Warm sands, frothy waves, busy vendors, happy families and couples in love… Raveena Joseph takes in the sights, sounds and smells during an evening at the city’s landmark beach

I need to go to the Gandhi statue. Where is it?”

The auto driver seems clearly annoyed; it’s another 4 km away, he claims and doesn’t look too keen to drive me there. “You said Marina. This is Marina,” he says referring to the vast expanse of sand ahead of us.

He grudgingly drives me along the beach, passing various statues that mark the different entrances to Marina Beach, all the while mumbling about how I wasn’t clear about my preferred destination. It’s another 10 minutes before I reach the Gandhi statue that looms at the entrance to the beach. I look around and feel rather miniscule by the expanse of sand that surrounds me.

An Elliot’s beach-loyalist, going to the beach has always meant driving down to Besant Nagar, sitting on the parapet and eating a Pupil burger. The Marina doesn’t have a parapet wall that runs the course of the beach, but there are multiple surfaces for people to sit on, slump against or like one particular gentleman was doing, take a nice long nap with headphones plugged in.

Saree-clad runners, 12-year-old skaters, sweaty walkers, sitters, watchers, the Marina has no dearth of people. Yet, the people who make their living on the beach say that business is quite slow and that there are days when they make no money. “People hardly come here on school days,” says A. Saranya who sells ice-creams from a cart every evening at the beach. She knows the preferences of her customers and says, “lovers like choco-bar and married couples cassata”.

“These people in love, whether they go to work or not, are here every morning,” says S. Nadia, a groundnut vendor, who covers her face and giggles shyly before she can reveal any more about the agenda of these lovers who seem to be taking over the beach.

“She sells kadalai to people who come here for ‘kadalai’,” laughs Saranya and I understand what they mean. When I look around, I realise that these couples are everywhere — walking hand-in-hand along the shore, sitting on boats, standing near structures that would obstruct them from public view and cuddling behind idling catamarans.

As I giggle at Saranya’s clever joke, the American corn vendor from a little way down the beach walks over to borrow some salt. Further investigation about life on the Marina reveals that the exchange of salt and gossip is an everyday occurrence for the people who make their living on the beach, as the place practically doubles up as home for some of them.

“I see ghosts loitering at the edge of the water when I come here to sleep every night,” says R. Vijay, a student of class IX at the Corporation School, who doubles up as a horse rider at the beach every evening. A job that took him five years to master, he took it up to help pay his school fees and now he sits behind men twice his size and takes them for a horse ride along the beach for Rs. 50.

A little hungry, I am faced with the dilemma of what to eat and I feel rather spoilt for choice when I see what the Marina has to offer. There are different stalls that sell spicy groundnuts, pani puris, sugarcane juice, fresh-cut raw mangoes, sandwiches, American corn, corn-on-the-cob, deep fried bajjis, filter coffee, cotton candy and even a mobile seafood restaurant. I decide to play it safe and get a sandwich from ‘G. Elumalai Sandwitch’ stall before I walk into the beach.

I get to the edge of the water and plop on the sand that’s still a little wet from the time it got washed by the high tide. People roll their pants up to their knees, stand waiting at the edge of the water but back away laughing just as the tide comes in.

As I sit watching the age-old ‘lets-tease-the-tide’ routine, B. Ajith taps me on my shoulder and asks me if I want some sundal. “I make around Rs. 100 every day,” happily declares the 10-year-old who sells hot sundal for Rs. 10 a packet for an hour at the beach every day. His parents also work on the beach with his father selling sukku kaapi and his mother, ice-creams.

As one family makes their living on the beach, there are many more that visit it every day to make merry. Young men play football and Frisbee, women pick up air guns in style and aim them at colourful balloons lined up to shoot at, and children ride the merry-go-round and build sand castles along the shore. With about 30,000 people visiting the Marina on an average each day, it is no surprise that the longest beach in the country needs 100 police personnel to man it every day.

As I leave the beach, I take with me the souvenirs of the Marina — knotted hair that was happily tossing in the wind all evening, sand that inevitably manages to creep into the folds of my jeans and the lingering scent of fish and salt water.