Are you a beach person? Me, I’m not sure.
As the Covid lockdown restrictions start easing in England, I am daring to dream of travel again. Not to exotic far flung locations – that will remain out of bounds for now. Not even to India as her airports remain closed to international visitors and NRIs (Non resident Indians). But maybe, just maybe, I will be able to travel a couple of hundred miles to the south of England. To enjoy the sandy beaches of Dorset, dip my toes in the cool waters of Branscombe or watch the sun set over Land’s End in Cornwall. What is common to all these dreams is the sea, sand and sun.
Am I a beach person then?
Growing up in the 90’s, vacations were spent at my grandmother’s place in Chennai. We lived in Bangalore at the time – a city far from the sea and sand. So invariably, the beach was the main attraction in Chennai for me.
Armed with steel tiffin boxes filled with pattani sundal (cooked white peas tempered with mustard seeds and garnished with grated coconut and lemon juice), we would take a very crowded 12G bus to Marina beach. This would typically be at 4 or 5 pm, when the April sun was a bit less harsh. Other than food, there wasn’t anything else that we would typically pack for our day out.
We were 4 cousins, all girls. Dressed in cotton frocks, we would rush into the waves, splashing about in unabandoned joy. Swimsuits were not something one wore for a day out by the seaside in India. And this is as true today as it was in 1990. We just roll up our trousers/ hitch up our sarees and wade in till the water reaches our shins.
We never had buckets or spades then either. Nevertheless, we made sand castles and temple complexes by hand, decorated with sticks found lying around. Milagai bhajji (chillies dipped in batter and fried) and panju-mittai (candy floss) were a given, bought by my indulgent uncles while my grandmother doled out generous amounts of the aforementioned sundal. I would fall asleep on the bus back home, happily exhausted by my evening exploits by the seaside, clutching the shells I had collected on the beach.
Then my father was transferred to Mumbai (or Bombay as it was known then) and I eagerly embraced the change for it meant living by the coast. Imagine my crushing disappointment when I discovered the beaches of Bombay were actually quite dirty, the water black and oily – unfit for splashing about or even to dip one’s toes in. (Things have improved marginally now – the sand is cleaner though the water is still iffy).
I discovered a different sort of beach experience here though. Sweet, spicy, tangy chaat and kala-khatta gola (ice lolly dipped in dark purple syrup) at Girgaum Chowpatty is what defines a Mumbaikar’s beach ‘day out’. I soon took to this type of beach day and even took my cousins here to introduce them to its pleasures. We would sit on the sand eating our chosen snack as the salty hot ocean breeze made our face and hair sticky with sweat.
In medical college, I was introduced by a dear friend to Bandra Bandstand. With its sea facing promenade and rocks lining the shore, it was the perfect place to hang out with my friends in a space starved city. Celebrity homes lined the adjoining road and Shahrukh Khan’s bungalow was as much an attraction for me as the sea.
After a few hours spent watching the sunset (with surreptitious glances at the bungalow in the hope of seeing the Bollywood star himself) and pondering deeply important things as only 20 year-olds can, we would then make our way to Hearsch’s to dig into their delicious burgers, always served with a side of potato wafers. Or sometimes we’d head to Mocha’s for a chocolate avalanche – the biggest bowl of chocolatey dessert I have ever known. Beaches in Mumbai, as you have probably realised by now, are always about food.
When I got married, I chose Mauritius for my honeymoon, a choice mostly based on glossy photos in the Sunday Times newspaper supplement. Here I discovered a seaside that I only had read about in books. Turquoise green waters, clean sandy beaches, sun loungers under umbrellas, bikini clad women with impossibly beautiful bodies – they were all there right at our resort’s private beach.
We spent evenings sipping cocktails and holding hands, giddy with love as only newlyweds can be. Renting cycles, we biked along the shores, marvelling at the miles and miles of shimmering coastline. During the day, we tagged along on a group tour of sugarcane fields and multi hued sand dunes but even as I saw the sights, I waited impatiently to get back to the sea. To sink my toes in the soft white sand and be lulled by the waves lapping at the shore.
Now in England, we make a trip to the seaside every summer. It is all about a family beach holiday. Sometimes with my sister in law and neice, sometimes with my parents, sometimes it’s just the three of us.
The unspoilt beaches of Pembrokeshire, the typical British seaside promenade of Llandudno, the shingle beach of Branscombe in Devon, the fossils lined shores of Dorset – we’ve loved them all.
We now have the requisite English beach paraphernalia too – buckets and spades for my son, beach mat and umbrella for the adults. While he makes sand castles, we snooze or read a book in the sun. After a while, we make our way to buy ice creams – a must for any beach holiday in England. We people-watch : women adjusting their dresses for an even suntan, the occasional surfer riding the waves, families setting up barbeques as the sun begins to dip.
At some point, I make my way to the water slowly, wading in deeper till my feet sink in the sand and waves crash all around me. Inevitably, I feel a sense of calm wash over me and I realise that yes, I am a beach person.