A pulsating evening at Chennai's Marina Beach

HIGHLIGHTS
  • An evening at Marina Beach, can wind back memories to one’s own childhood.
  • Today, the Marina is a silver border for south India's biggest metro.
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The waves sounded like lamenting the loss of leaders dear to the Tamils. After all, it is on this seashore that a few Tamil Nadu chief ministers have their memorials.

That apart, the evening-time at beach, popularly known as Marina Beach, can wind back memories to one’s own childhood as of the five-year-old boy who ran to the shore, overtaking the waves. To him, his father asked, "The Mother Sea is a living being, you want to see?" When the little one laughed it away, the elder man asked him to write on sand, 'Kadalamma kalli' (Mother Sea is a thief) and "You can see the result." The boy took up the challenge and scribbled the two words with his fingers. The next moment, the whole write-up vanished; what's more, the wave left him all drenched.

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Such fury, Mother Sea!

Memories roared back with its taste of salt. In a way, the sea looks like a close friend lost somewhere in the sands of time. Of someone who stood with you in the midst of a love, who sought to console you when the affair went awry. One who inspired you to repeat that exam papers you flunked in college. The location of the beach least matters for such memories to stir up. It can happen in Kozhikode or Kovalam by the Arabian Sea. And here at the Marina too!

Such thoughts made forays in mind as one headed for the famed beach in Chennai by the Bay of Bengal. The first target, though, was not the sandy expanse — from Fort St George to Foreshore Road, across an incredible 6.5 km. It was the Amma Memorial. Just next to where titan Tamil figures C N Annadurai amd M Karunanidhi were laid to rest. Quite a few are heading to pay their respects to Jayalalithaa, with flowers in the hands, and some others to the memorial of the DMK leaders.

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Some have their eyes turning misty as they see the image of the late chief minister Jayalalithaa at her memorial. Some weep uncontrollably, even today, months after the AIADMK leader's death on December 5, 2016. That was a team of weavers and farmers. They have come all the way from distant lands, meeting their travel expenses from what little money they made by operating the handloom or toiling in the fields. ''How can I forget her deeds," asks a woman, whose name is Poonkani. "Amma paid for my kids' education. From bicycle to computer. None can replace her!"

Just as you exit the memorial, a staff serves you with a prasadam of sorts: cooked pongal rice and a small bottle of mineral water. In the windy evening, the men and women sit on the sands. Evening has set in. It's time to take a look at the beach at large.

What is Marina?

With its amazingly long torso, Marina looks like a tall girl with eyes resembling the stars that will be seen soon up in the eastern sky. Marina. Good name. But what does it mean? Well, it's small harbour. A minor port where small boats ground on to the sands. That would have been the rudimentary times of this place. Today, the Marina is a silver border for south India's biggest metro. Onto its shore flow thousands of lovers. There are hundreds of such pairs around. Some eating peanuts leisurely, some drinking the love-dense sweetness of tender coconuts. Tucking each other's fingers, holding hands, brushing shoulders while walking and slinging arms across the other, they are in their world of sweet-nothings.

As if invading that reverie, a beige-coloured horse gallops in. Ridden in by a youngster. His name: Kumar. The horse's name is still better: Kabali. Turned out that Kumar is a diehard fan of Rajinikanth. It was the superstar’s July 2016 film that inspired Kumar to change the name of his horse. Kumar charges Rs 100 per adult for a ride at the beach, and half that for children. Roaring business.

So how did he reach the Marina? Pictures of horses in lower-primary textbooks attracted him to the animal, which he later saw in real on the Marina when he came to Chennai. "Slowly I felt keen to buy a horse. For that, I began saving what little money was left with me after expenses as a painter," he trails off. At the Marina, Saturdays and Sundays are particularly crowded, he adds.

The Marina doesn't host sunset, it has only the sun rising in the east. This evening, there are two options. One, to get a direct feel of the waves. The other, to get a feel of the lives of Marina’s guests. The second choice appeared more appealing.

The scene around

The lighthouse here makes frequent appearance in Tamil films. The longish red-and-white structure seems like a pillar supporting the firmament above the blue waters. It was built in 1977 as the fourth such tower on the Marina from a sequence beginning 1796. It is tough to compress the present 45.72-m structure into the screen size of the cellphone, but exhilarating nevertheless. Such efforts invite cheers from people around, especially youngsters.

One can go up the lighthouse, climbing the stairs. From there, the Marina may suddenly look much shorter that it was a few minutes ago. The ripples of the sea look like the frills of a woman in a dark saree. Scaling down the stairs of the tower might feel tougher and going up.

By when it was dusk the crowd at the beach gathered the conduct of those leaving the cinema after the show. People seemed to be busier than they actually they needed to be; no wonder there is a sense of extra hurry. In a jiffy, night fell. The electric lights shone well. But for the roars of the sea, this shore would have looked like the venue for a temple festival. For the Malayali, the missing sight is of the caparisoned elephants. And the sounds of the melam ensembles. Rest of it exists: the shopkeepers, balloon-sellers, ice-cream carts, palm-readers.... However aloof you remain from the sea, its waves have the power to make you feel like a child.

Look at that old man with his handlebar moustache twirled up. He has a gun aimed at a set of small puffed-up balloons adoring a cloth stretched by two bamboo poles on each side. The weapon has small pellets that have to hit the balloons. No tough task, from the looks of it. Really?

