was home.

At the beach, everything seemed different. Everything was different. You realized that the world did not revolve around you, that it didn’t need to revolve around you. There were better and bigger things out there, and that was alright. It was alright, because there was a place for you, because this is where you belonged. This is where you felt like yourself and that’s when you knew, you were home.

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