At daybreak on the Marina, a series of 15 men line the shore, their eyes searching the waves. In the beginning, it seems like calm, quiet contemplation — like they are seeing the horizon for the first time and marvelling at all the sea has to offer. Suddenly, among them, T Jambulingam swoops down and grabs a handful of the wet sand and cheers.
He has found a ₹10 coin. He waves it around with joy and the rest nod appreciatively. “It rained last night. The sea is murky and the sandbars shift. This allows all the old coins tossed in the ocean to resurface. More often than not, we find money that people have thrown in for different things — processions, deaths,” he says.
Jambulingam is among the several fishermen who have not ventured into the sea today. It is rough after the several bouts of unseasonal yet heavy August rains that particularly seem to assault the city at night. While some walk by the shore with nets and small cages to catch crabs about a minute’s swim into the ocean, others refrain and prefer to hunt for coins. “We only come here at this exact hour between 6am and 7am. Not for longer than that. Everyone has other business to get to,” he says.
You would think that everything that needs to be said about the Marina has been documented on print and film. The shaky sunrise has been captured on HD phone cameras and on faded sepia stills. The hawkers are bored of talking to the press and the yoga masters can now direct the camera folk on how best to capture them. They know their angles well now. Despite this, the second longest beach in the world which was once 10 kilometres long — connecting the Harbour to Besant Nagar, continues to spring surprises.
With accessories like watchtowers, an accessibility ramp, smart-watch laden walkers and a large, garbage-collection machine that whirrs extra loud after a long Sunday’s debauchery, the Marina has undergone significant transformation. There is civil work taking place to construct a grand metro station by the Lion Capital of Ashoka pillarnear the Director-General of Police’s office. It will change the face of the promenade built back in 1884 by then governor of the Madras Presidency, Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant-Duff who aimed for the beach to be a “lung.. For thousands.. In quest of cooling breezes from the sea,” according to late historian S Muthiah’s book Madras Rediscovered.
Today, the walkway has statues with manicured lawns that bloom with pink, white and purple bougainvillaea in the summer. Yet, the people who come back to the spot year after year, sometimes day after day, cannot get enough of the saline breeze and the occasional spray of the sea. We walk about six kilometres along the water’s edge — from Harbour to the Pattinapakkam side of the Broken Bridge to check if the lung of the city continues to take steady, deep breaths.
R Ravi enters the beach near the MGR Centenary Arch at Chepauk. He walks towards the water, stretching. He folds his hands as though he is praying to the sea and then takes his phone out to click pictures of the burnished orange sky dissipating the rain clouds of yesterday. He is back from Qatar after six months. “I used to live in Mogappair and work near the beach before I left abroad. Back then, afternoons would be spent here. I dropped my son at the station now and thought I’d step in to see what it is like. So much has changed. The skyline, the beach,” he says.
LS Venkatakrishnan and his wife V Shyamala who have visited the beach nearly everyday for the last 12 years now, agree. Except for the difficult parking situation and the greater amount of garbage which they attribute to the insensitivity of the public, the duo is appreciative of the revision by the city’s local body. When they were younger, they used to walk briskly all the way from the Kannagi statue to the memorials for political leaders. However, Shyamala is unable to walk easily on the sand. For her, the accessibility ramp helps.
Sitting over a small white towel, the couple speaks about the humdrum of daily life and “malarum ninaivugal (blooming memories)” in Shyamala’s words. “We talk about how we used to take our son to school on a cycle. It then became a bike. We now have a car. I am retired and my son is settled in another country. Lots of change,” he says.
Near the lighthouse now, I am refused interviews by two entities — the garbage collectors driving tractors on the beach and a couple nearly sitting atop each other, feeding each other jam bun. Both say, “Good morning” chirpily but also “Venam akka”. Ah, to be busy at work or in love at 7am on a Monday morning.
After 15 minutes at the beach by Loop Road, a small group of three women who do not usually frequent Marina is here. They prefer the Elliot’s they say. “We can sit at the Besant Nagar beach and get something nice to eat after,” says Deepti A. But today, they are here for a quiet catch-up about their lives. Deepti now lives in Bangalore but comes here every time she visits. The Loop Road side is calmer than the rest with less garbage, they say. This is besides the occasional sighting of the exposed derriere. It is a trade-off.
After having my legs get caught in multiple nets, I reach Pattinapakkam and meet D Patturoaja who sells the red snapper, vanjaram and a host of other fish. She dissuades me from heading further. “There is absolutely nothing there. It is just the end,” she says.
Seven thousand-something steps from the Harbour, I reach the Adyar Estuary. There is the Broken Bridge to nowhere, the Theosophical Society and the high-rises of MRC Nagar — all of which are now permanent fixtures of this seascape. However, I also run into pelicans, egrets and buffaloes at the end of this journey. Patturoja is right. There is mostly nothing here except the sand, loud waves, sunny, meditative silence, semi-permanent feathered friends and buckets of beauty.
Oh wait, is that a ₹10 coin?