The Lull and Lure of Sea Waters

FOR years I have had a large seashell, and by putting it to my ear I can hear the distant sob and hiss of the sea - or so I fancied, until this romantic notion was dispelled by 12-year-old Mukesh, who told me that the same effect could be obtained by holding an empty cup to my ear. He was right, of course. In fact, the cup sounds better than the shell! And for years I'd gone on imagining that the sound of the sea was somehow trapped in my shell. But I still cling to it, for it takes me back to Jamnagar, on the west coast of India, and memories of sea and sand, small steamers and large Arab dhows plying the Gulf of Kutch. My small hand in my father's, I explored with him the little port's harbor and beach, bringing home shells of considerable variety and even a small crab, which lived in a spare bathtub for several days and was forgotten - until a visiting aunt, in a tub bath after a long train journey, found it keeping her company among the soapsuds. Amid much clamor and consternation, it was evicted from the house and dropped into a nearby well. But my aunt was convinced that I had deliberately placed it in the tub, and she refused to speak to me for the rest of her stay. A small British steamer was often in port, and my father and I would visit the captain. He was a good-natured Welshman who gave me chocolates - a great treat in those days, for Jamnagar was too small a place for a Western confectionary shop. I was ready to go to sea with Captain Jenkins, convinced that chocolates were only to be found on tramp steamers. We left Jamnagar when World War II broke out, and my father joined the Royal Air Force. It was to be some 10 years before I saw the sea again, for I went to a boarding school in the hills. I was still in my teens, but now bereft of my father, when I set sail from Bombay in the S.S. Strathnaver, a beautiful P & O liner, one of a fleet; its sister ships were the Strathaird and Stratheden. Those were the days of the big passenger liners, before fast air travel put an end to leisurely ocean voyages. It took just over a fortnight to reach Southampton or London, but there was never a dull moment on the voyage. Apart from interesting shipboard acquaintances - the sort of mixed company that gave Somerset Maugham material for his stories - there were also colorful ports of call: Aden, Port Said, Marseilles, Gibraltar. At Marseilles, I decided to miss the coach tour and instead walk into the town. After three hours of walking along miles and miles of dockland, I finally reached the outskirts of the city - just in ti me to catch the coach back to the ship! BUT later, living in London, I never tired of walking among the docks and wharfs along the Thames, for many of those places were associated with the novels of Dickens, which had inspired me to become a writer. Limehouse, Wapping, Shadwell Stairs, the Mile End Road, the East India Docks, these were all places I knew from "Bleak House,Dombey and Son," and "Our Mutual Friend." And there was the fog, a thick pea-souper, that seemed to have lingered on from the fog that had enveloped the characters and the ac tion in "Bleak House," setting the tone for that masterpiece. London, I am told, no longer has fogs - they are dispersed by modern and scientific means - and although the air no doubt is cleaner and healthier now, I feel sure some of the magic has gone - along with the East End of old. The sea, of course, has been celebrated by many great writers - Conrad and Melville, Stevenson and Masefield, to name some of the more famous. I have shelves full of books about the sea. Although the mountains have been my abode for many years, it is hard to find great books written about mountains. From London's dockland to the Channel Islands was a short trip but a considerable change. I lived on the island of Jersey for two years. It had a number of bays and inlets of great charm and beauty, and it was there that I learned to watch the tides advancing and retreating, and discovered that they made different sounds in different places. Every tide has its own music, and those who live near a lonely shore soon learn to recognize its ripple, throb, sob, or sigh. And sometimes the tide comes up from the deep against a steep sandbank and roars its defiance. The riptide that pushes through the Channel Islands off the Norman coast has a smoother thud than most, though it comes from the same Atlantic as the harsher sounding waters among the Orkneys. The difference may be that the Channel tides move through purple waters that have drifted up from sunny Portugal, while the other has a shiver from the coast of Greenland. The music of sea waters is wonderfully varied. Every bay, headland, and strait has its note, which the local fisherfolk recognize even in time of dense fog; a note that guides them home or helps them locate the place for their fishing. For many years I have lived far from the sea. Sometimes I feel the urge to go down to the sea again, all the way from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin. And maybe I will one day. Meanwhile, if I wish to listen to the sound of the sea, there's always my seashell - or Mukesh's teacup.

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