As we emerge from the cool, dark interiors of Fort Cochin’s St. Francis Church into the evening sun, my daughter declares that she wants to go to the beach. The shore holds a strange fascination for her. She feels a thrill in letting the waves lap over her legs. I have felt it too, the visceral crunch of the sand, the moment of cool surprise when the water meets my bare toes, the swift sucking of sand as the waves retreat, and the attempt to maintain a tenuous balance as the world shifts beneath my feet.
The road to the beach is flanked by strange photographs. The people in the black-and-white images drip paint, their faces blurring and congealing, their skin flowing in the heat of the Kerala sun. The pictures are part of the 2012 Kochi Muziris Biennale art festival, the first of its kind in India. I want to linger by them but my daughter tugs at my hand, impatient for the waves. The bleached eye of a portrait urges me ahead.
The beach is not particularly pretty, just a thin strip of grey sand leading to a murky ocean. But the atmosphere is festive. There are throngs of people all around and the collective throb of things happening. Like most urban shores, Kochi’s beach is a hub of activity. It’s the variety of the activity that makes this beach special.
We see a banner featuring two burly torsos advertising the Kerala State Gatta Wrestling Kesari Championship 2012. A portion of the beach has been cordoned off to make space for a temporary arena. A crowd of tourists and fans sit on red plastic chairs waiting for the match to begin. We clamber on a pile of rocks to get a good look at Jhiku, with his large stomach hanging over small black briefs, and Faisal, his shorter, lighter opponent.
At first, they lightly grapple on the sand, lunging at each other, their faces impassive. The gentleness of their moves and their proximity to each other makes them look like they’re participating in an ancient mating ritual. However, the gatta crowd claps fiercely as Faisal manages a tricky manoeuvre and the lugubrious Jhiku finds himself kissing sand.
I have often seen urban beaches become a playground for children, the rocks a camouflage for lovers. The open shore offers escape from the claustrophobic clutches of the city. I had expected the usual sprawl of people and sand that I have encountered at Chowpatty in Mumbai or the Marina Beach in Chennai. But Kochi’s shore reminds me of European town squares, which bring all kinds of people and ideals together.
Near a clutch of stalls selling cotton candy and an assortment of deep-fried sins, we encounter a group of men and women who are busy painting. I see graphic works of stark naked men with nooses around their necks. Another canvas shows a prone woman, her face contorted, and blood spurting from her eyes. My daughter is suddenly silent and with the wisdom of an 11-year-old, she does not ask any questions. She slips her hand into mine and I hold tight. These artists are protestors. Their works depict the horror of abuse and the punishment they think should be meted out to rapists.
Under the shade of a large banyan tree on the beach’s fringes, another voice beckons. Behind a fiery red cloth backdrop, two ladies are throwing punches. They are slight and dark, only young girls, but there is a coiled fury behind their moves. A black braid swings beneath her blue boxing helmet as Susan is knocked down by Parvati’s well-aimed upper cut. Her opponent appears unconcerned but the noise of the crowd dies down to a hush. Some rudimentary form of first aid is administered and Susan is up on her feet, nodding her head as if to say, “Yes, I am okay. I can do it.” I am not a fan of boxing but there is something heartening about watching the women fight. Their blows seem aimed not so much at each other but at a bigger, more menacing opponent. I feel happy, even proud, of these Malayali girls in a small city who have taken up this bloody sport.
As the sun dips down into the horizon, we see a cluster of Chinese nets. The Cheenavela, as they are locally called, have been on this beach for almost 500 years, brought to India by settlers from Macau. My husband whips out his camera, intent on making most of the light. My daughter finishes the last of her pale-pink cotton candy and I marvel at the welcoming nature of this public space, one that allows for diverse expressions and experiences.
“We didn’t go to the water,” my daughter notes as we leave the beach and head back into town. “Next time,” I tell her. The next time, I will be prepared to be surprised.
Appeared in the May 2013 issue as “Kochi Kaleidoscope”.