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[Essay] Sea Change by Sarah Das Gupta

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

Huge breakers crashed as they hit the sand, breaking and spreading foam and froth over the beach like the freckled tongues of some strange sea creatures. At mid-afternoon the sun was still strong so that the intense blue of the sea sparkled and dazzled in the light. A haze settled over the pale blue horizon making it appear in the distance like a mirage, vanishing, only to reappear.

Sitting on the hot sand, my husband reminded me of the dangers of the Bay of Bengal. “The Bay of Bengal is notorious for sudden changes of weather and powerful side currents” He was keeping a wary eye on our young daughter playing with shells at the edge of the sea. The powerful pull of the retreating water was literally lifting Mistha up and carrying her away. I now appreciated why Ashok had insisted on employing a Nulia, even though Mistha was only a two- year- old just playing on the beach.

This freedom allowed me to focus my attention elsewhere. Looking along the sand, I could see sunburnt men wearing strange triangular hats made of closely plaited leaves or fibre. Painted white, they gleamed in the sun. The Nulias are local fishermen. They are found in resorts like ours, all along Orissa, on the eastern Indian coast. Nulias are strong swimmers who understand the changing moods of the sea and the weather and in the tourist season for a few rupees, they will act as lifeguards.

Watching Mistha running fearlessly towards the surf, our Nulia countered her every move. When Mistha darted towards the breakers, he gently scooped her up. When he did, she wriggled and squealed with delight. A game, this was a game to her. Seeing this back and forth, the perfect blue of the sea, and the unrelenting heat tempted me to go for a swim. “The weather is changing,” the Nulia warned. It would be better to swim before the evening. I was not convinced. The sea beyond the surf was calm and impossibly blue and with the sun still bearing down the sand was burning hot. The sea provided the allure of relief.

Ashok warned me to be cautious. “I know you're a strong swimmer, but remember you are six months pregnant and the current can be treacherous.” Not only was I six months pregnant but I was also swimming in a sari. The six yards of cloth make a comfortable garment to swim in, as long as the water is relatively calm. I could see Indian women in bright cotton saris bobbing up and down near the shore. I would not be alone. However, something made me hesitate. Swimming in a wet, heavy sari in deep water could be dangerous. In rough seas six yards of wet cotton could well pull you under the water.

Clutching the Nulia’s hand tightly, I negotiated the surf easily enough. We walked beyond the white water where the waves were breaking, into calmer water, deep enough to swim in. The Nulia was close beside me, ready to hold my hand if I stumbled. Once in the calmer water beyond the breakers, swimming was refreshing and pleasant. The water was transparent; I saw the ridges of sand on the ocean floor and the sea creatures and strands of seaweed, like fine, green hair near the bottom. Always by my side, the Nulia dived and came up holding an exquisite shell. As the sunlight struck it, all the colours of the rainbow gleamed and glinted. It felt like paradise.

Suddenly, as if an invisible, giant hand held me in its grasp, I felt paralyzed, quite unable to move. I was helpless and being carried away. I felt the frightening power of the sea. It was not the depth, but a sense of utter helplessness which overtook me. My legs were not part of me. They were lumps of heavy lead which I no longer owned. This lack of control was not new to me. I had felt it before, when Ashok and I were stranded in an Alpine ski lift, suspended over a glacier with nothing but time and freezing winds to keep us company while we dangled. Now, like then, a force of nature moved my body for me, the sea lifted me as it had with Mistha earlier, like the lightest of feathers. She had thought it was “fun”. Now I realized why the Nulias respected its power.

But I was not without help. In a moment the Nulia had lifted me over the surf. I was back where fingers of bubbling foam touched the hot sand. I sat on the burning sand. I thought of my father's refusal to enter the sea, even though he had served in the Malta Convoys during the War. “It is too magnificent to paddle in,” he had said. I knew then that he was referring to both its beauty and its power. Back on the beach, the Nulia explained that a side current, a strong one, had caught me, and in deeper water it could have been deadly dangerous.

After about half an hour watching Misha trying to build a sandcastle, we wandered up the beach. Young boys were selling char, a sweet, spicy tea in delicate clay pots. Ashok bought two cups at which Mistha began protesting loudly. The boy smiled and handed her a watered-down child's version. I couldn't help laughing, “Indians are too indulgent with kids.”

