What to Read Next

He sells sea shells by the sea shore

Bijoy Venugopal
Yahoo Lifestyle Entertainment
1 August 2013
Travel Great East Coast Road Drive Chennai
An exquisite conch that Murugan was selling for just 150 rupees. The catch? It's not entirely legal.

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

Follow The Great East Coast Road Drive on Twitter (#greatecrdrive)

Bad News For Insurance, Great News For Virginia

Virginia drivers, with cars and good driving records are learning that they may qualify for lower car insurance rates. Do you qualify?

How To Make Sagging Skin Look Tight and Lifted

[Watch] The easy and effective way consumers across the country are improving the look of their wrinkled and sagging skin without cosmetic procedures.

9 Cards for People Who Have Great Credit

What card offers up to 5% cash back? And which one offers 24/7 concierge service? See the best credit cards of 2016. Apply online, quickly & easily.

Don't Let Wrinkles Stop You From Meeting New Women

Men: Before you consider spending thousands on getting a cosmetic procedure to look younger, you should..

How Much Could Drivers Actually Save By Comparing?

EverQuote's simple online tool allows drivers to identify the best rates for them. Find out how much you could be saving on auto insurance.

Banks Are Worried Homeowners Will Do This.

Homeowners are surprised and furious. If you owe less than $625,000 on your home, you better read this.

What's your home really worth in today's market?

Find out what your home is really worth in 2016 with this free calculator, instantly.

Starwood Credit Card

Earn 25,000 Bonus Starpoints®! Use toward Award Nights or Flights.

Powerful Tactical Flashlight Flying Off Shelves!

This new tactical flashlight was just released to the public and is flying off shelves in the United States. Limited supplies left, act quick!

Best Balance Transfer Credit Cards of 2016

Banks are offering 0% APR for up to 15 months right now. Don't pay interest on your purchases and transfer a balance today. Apply securely here.

Delta Reserve Credit Card

Earn Up To 40,000 Medallion Qualification Miles. Apply Now!

Toddler tantrum email series for moms

We get it. We’ve been there. Sign up for our email track for advice on how to handle different situations that may arise with your little one.

Scary story origins for frightful fun

Scary stories are one of those things that get a rise out of everyone. But did you ever wonder about there ever being any truth to these stories?

Insane Navy Seal Flashlight, should it be banned?

The Military has recently released technology that is now available to the public. Get yours before they run out - Limited Supply!