In times of physical distancing, sharing a bhutta by the sea is a dilemma(Photo Imaging: Parth Garg)
In times of physical distancing, sharing a bhutta by the sea is a dilemma(Photo Imaging: Parth Garg)

Humour: The devil and the deep blue sea

The ocean may churn out clichés, but it never stops inspiring awe and wonder
By Rehana Munir | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JUL 19, 2020 08:05 AM IST

A recent work assignment tied to shipping has left me at sea. Every time I sit down to write, my mind is flooded with maritime clichés, leaving me in the dock. I try to steer ahead with confidence, but my whirring engine of thought hits the rock of an overused metaphor with the frequency of a cartoon pirate saying ‘Yarrr!’ Nautical miles of blank pages lie ahead, mocking me in salty language, asking if I can avoid the temptation to drop anchor at every available page end. And so, I consult my inner compass, scan the skies for signs, and steam ahead like an intrepid explorer, hoping to discover a treasure island where fresh words abound.

The diva in the sky

Not only did life in its most basic form originate in water – art, too, owes so much to its bounty, whether it’s Shakespeare’s tempestuous tides or Vikram Seth’s sea that is weary of description. Turner’s atmospheric paintings have captured the oceanic skies with a drama that every amateur watercolourist has tried to replicate with varying results. The exquisite, ever-changing streaks of colour painted across the sky as the sun drops into the ocean at dusk is exhibitionism of epic proportions. Like a timeless diva and her costume changes, it’s a different show every day. How not to be mesmerised?

“Whether it’s Shakespeare’s tempestuous tides or Vikram Seth’s sea, art owes much of its bounty to water”

Coming back to our enthusiastic watercolourists, anyone who’s ever been to a modest seaside resort would have suffered their aesthetic excesses on groaning walls. The sloping roofs of a sleepy village; a fishing net; a lurking cat; a distant sea. The same theme runs across the walls of countless seaside homes, embellished with sketches by retired grandfathers and precocious toddlers in their Blue Period. But in all this sameness, one sometimes senses a shared sense of wonder. Something that connects that charcoal horror on a pistachio wall with The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

The bhutta dilemma

Since everything must now be viewed through the lockdown lens – the dark descendant of the Snapchat filter – so must the ocean. To someone who considers herself unspeakably lucky to have been born in a coastal city, the sea has been offering a special kind of relief at this gridlocked time. When cabin fever hits, it helps to know there is a realm of freedom just a kilometre away. Of course, when one arrives to get a closer look, the sea of humanity (falling into the cliché whirlpool again) drives one away. Early mornings are ideal for the rendezvous; a quick glimpse, a long sigh, and a masked walk back home.

As lovers return to their perches on rocks, benches and boundary walls, crashing waves punctuating their amorous banter, I wonder what it must be like to weigh the risk of meeting against the misery of staying apart. And has the universal language of love admitted new rituals, in keeping with the times? Are sanitisers and masks replacing perfumes and scarves in the dating game? Is sharing a bhutta by the sea riddled with difficult emotions once reserved for age-old impediments to love, like warring families, demanding careers and differing opinions on the aloo in a biryani?

Aye aye, Captain!

An imaginary shoreline connects all my seaside memories with family and friends, from kala khatta gola on Sunday afternoons at Juhu beach to

10am mussels at Betalbatim beach in South Goa, a walk along the pier on a blustery Durban evening to a Pimm’s-soaked day on a pebbly Brighton shore. And then there is the solo night-time assignation, where all you need is the sea and a certain wistful mood. The wind in your hair, the gleam of a lighthouse and the tickle of sea spray: it makes you the star of your own, low-budget noir film, which your inner critic showers with five stars.

I was recently chatting with a seafarer friend, stranded on the ocean for months due to the pandemic. He gave me a glimpse of captaining a ship – the loneliness, the fatigue, the pressure. He’s back home with his crew now, but the call of the sea (and its lucrative rewards) will pull him back in time. So much better, I feel, to romance the ocean from a safe distance, building shaky sandcastles and painting clumsy seascapes. And trying to jettison tired oceanic phrases from one’s writing while sailing into a literary sunset.

Follow @rehana_munir on Twitter

From HT Brunch, July 19, 2020

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