Later in the evening, we walked back towards the sea and observed it from a distance. The Nulia had been right. The weather suddenly changed. As the sun was setting, a cold wind sprang up. The palm trees were bending and their fluttering leaves looked like an excited feather duster. The sky was now dark and cloudy which gave the sinking sun an angry red-rimmed eye look as it descended below the horizon. Most importantly, the sea was no longer that calm, inviting blue of the afternoon. It was grey and sullen. At dusk, only a blood red stain marked where the sun had set. A commotion broke our quiet reflection on the day’s events. “There seems some sort of hullabaloo down on the beach,” Ashok remarked.

I listened to shouts blown by the rising wind. A row. “Yes, probably about dividing today’s catch,” I replied, envisioning loud arguments regarding the largest and best specimens and to whom they should go.

“No, I can hear someone shouting. In German, I think.”

Ashok was determined to find out. He jumped from the path to the shingle. It was a matter of a meter’s drop from the elevated pathway, which ran along the sea front, to the beach. We all walked towards the excitement, battling the wind which was blowing in from the sea at a ferocious speed.

By the time we arrived there was quite a crowd on the beach, including a huddle of Nulias, whose white caps appeared ghostly in the scant lights from the fishermen’s huts. In the center of the crowd was the German man. He wore soaking wet swimming trunks with a towel clutched around him.

He and his wife were swimming when the sea changed. They had both been carried out to sea by strong currents and the ebbing tide. He was the stronger swimmer and had battled his way against the waves. But she was still in the water! She lacked the strength to fight the fierce side current.

How must this woman feel alone in the now darkening sea? Is she thinking about her children, probably far away in Germany? Is she imagining sinking, suffocating, drowning? Perhaps she is looking out into the darkness, drifting, drifting to a terrifying end?

Ashok stepped in to help. There was a language barrier. The man--despite speaking German and English fluently--could not talk to the Nulias who spoke Oriya. Ashok bridged the gap. As soon as the Nulias understood the situation, they spoke hurriedly to one another for a moment, devising a plan of action. Two of them ran back to the huts, quickly emerging with a very long, thick rope, at least three buses long. More men had appeared on the beach as if by magic. One of the tallest Nulias lashed the end of the rope round his waist prior to wading into the dark water. Every three metres or so the next man seized the rope, carried its weight, and entered the water. This human chain struggled further and further into the sea.

Two huge lorries driving along the beach road, had stopped to watch. Their lights shone out over the rescue efforts, illuminating them like a scene from a television program. The light, playing on the dark faces, threw up strange shadows while the white crests of the waves and the white hats of the Nulias moved and danced.

There was no change to the scene as Nulia after Nulia continued venturing into the angry sea. No splash or scream. No sign of life. And then suddenly we glimpsed a woman’s white swimming hat, bobbing up and down between the waves. The chain of fishermen, not yet to her, was fighting its way through the rough water. The beams of light lit up the tense faces as they battled to keep hold of the slippery rope. The first Nulia, the tall Nulia, was agonisingly close to her. We held our breath. And after one final push, he was at last, within reach.

The crowd on the shingle let out a collective cry of relief. Now, came the return. The Nulia on the beach end of the rope began hauling it in with tremendous effort. Others joined and began pulling too. And as the woman, towed behind the first Nulia, reached the surf, still several other people ran into the sea to carry her safely to the beach.

The husband had tears in his eyes, as he watched a doctor attending his wife. Though

wrapped in a blanket, she had recovered enough to speak. She had been floating

on her back waiting for rescue, rather than fighting against the current. She knew they would come.

As we walked back to the hotel, I wondered out loud how our Nulia had known the weather would suddenly flip. “They earn their living from the sea. They pay homage to it. Above all, they respect its moods and its power,” Ashok reminded me.

“Yes, a bit like reading your best friend’s moods- or maybe your husband’s!” I replied. An acquired skill.

Sarah Das Gupta is a retired teacher from Cambridge, UK who also lived and taught in India and Tanzania. She began writing last October while in the hospital, following an accident. Her work has been published in many literary journals and magazines from over 12 different countries, including: US, UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, India, Croatia, Romania among others. Writing has provided the challenge and interest needed to learn to walk again.


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