There were no mermaids rising out of the basement. In a poetry class long ago, Emily Dickinson had promised there would be. I had believed her then just as easily as I didn’t wonder about their absence now.
My maudlin soul assumed it was because the seabed was dotted with angry, moving spots of red.
Hundreds of them.
The mermaids were no doubt hiding; I was braver because I was being carried deep into the sea by a much-in-love husband.
It wasn’t as romantically suicidal as it appears though your perspective on life, love and land changes dizzyingly when your feet are not on the ground and your eyes are not looking at the sea from its shore but the other way round. Chandipur or Chandipur-on-sea, if you want it to sound more syrupy, looks different depending on where you are looking from, when you are looking and who’s doing the looking.
There are no golden sands and aquamarine crashing waves at this forgotten little seaside on the magnificent Orissa coastline that is over 480km in length. Even from a few feet away, you have to strain to hear the sea. The tall casuarina trees that are scattered all around the semi-circular beach make more welcoming noises than her. But she is unbothered about everybody except the moon—for she is a tide beach and listens exclusively to what he dictates. Here, on this stretch of her journey, she is satiated. She neither shimmers nor dazzles but her sleet-grey ripples mildly slap around your feet and minute waves follow—you would be forgiven if you, like me, thought they were simply too shy to do anything else.
Water colours: The Tidal beach at Chandipur is revealed twice a day as the sea recedes nearly 6Km.Photo by AR Shakti Nanda.
Around 16km from the town of Balasore, Chandipur might be a familiar name for some because of the Integrated Test Range (from where ballistic missiles are test-fired) located on a heavily guarded section of the beach. But as a seaside resort, it is one of those clichéd “hidden gems” that travel writing is littered with, never mind if they really exist in the real world. Often looked upon as a poor cousin of the more popular Puri beach or Gopalpur-on-sea, the tide beach is mostly frequented by residents of Balasore, surrounding towns and villages who, if you care to ask them, speak of it with great affection, as one would about a loyal companion of many years.
Indeed, if you visit Chandipur in the right frame of mind, it will inspire enough affection to last a lifetime. If you don’t go looking for Goa, Chandipur will reveal to you a beauty that will break your heart just a little, not too much. When the sun rises and all you can see of the water is a thin line of shimmer below a horizon that’s no more than an orange arc, you might look up at the stately trees and the many eye-deceiving patterns they make in the light of dawn and wonder how you could have thought just the previous day that it was the dullest beach you have ever seen. To gush a bit more, it is just the kind of place to realize that love is no friend of yours, but sigh, you still have the blues… Gary Moore, the British blues singer who died earlier this year, wouldn’t have been too unhappy to strum his iconic number Still Got the Blues on Chandipur’s bleak shores.
Blues might easily come to mind when you take a walk along its edge but the colours here are more monochrome— the brown of the sand flows into the grey of the sea, which, in turn, blends into the slate of the sky. Here is a space that can easily transport you to your deepest self if you give it half a chance. Here is where you can get on with just being yourself, without the distractions of rationality. Chandipur’s unaffected innocence makes you want to recollect your own memories of a wide-eyed childhood even as you bend down every second minute to collect the multi-hued starfishes, seashells and crab claws left behind for you by a sea that believes in retreating to rejuvenate. You clean them carefully, determined to display all of them in your living room; they even survive the bumpy train journey but you reach home and forget all about them.
But forgetfulness is not a quality that will be appreciated by the slate-grey maiden of Chandipur. She might retreat every day but she never forgets to return. Twice every day, she puts up a performance for her worshippers. At appointed times, the waters recede nearly 6km and that is when you can exorcise all your suicidal tendencies by walking into the sea. When the tide comes in, she returns, as sedately as ever, thus graciously allowing you to always be a step ahead of her while you walk back to the shore.
To walk so far into the sea is to experience an introspective moment, whatever sort of disbeliever you are. There is a strange tranquillity that comes with walking towards the horizon—maybe it is the mixture of colours and the quality of light or maybe it is just the sheer feeling of liberty. Whatever it may be, what it effectively does is capture, for a short time, the kind of abandon one might feel if one is unafraid of death.
Which is why, when you return with the sea, with the sun setting behind you, you feel strong enough to pursue the unexpected and believe in the unlikely—mermaids included.
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