On Why the Ocean is My Oyster

The sea affords an elusive freedom. Its waters can help one understand life, loss and love.  
Photo by: Sudha Pillai
Photo by: Sudha Pillai

Long ago, I believed that the ocean was a woman who went by the name Kadalamma. In my defence, I was only six years old.

It was the award-winning Malayalam film, Chemmeen, that had minted my notion. In the movie, Karuthamma, a Hindu fisherman’s daughter and Pareekutty, a Muslim fish trader, fall in love. Due to taboos, Karuthamma is forced to give up Pareekutty and marry Palani, another fisherman of her father’s choice. She settles down to a quiet life in her husband’s village. But not for long. When the villagers get to know about her earlier love for a Muslim man, they ostracise Karuthamma and her husband. Palani is now forced to go fishing alone. The fishing community believes that if a woman is unfaithful to her husband while he is at sea, Kadalamma (kadal–sea; amma–mother) will consume the man. Comeuppance for infidelity. Palani kept returning home every time he went fishing, except on the night when Karuthamma and Pareekutty cross each other on the beach by chance and let their passion consume them.

The romantic nuances of the film were lost on me. What got etched in my mind was the portrait of the ocean as a powerful and mysterious woman who was fair but unforgiving.

The ocean instilled fear in me during my childhood spent in Chennai. Every time I went to the 12-kilometre-long Marina Beach, the second longest beach in the world, I would sit on the shore and stare at the Bay of Bengal, listening to the roaring waves with fear clinging to my spine. What if Kadalamma decides to ‘consume’ people? As I grew older, fear mingled with awe. If the Ocean wished, she could ‘consume’ all, yet she was restrained in her reign.

Over the years, the ocean took on a persona that was adamant about teaching me life lessons whenever I was near her. Once, I found myself alone in a beach house with no electricity and a storm raging outside. Have you ever heard the sound of death straight from hell? It sounds like the battering waves of the Arabian Sea, crashing on the rocky compound wall of a beach house in Kerala. I spent the entire night shivering in fear. But fear loses its hold over you when you stare at it from dusk to dawn. I always credit the Arabian Sea for curing me of my fears.

The Arabian Sea around Goa evokes a sense of magic for I have spent hours on the shores dreaming of hidden worlds in the depths of the ocean filled with dancing turtles, bow-tied fish and mythical kingdoms. While the wild seas of Odisha where I have suffered loss make me sad, the confluence of three oceans at Kanyakumari makes me believe in infinity.

Oceans in different parts of the world have elicited varied reactions in me. But it’s the feeling of freedom that had eluded me for long. I finally found it in the Indian Ocean kissing the shoreline of Saint-Pierre at Reunion Island.

It was past midnight when I made my way to the deserted beach behind the hotel where I was staying. Stretched before me was the Indian Ocean, shimmering under the moonlight all the way up to the horizon and beyond. The midnight rumble of the ocean wasn’t frightening. Its language was a lullaby. I was alone, yet I didn’t feel ‘alone’. Could it be because the ocean is filled with life—known and unknown? For thousands of years, people have crossed the oceans in search of dreams—old and new. For those who seek her, she’s the wind beneath their wings. She gives you a sense of freedom. That night, as I rested on the empty sandy beach, with not a care in the world, Kadalamma made me feel free like a bird.

You might not live by the ocean, but you cannot escape her. From space, the Earth looks like a blue marble for a reason. All of 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. Saline, life-giving and oxygen-providing (the algae in the ocean alone generate 20 per cent of the oxygen required by our planet). Powerful enough to change a shoreline or wipe away entire lands. That’s the ocean for you—unbridled power. The Ocean is an excellent ego-buster. Yet, humans meddle with her in the worst possible way. I worry that she is beginning to lose patience with our indifference.

  • Sudha Pillai is an artist, photographer, and writer. She writes about her encounters with people, places, art, and culture.

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