A beach lost. A paradise gained.

Chennai is, as anybody would tell you, blessed with lots of big, wide beaches. The most popular, of course, is the Marina. North to south, it's about 20 kilometres long. Least popular is my own Thalankuppam. And north to south, it measures a maximum of 2 kilometres.

It is a boring Monday afternoon. Itching for a little photography, a little solitude, I follow the coast to as far as it would take me away from the oft-seen.  And this how I find the beach.

But first, let me begin at the beginning. Once upon a time, white men came searching for cloth and spices with which to build a company. The cloth, they found, was cheapest in a sandy strip of land on the south east coast of a country they called India.  And so here they built factories and towns, and forts and palaces and country houses. Trade was good, as was the political climate (the atmospheric one not always so) and thus a company transformed into a kingdom and then to an empire. By then, the sandy strip of land had turned into the premier city. And as befits all premier cities, improvements were made. 

All that culminated in a city with an urban area of approximately 2000 sq.kms. It's within this limit, just 17 kilometres north of the fort where the Madras story started, mine starts.
A not-too-wide, not-too-narrow beach. And fine sand, arranged layer upon layer – like some archaeological dig – forming cozy little alcoves and windy dunes in which to sit and wonder at the sight in front of my eyes. 
Back to the past, briefly. Inside the fort, the Lords desired fish. Fresh fish that would remind them of home and bubbling brooks. One such bubbling brook existed not very far away. Called variously the Kourtaliyar, the Mugathwaaram and thalan, this rivulet meets the Bay of Bengal at Thalankuppam. And fish here was in plenty. 

Let me correct that last statement. Fish here is in plenty.
Let me spend a moment describing the river. It begins its course in the west, some say just outside the Poondy reservoir that supplies the city of Chennai its water. Rivers, as is their wont, are restless creatures forever in search of a good beach to end a day in. This river is no different. It flows gently, merrily north and east and, still gently, meets the crashing waves of the Bay of Bengal at Thalankuppam.

At the mouth, a once bustling pier is gently rotting away. It's seen better days. Before we take a long walk on the long pier, how about a short walk down the beach? Just to my left, at the confluence, a rusted old machine hums away. The Dredger, it trawls the river's mouth,  preventing a sand bar from forming and thus destroying this delicate ecosystem. For you see, sea water needs to meet fresh water for fish to live happily ever after. The dredger is now so much a part of life for the locals here, the beach has been named "Dujjer beach". I walk further down the beach. In a nestled cove, between two big mounds of sand, a fisherman smokes a beedi and lazes. He spots my camera and offers to be my guide for the evening. We talk a little. He doing all the talking and I doing all the nodding my head in agreement.
Fishing, he tells me, is the main vocation. Standing tall, on flimsy catamarans; or squatting by the waterline, rudimentary fishing pole and line swaying in the breeze, these people wait for the bite. And it usually comes. Big and small, colourful and grey, fish do bite and their patience does get an answer. From the sea, the fish is taken to the market - a short stretch of bad road, and here is where this hamlet truly comes alive. Thalankuppam then and Thalankuppan now is Chennai's best known market for fresh fish. Locals and aliens, far and wide, come here (as did the British chefs, once upon a city) to buy their daily meat. One can either buy in small quantities or bid for the entire lot. Yes, fish auctions.

My guide, the fisherman, continues his speech. He tells me of days past, when the locals of Thalankuppam were in demand - as stevedores and grunts in the ports that flank the area. Ennore to the north and Chennai to the south both popular and busy ports gave many a men from Thalankuppam employment and food. The few who didn't work in the port, did so in the many factories and foundries that abound here. By now, we've walked right to the southern edge of the beach and, turning around, head to the pier. A faraway look in his eyes takes me too to what is now a familiar territory for me. The British past. I imagine large boats, the Union Jack fluttering merrily, and white men in wigs and elaborate costumes on board. I imagine a sunset, as glorious as the one now on show. The imagined scene from the past merges with the seen now - a boat not far away, course set for the Ennore port, and a sunset. Now, as it must have been then, fishermen on board catamarans throw lines and simple, home-made nets and wait patiently for a bite. Now, as it must have then, the sun sets. Setting this place on fire, a golden glow permeating every visible surface, and some invisible ones as well.

We are now on the pier itself. If there's beauty in decay, this would qualify for the Miss World crown. Now brilliantly lit, resembling bars of gold growing out of the sand, the pier invites you to take a walk down its length. And promises a photographer's delight as reward. Just as I go trigger happy, he walks away, answering a woman's call. Blue water turns yellow, then red and then black. Two little boys on cycles twice their age and height approach me. They want to be photographed. I oblige, and their smiles are the only things brighter than the sun. Their cycles, silhouetted tell me it's time I too head home. But not before one last look at a beach the rest of the city has forgotten.

Originally published in BTW Magazine, February 2008

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