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Rising as you sink

Umeed Mistry took a plunge into the uncertain oceans when others his age were busy cramming for CET

IT'S DEAD silent under water. The only sound breaking the expanding silence is from the regulator — hissing as air enters it and the soft sound of bubbles when the air leaves. No sense of taste. No smell. No feeling. Not even of wetness, because, enveloped by water on all sides, you only feel wet when you break the surface and emerge into the air outside. The only active sense in the ocean is sight.

Deep under water, Umeed Mistry turns his headgear back to front, so he loses even that sense. Once he does that, "the only tangible thing is breathing," he says. "My life on land in terms of my books, spirituality, and meditation complements diving and diving complements spirituality. No matter what troubles I have to deal with, when I start to sink, all that disappears."

At 24, he's already been diving nearly 10 years, after an experience in 1996 when, on a trip to the Maldives with his parents, Umeed was encouraged by them to try a scuba dive. He did, and it changed his life. "Nothing has affected me as much as that incident before or after it," he says. Over the next few vacations, he got himself certified at higher and higher levels as a scuba diver. After 12th grade, he went to study abroad, intending to major in oceanography or marine biology but "the four years helped me realise that the only thing I really wanted to do was dive and be in the water," he says.

His unhappiness with the course only grew with each passing semester, till he was pushed to the point "of doing something silly," he recalls. His parents hadn't been keen on his idea of taking a year off after his 12th to dive, so he was uncertain of how they'd react if he told them he now wanted to drop his course altogether.

Mid-way through his final year, pushed to the brink, Umeed saw two possibilities: one was to tell his parents he wanted to drop the course and be a diving instructor. The second was to take the $1,000 he'd saved the previous year, club it with the tuition fees his parents had sent, and just take off to the Mauritius and train to be a full-time instructor.

He chose to tell his parents. His unhappiness had only alienated him from them, he says, and he hadn't realised that they "had changed too, in the four years since I'd left. In their heart of hearts they understood." And so, Umeed left the course and began training to be a full-time instructor.

He now lives on Bangaram island in Lakshadweep, "where there's no internet, one phone, and no papers."

As a diving instructor with Lacadives, owned by ad filmmaker Prahlad Kakkar and his wife, Umeed dives every day, sometimes spending up to 12 hours in the water especially if it's season, between May and September. But "It's a fantastic feeling of exhaustion," he says, and he loves what he does. He can count on the fingers of just one hand the number of times he's felt lonely and says the moment he gets on the plane out of Lakshadweep, he "feels the itch to dive."

The pay is not bad either ("You are responsible for people's lives so you will get paid accordingly"). He gets free boarding and lodging and there are no shops on the island where he can blow up his salary so he's managed to save enough for trips to Australia and Indonesia and equipment purchases.

"I have a connection with water that transcends this lifetime," he declares. So he's "happy by a pond... happy in the Oberoi lobby watching the fountain... but happiest by the ocean." He also loves to be alone, so although he enjoys taking groups of people diving and watching their fascination with the world under water, a perfect dive is one made alone. No worrying about responsibilities as an instructor — currents, animals, equipment failure. Alone, as he was when he dived in the midst of a torrential storm which tossed up the ocean waters, and crashed the coconut trees in Lakshadweep. In the middle of it, Umeed put on his tank and dived into the churning waters of a lagoon where, he remembers, he couldn't see past his hand, but used his breathing to keep himself afloat just one metre below the angry waters, flipping over on his back to watch and listen to the falling rain from below the water.

But there's no money to be made from diving alone, and so, Umeed hopes to slow down his instructing and get into photography and videography "to satiate creative, educative desires and the selfish desire of wanting to dive alone." Being in the water is meditative, he says, and he learns something every time he dives. He tries to convey this to the groups of people he takes out — pointing out the wonders of the ocean and showing them how "everything is like one giant conveyor belt and what you do in the sea off Bombay can affect the ocean near the Cape of Good Hope."

Till he gets to dive alone, his greatest reward he says, "is to see the expressions on the face of someone who didn't think they could be underwater." And the sheer wonder on their face when a sea turtle comes to check them out.

When he's in the city, Umeed can be contacted on Information on diving can be obtained by e-mailing



Manta Point

MANTA AND I playing in the shallows in a garden of baby coral. The surge of the waves breaking nearby, gently rocks us back and forth. The sunlight paints the water a brilliant blue green; the most brightly beautiful colours embroider the seafloor below.

My eyes are smiling, my arms extended, reaching out for a distant embrace. His wingtips rise, a giant backward loop with the surge of the water. His mouth is open in a big, watery smile back.

We glide together, inches above the sharp colours of the young coral. He shows me how to do backward loop like a manta. I tell him I will practice later, when he is gone; right now I just want to watch.

Absolute silence. Everything in me sings with joy and rapture. Bubbles are my only sound. He is quiet too, yet he speaks so loudly, so exuberantly of being, that I can still hear his words as I write this.

There were no hellos at our meeting. He just allowed me to share in his game. There are no goodbyes as he leaves, still smiling, still making backward loops, and taking his game to somebody else. I hover in silence feeling the rocking of the waves. Cradled by water, bathed in sunlight, my bubbles are my only sound.

The surge moves one way, pulling me out to sea. Then the other way, back towards the reef. I wait. In silence. I wait, holding my breath. In silence. No bubbles to make a sound. I wait for the surge to turn...a few more seconds. In silence. A few more seconds, the surge turns... NOW!! I make a giant backward loop, arms outstretched, and singing loudly.


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