After shuddering in the monsoon blight plaguing Bangalore, we actually warmed to the muggy humidity of Chennai. The skin began to breathe again and the sinuses cleared up. It was dusk when we headed out to Marina Beach. Running a total length of 13 km, it is India's longest urban beach and reportedly the second such in the world. On previous visits, I have remembered Marina as a filthy strip of sand, overpopulated and noisy and crawling with petty thieves. On this weekday evening, though, it was quiet and rather romantic. Or maybe what you don't see can't hurt you.
We passed couples munching sundal (boiled, seasoned chickpeas with wedges of green mango and shreds of coconut) and shooting the breeze. Behind us the lights of Triplicane dazzled in the corrugated air as smoke rose from the oil-filled woks where malaga bajjis (chilli pakoras) were frying. Fishing boats, inert, were stacked up at the water's edge. Azhar snooped around them, seizing his chances.
A honk caught my attention. It was a wiry man clutching a few bulging plastic sacks, his gaunt, hollow cheeks distended against the lip of a sea conch. He blew hard and the sound rang, cutting through the noises of trinket vendors, beachgoers and traffic. Murugan - that was his name - held out a large, spiny conch to me. Did I want one?
"One-fifty rupees only."
The conches were polished to a waxen finish. Their shells were porcelain-smooth. Some, I noticed, were the shells of Textile Cone snails, large molluscs that prey on smaller conch snails by stunning them with poisonous darts. Some of these are known to be fatal even to humans, with one called the 'cigarette snail' being capable of killing a human, painlessly, in less than the time it takes to finish a cigarette. These marine molluscs have exquisitely patterned shells resembling the warp and weft of fabric. The ones that Murugan showed me were undeniably attractive and invited the curiosity of passers-by, many of whom were struck at how affordable they were. "Are they for real?" one doubting tourist asked him, to which Murugan launched into an elevator speech declaring their rarity and worth.
Murugan, 31, belongs to a community of fisherfolk. Once or twice a week, he supplements his routine trade with pearl-fishing and by harvesting sea shells. The latter trade is rampant along the coast. It is also illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). But Murugan isn't really aware of that; neither are the authorities who can be seen off with a customary bribe.
He sells the smaller shells for as little as Rs 20 or 30, but the larger ones he keeps in a separate plastic bag. There are oyster shells with a lustrous mother-of-pearl finish, ribbed conches and fluted cones with a latticework of unbelievable patterns. These are the real treasures, he tells me, showing me some fine specimens that he sells for as much as Rs 750 or 1,000 apiece. By the time they reach the showrooms, he says as he urges me to pick a piece, the price tags quadruple.
Murugan says locating the shells is a matter of luck. "Some days the trips are a big waste of diesel," he said. "But in a month I collect enough to make about Rs 40,000."
How do the shells get their smooth, china-like finish, I ask him? He tells me they are washed in acid, a process that also kills the fleshy organisms that create these shells and inhabit them. These days, however, acid is exceedingly hard to buy.
Last month, the Supreme Court of India curbed over-the-counter sales of acid after a spate of acid attacks on women and ordered state governments to enforce the law as well as compensate victims to a tune of Rs 3 lakh.
Will that drive up the price of Murugan's shells? Maybe, he says. Until the fishing season begins again after the monsoon, that's going to be the only way to make ends meet.
Photos by Azhar Mohamed Ali
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