As a child, I was fortunate to be raised in a family that adored traveling. We embarked on journeys crisscrossing the country, from the majestic Himalayas to the pristine beaches of the coast and the islands. When asked which terrain I prefer, my heart always leans towards the seashore. There's an inexplicable bond I feel with the sea, whether it's in the Andamans, Gokarna, or Goa. The sea's colors, golden beaches, gazing at the rise and fall of the tide, and a cold beer on a deck. It was in those moments that I found my true self, lost in the harmony of nature, and utterly content.
I studied in Mangalore, a town known for its beaches, and at my university, we had a holiday on every third Saturday of the month. My ex-partner and I shared the same love for the coastal vibe. Since Goa was a few hours away, we visited Goa a lot. Many a time, we would get down at Canacona to gain solace at the calm beach of Palolem, enjoying pina coladas and beers instead of traveling north, away from the loud music and party lights. In Palolem, I noticed many golden agers from western countries flocked to the beaches, lying on the decks sipping beer and enjoying the 'summer like winter’ of the Indian coast. There was this particular gentleman I had met three times in a span of two years. I got into talking with him; he was a retired British navy gentleman who stayed in Goa from September to April and would return to London only in the summers to visit his adult-son and his family. This fine old gentleman would sit all day in that particular shack he had chosen to be in forever. He’d come down near sunrise, take a corner seat at the beach front, sit there reading a book, sometimes talking to people around, and sip beer all day until sunset. And that's when, although still in college, I had already planned my retirement. Interestingly, our Desi parents have different plans for their retirement. They need to plan their children's and grandchildren’s lives, which my 80-year-old grandmother calls "tension". With the classic South Asian family structure, we have “tension” as an important part of generational duty. The generational duty of maintaining a family structure is so deeply etched in our parents that they never want to truly retire. Or maybe we Indian kids don’t really ever grow up. A vicious cycle. From a 20-year-old rebellious college “teenager” to a 35-year-old needing his mom to find him a bride, we never grow up. Maybe climate change and the economic crisis cannot be solved so easily, but I wonder, in my dystopian dreams, that if this cycle is broken, lives for us Indians will be different for sure—challenging maybe, but a lot simpler.
So my love for coastal habitat developed a new interest in me. An interest in getting tanned in the sun. Especially lying down for hours on the beach in my bikini for a whole day seemed like a dream come true. Being a chronic vitamin D-deficient woman in her 20s, that didn't seem to be a bad idea. I loved the tan, never the burn, so not forgetting sunscreen, of course. Visiting Goa after four years, I was in tears to relive the dream that flaunted my bikini tan lines. A month after my flawless trip, I joined a clinic in Kolkata, returning to the grind and work. During the famous Durga Puja festival in Kolkata, my family came down to Kolkata to celebrate. At that time, my father's elder brother and his wife (in Bengali, Jethu and Jethima) visited us from Lucknow. The last time I met this set of relatives of mine was when I was an 11-year-old child. There’s this thing about retired Indian relatives: With all the scrutiny they can muster, they’ll observe the spring-time generation from head to toe like a QR scan. And the fact that they saw me after ages added more interest to my Jethima. She scanned me and concluded that I have lost weight, as she could assess from the earlier pictures my mom sent her, and I didn’t look as fair as I was as a child. Anyway, I subtly tried to ignore her. When I finally sat down after my long day of work, she asked me again, "What happened to you? You used to be so fair.”. I realized that my scheme of ignoring won’t work for long, so I smiled and said, "Jethima, I went to Goa; I deliberately got tanned. I like it.” She was shocked with her face going blank for a second, then she gathered herself to look at my mom and said, “What is she saying? Which woman likes to get dark? She was so fair as a child, puro dudh e alta (milk in red dye).” In the vibrant tapestry of Indian traditions, alta, a traditional red dye, is commonly applied by Indian women to their feet. The expression "dudh e alta" is used in Bengal to describe the pale pink color that appears after mixing with milk, considered the ideal skin color for a so-called fair girl. Back to the topic. My mom simply glared at me, then rolled her eyes; she had the same subtle racism every Indian held in their heart. With a sigh deep in my heart, I had to reply again, "Jethima, you see, people might like fair skin; I don’t mind any; I love basking in the sun, and if it makes me dark, others may care, but I don't; I have my sunscreen to keep it from burning.”. It was enough to silence her, even though it would not change an iota of her mind or my mom's, but there was something satisfying about sanding for myself and replying to her.
So the beach has always given me calmness and strength. Even the only tattoo I’ve gotten in my life was the waves against the sun, and no matter how much my mom degraded me and said that tattoos are for “choto lok” (low lives), with time I have learned to ignore the generational faults and the societal pride of class division, having embraced myself as my own with the help of the strength I’ve found in the waves, and with time I have learned to understand to live and let live.