At the crack of dawn, Murali A. leaves home to join a group of fishermen, past their prime, at the beach to work a job which Albert Camus’ would have at best described ‘existentialist’.
These men are the treasure hunters of Kozhikode beach. They spend their days watching the waves wash in trinkets, from scraps of gold to broken sunglasses to salt-eaten coins.
From wizened old men to those with weather-beaten faces, the men line up along the edge of the beach line, impervious to the crashing waves of the high tide and noisy tourists jumping and screaming as the water surges in.
For them, it is a world of intense inner calm, of concentration, while scanning the waves for that shiny or elusive piece of fortune the sea might bring them.
“Our moment is the seconds between two waves. If you spot something, by instinct you have to pick it up. If you hesitate or try to hold it back by stamping it under your feet, the sea wriggles it out and takes it back with the receding wave,” Murali said.
A decade ago, he was the prosperous owner of a 37-feet-long skiff, with several hands working under him.
“Everything came crashing down. It was a monsoon day like this. On our way back from a fishing trip, my boat hit a rock near Beypore. We did not see it. The boat was cut in half. I did not take insurance. I had debts from buying the boat. All those friends who were with me left,” he said.
Dressed in his work clothes - a stained shirt and a faded lungi with an umbrella perched on his shoulder, Murali admits that he had never struck gold on the beach.
“It is luck. For generations, our community have searched the beach for trinkets. My grandfather used to tell stories of how the urus from Arabia used to anchor off the coast and the treasures washed ashore,” he says.
Umbayee P. a veteran gatherer in his eighties, says he still has vague memories of his fishing days.
“I remember being stranded in the sea… waiting for death, but still not willing to give up,” he said, unwilling to stop to talk, his eyes scouring the sand for treasure.
Usman Koya, shivering from the cold and the rain as he uncovers a pack of cigarettes and a matchbox carefully wrapped in a polythene cover, left fishing after an accident.
“I was drawing the anchor in, when it fell on my thigh. It aches when it is cold,” he said.
Most of the men recount tales of their days ploughing the sea, challenging it, only to be eventually mocked back at.
“The sea always gets the better of you. When you are young you challenge her. The anger of the sea touches your heart as you grow old. Slowly the sea takes over your fear. Now, after a lifetime out there, I cannot stay at home with the women. So, old men like me come here for hunting trinkets,” Umbayee said with a mocking smile on his face.
A whoop of joy rings out. It is Manickyan, a relatively younger man. He has just found a broken bracelet, probably gold. He does not wait, but rushes away after hurriedly shoving it in his pocket.
“Finders keepers,” Umbayee said, dropping his head down again to search the waves once again.