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Between wind and water

Snigdha Manickavel | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 30, 2016
Drops in the oceans: Kanyakumari is the only place in India that receives both southwest and northeast monsoons.

Drops in the oceans: Kanyakumari is the only place in India that receives both southwest and northeast monsoons.   -  Shutterstock

Kanyakumari, where three oceans meet, makes you feel small and insignificant. And yet, it seems wrong if you have not stood at the point where India ends

My mother is from the southernmost tip of India, Kanyakumari district, where the story of India comes to an end. It is the point of convergence of three oceans, all unknowable, all brooding and churning. It is impossible to ignore an ocean, and when three oceans come together you have to go and look. You have to observe the spectacle, stand still and stare. You can’t pretend it’s not there.

Every time I have gone to Kanyakumari, as far south as you can possibly go, someone at some point has gone to the trouble of explaining in great detail that this is the only place in India that receives both northeast and southwest monsoons. I have patiently listened to this story again and again, thinking this can’t be true, can it? I see a map of India in my head and picture a swoosh of rain moving up from the south, another swooshing down from the north, and just one lucky spot getting to drown in both. As I grow older, I find myself fighting the impulse to question peoples’ stories. I have learned that many things can be true at the same time.





Technically speaking, my mother’s village is about 10 km from the ocean. This is the same distance I travel every day to get to work, crawling through the city, staring out of windows but not seeing a thing. When my mother was a little girl, on still nights when the tide was high, she could hear the ocean roaring and crashing as she fell asleep. She didn’t actually see the ocean until she was seven, and when she did, she was shocked to discover that the ocean was salty. No one had ever mentioned that before.

When you live close to a great big famous thing, you usually never go there. It is a thing for tourists. And thus, my mother never made it to Kanyakumari the tourist destination, until she was in her 20s. By that time she was a young woman who had friends who lived in big cities, and a college degree that she did not know what to do with. My mom and her friends did not have a good time that day. Men kept trying to touch them, they were hooted at, they wished they had never come. My mom, overcoming her reluctance to embrace the tourist experience, bought souvenirs like everyone else. When she returned to her hostel and opened up the newspaper wrapped box, at the end of this unsatisfying day, she discovered she had been sold a box of rocks. This incident would make my mother suspicious of small-time shopkeepers for the rest of her life, especially ones who wanted to wrap things up for her.

When my husband tells me he has never been to Kanyakumari, I can’t believe it. It seems unpatriotic, somehow. Worse than refusing to line up in front of an ATM cheerfully. What kind of school did you go to, I question him. Why did you not make an excursion to Kanyakumari? It all seems very wrong.

When you go to Kanyakumari the wind will hit you in the face, make your modest clothes sexy and make your face hurt. You will have to squint against the wind and end up looking angry in all the photos you take.

Something about Kanyakumari and the three oceans and the end of the idea of India makes a lot of men want to urinate directly into the ocean. If it was just one or two, you could ignore it, like you do most things in this country, but the sheer volume of ‘urinators’ will make you feel sad about life and ensure that you gaze at the ocean but never actually go in.

When you are in Kanyakumari, you will feel small and insignificant. Thoughts you have been running away from will find you. Clean air will force its way into your lungs and you will be confused by its lack of grime. You will look around you and see happy families and baffling monuments for unconnected things.

And because an ocean will not let you take yourself too seriously for too long, soon you will get distracted by vendors. They will distinguish your mother tongue at 500 yards and then beckon you to come towards them and buy shell-covered junk.

Between my sister and I, we make up one complete Tamil lady and one complete Malayali lady. As we walk towards the vendors, they call to us, Akka, Chechi, Chechi, Akka, peering at our faces as we come closer, unable to figure out just what we are. And we, with our slippery, contradicting identities, are touched by their confusion. We don’t know what we are either. We never have. We buy all the shells we can.

Snigdha Manickavel is a Chennai-based writer

Published on December 30, 2016
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