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#TomMama: Lessons by the sea

The young sand sculptor was visibly chuffed as he stepped back to enjoy his creation – a mermaid. Recognisable as one from all angles. It was his first ever work, he claimed, beaming. I expressed a sincere appreciation and asked all the right questions – his name, place, where he stayed and even what he studied. Just as we were about to leave, the boys stepped in with their own questions. I braced myself.

Beauty in the water**

“Do you believe in mermaids?” Asked the eldest. The sculptor actually answered with something about human potential to conjure the wildest fantasies as well as to translate them to cold world realities. This left the boy agape. The rest of us were merely dumbfounded.

“What if your mermaid came to life?” This one’s sister had devoured Harry Potter and filled him up with clips from Fantastic Beasts during bedtime.

“How will you make mermaids when there are no more beaches?” It was the youngest who was silent for the longest. The query flummoxed the otherwise bright sculptor who looked at me askance, one brow raised. Guilty. I had, the previous afternoon as we neared Varkala, told the boys about global warming and that during my walk along the coast* I was apprised by old locals how large swathes of beach from 30 years ago were missing today. The sea is a dangerous creature was the gist of what I meant, they were to listen to me even when I sneezed.

Instead of answering, the young sculptor chose to add an extra fin to the mermaid’s tail.

Retirement plans of shipwrecked captains

We walked till the sun went down

The beach area flanking Hansita had become an agora of sorts – soda shops and little shacks selling tourist baubles, families and courting couples, a smattering of tourists and some drunken revellers lying in the waves next to the recumbent dredger. Hansita was brought in for repair but the bill turned out too hefty prompting the skipper to leave her in the lurch. Though some activists and fishermen raised shackles over environmental concerns the rusty gorgon posed to the local fishing community of Iravipuram in Kollam suburbs, the voices soon drowned out – it turned out to be a rising tourist attraction. An unpaid bill was accomplishing what most district tourism promotion councils in Kerala couldn’t. But for us, it was Robinson Crusoe time. And I let it be that way as the real story was too drudge.

“Do you think the captain died when the ship got wrecked?” It was an internal question, among themselves. They concluded that the coastguard would have rescued him and he would be living on a pension like their grandfather. 

Angel on the beach

“What do you think the ship would be carrying for it to sink?” Looted gold and silver, of course. And perhaps some ivory too as one had seen photographs of ‘hundreds of elephants’ at the Trichur Pooram. Elephants, he noted, without tusk.

“What do you think will happen if there is a tsunami?” This one was for me. “Won’t the waves carry the ship and throw it over some house?”

I knew that Kollam beach was affected by the tsunami though not hit hard. My knowledge wasn’t enough to answer the question though.

Showmanship – in 3D

Travelling with three boys and a grey beard I became a much-envied father. The missing mother made me a curiosity as well and probably the butt of ‘don’t-give-up-yet’ sympathies. While having milkshakes at the Coffee Temple on North Cliff, one European tourist said that I had a bunch of well-behaved boys. I half-thought of inviting her to our hotel room – just to show her the nightlamp that was left dangling from the wall by a flying pillow the previous night. There was also a broken bulb and an unhinged door lock. The threat of their mothers – my sisters – with dire consequences if they didn’t listen to me lasted till the first rain on the road. It was the monsoon season, let me point out. Tom mama was to have the last word or else, they repeated. The last word was always mine which the boys unerringly, without fail, almost magically, managed to transform into the first word of the next bout.

They don’t have a handle on you

The proud ‘papa’ in me came to the fore when we watched ‘Ocean 3D’ at the newly operational cinema hall within the aquarium. My ‘kids’ announced sea anemones and starfishes, sharks and squids and other more complicated ones even before the voice over. The heartrending beauty of the ocean floor, the realisation of how we are killing it all and a powerful commentary that spoke of ‘interlinked destinies’ all rendered me teary-eyed once the show was over. Other fathers nodded at me while the wives gazed at me doe-eyed.

“Your kids know a lot,” one of them even ventured as we trooped out. But my kids had already moved on – the squabble was now whether Palifico was inspired by sea anemone or urchin.

I stayed clear this time – I hadn’t even heard of this one.

Let’s bribe the lifeguard

After a late breakfast on our first day, we went to the seaside shanty of my friend Mahesh (aka Krishna as he introduced himself to foreign tourists) where he churned out tender coconut-based milkshakes in different flavours. My favourite was the plain one with cuscus. But it was closed. Somebody said the only joints open were those who didn’t have branches in Shimla or Manali. Forget hill stations in the north, Mahesh struggled to keep his shop open even during peak tourist season when I reached Varkala for the first time during my #KeralaCoastalWalk. He was a political activist who was seriously engaged in reforms of a revolutionary order. During my earlier stay, he was missing for many days as he was trying to bail out his friends who were lodged in Trivandrum jail for bashing up temple staff who habitually consumed liquor inside the sanctum sanctorum. 

Thank goodness love can float

Milkshake could wait, the boys informed. Right next to Mahesh’s shop was the sea. The sea was the highlight, the big purpose of our visit. But red flags circumscribed access; searing, incessant whistles admonished trespasses. Being the monsoon season the waves were generally temperamental and the coastline was on permanent alert. Lifeguards were edgy as domestic tourists – weekends brimmed with them – casually flouted all warnings. Hindu priests who administered puja ceremonies for ancestral benevolence along the Papanasam Beach sat restive, one eye on the water. Other on the milling crowd.

We walked to a quiet stretch some distance away fronting a ‘secret spring’ (whose water tasted ‘just like it flowed from the Blue Mountain,’ a little one assured me) where I tried to fly my drone to take some aerial photographs. The boys sat in the water close to shore. Seeing the kids were supervised we were left alone which emboldened the monkeys to venture further out. Or maybe it was the water coming in.

From a distance, we heard whistles and shouts.

“Let’s go, go, go, before he reaches us,” one said wading further into the water.

The smallest just leapt into in answer to the exhortation.

“Tom mama, can you bribe him to go away?” asked another.

The boys were already knee-deep in water. From the corner of my eyes I could see a guard hurrying our way. My drone was struggling against gusts of wind trying to home in.

There was some serious work on hand. 


*I began my grandiose plans to cover the entire length of Kerala coast by foot and started off on January 1 this year. More than the dogs which were killing people in the poor fishing hamlets, what came in my way was my gout. Though there is no cure as yet for this uric acid condition, I hope to resume once I have the levels under control. 

**The photography captions are all lines from the Train song, ‘Mermaid.’ 

This article also appeared in The Good Men Project. 

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