Armed with his gun, the old man aimed at the balloons. Stylishly, stroking his moustache and dramatically resting one of his legs behind the other, he begins to shoot. Rather indiscriminately, despite loud and random tips from his 'coach,' whose name is Udayan. Nothing much happened. But finally when one balloon did burst, the old man gave out a guffaw that carried a ring of great joy. He gave the fee to Udayan and left royally.

Now it is Udayan smiling. He must have seen countless number of such faces over the past 20 years of his business at the Marina. 'Each men of my kind look forward to the visit of that old chap and others like him. They help us sustain business, earn our daily bread," Udayan says. "These days, youngsters and kids aren’t that interested in shooting balloons. For them, mobile games are more entertaining."

Udayan says that the eastern shore of Chennai has lots of families like his — men running petty businesses. ''Some of us don’t have proper houses. Wives work as maids. We have children who have to be given an education,'' he says. ''You see that woman selling roasted maize over there? Her name is Lakshmi. She has a daughter doing graduation in computer application. The study expenses are met with her little incomes from selling the maize.''

There is another category of evening-time sellers at the Marina who work daytime elsewhere. "Some of the sellers here are themselves students," he adds, but winds up the conversation now that a bunch of kids has come try their luck with the guns and the balloons.

Hotel Seashore

The Marina is virtually a train of open eateries. Thattukada as they are called in Malayalam. Only that they don’t sell poratta-chicken as one find in Kerala. From arimurukku to fried tapioca, there is a variety of items. The maize (or corn) can be a good starter.

For that, Lakshmi's next could be the natural choice. She has enough of them, with green leaves indicative of the freshness. Adjacent to that is cut raw mangoes placed close to salt and chilli powder. Close by, in front of images of gods, a glass with water is full of yellow lime fruits. A joss stick lets out a slender line of smoke with a pleasant smell.

On seeing the guests with camera, Lakshmi asked for a minute's time. Then she put a few embers into the hearth and began rotating its shaft masterly. Sparks flew around like fireflies. The excitement goaded many to jump into the scene for selfies. One came so close to the oven that Lakshmi got furious. She hurled some loud abuse. That changed the mood. It was time to move to the next shack with what little maize Lakshmi gave.

What followed were variety items: bajji made of raw bananas, eggs and capsicum, boiled chickpeas, green peas, broken rice, paani puri, mix of pieces of papaya, watermelon and guava. Then sugar cane juice. Groundnuts boiled in salt are in great demand. There is also sale of green peas boiled and mixed with mango brine. There are also shops that sell variety fish — from what Kerala touts as mathi to vatta. Blackfish look shiny. So are lobsters, but they are damn costly.

The line of lit-up shops has neared its end. Beyond is a patch of darkness. Behind the country boats resting on the shore, human shadows play hide-and-seek. The sea looked like winking its eyes. A bike rushed in, riding two policemen. The two-wheeler had tyres as wide as ones used for desert safari. The sight of men in khaki didn’t scare the lovers. None sprang up like school students would at the unexpected arrival of the headmaster in the corridor. The couples go ahead with their private mischief.

The Marina has police patrolling that is dissimilar to the style on Kerala beaches. For one, there is horse cavalcade. The overzealous ones rushing to the sea would be cautioned by the loud whistles the policemen would blow. The men in khaki leave, and the tourists again surge to the sea.

One among them came rushing on to the shore. A lean girl with a white linen short top and blue jeans. She had a dreamlike air, her hair almost blowing in the wind and her face lit up by the screen of her cellphone. One would have run helter-skelter, screaming 'ghost, ghost' had the beach been without the people.

The young woman walked up to a horse to take the animal closer to the sea. She gave money to its keeper. Her idea wasn’t clear — until she took out her mobile and posed for a selfie. Pressing her back to the side of the horse and the letting the frame also show the black waves behind. Once the photo session got over, the girl went further into the sea. The foam from the waves kept tying ornate anklets around her slim toes. No young boy around her batted his eyelid for once.

Cine stars too

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Towards the end of the shore, top Tamil film figures keep virtual guard. Rajinikant, Vijay, Suriya, Asin, Nayanthara. No star night. It's just a line-up of their cut-outs. Each of them has good props that guard them against the sea wind. Stand next to Rajini or with your hand next to Vijay or you can even give Nayanthara a kiss.

The pose will find reflection in the photo that will be ready just as you take a break around. ''This is of immense craze here,'' says Murugan, the photographer. ''For kids, I arrange a chair to match the height of Vijay. But then, Anna is the all-time favourite.''

The shore ends. Close by is the Anna Memorial bathed in a green glow. One can climb up its stairs to reach there or take the route to the adjacent park. Behind, the beach is largely lonely. The palmists have wound up the evening’s business and are putting out their petromax lamps. The waves of the sea, too, sounded like retreating.

Landmarks all along

The Marina is not just a seaside strip. The black road that runs parallel to its sandy strip has a string of historical buildings on its both sides. Facing the sprawling waters of the bay is the vintage University of Madras. The hostel rooms of the 1857-founded educational institution have windows that give a peep to the Marina. Not far are Presidency College and Queen Mary College.

And, yes, the Parthasarathy temple as well at Triplicane are right across. The kovil's bells are resting after their dusk-time toll.

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