OFFBEAT He first rode the waves with a broken wooden door. Today, he’s all set to open his surf school.
“This surf board. She’s my baby.” Fisherman Murthy plants an exaggerated kiss on the board. I nod and write that down. Five fishermen gather around us on the beach, smiling approvingly.
“This board”, he says, in the distinctive rakish drawl of a man who’s learnt his English from foreign surfers, “she’s my wife”. Ten more people join the crowd, shuffling patiently as they watch Murthy with admiration. I write that down too.
“This board… my grandmom.” I begin writing down… Grandmom? That’s when I notice the little old woman who’s silently joined the crowd. She stands beside Murthy, fragile in a bright pink sari, thick plastic glasses and worn out pair of black rubber slippers. Murthy hugs her with delight. “See. My grandmom. She brought me up. My parents. They fought a lot. When I was, maybe, four. My father left. I have never met him. My mother, I only met a few years ago. But my grandmother — she was always there.”
The guiding force
It’s a testament to her that’s he grown into the inspiring, cheery and driven force that he is today. Bouncing about joyfully in Rip Curl board shorts and a ‘Surf Team India’ T shirt, he’s excited about the launch of his surf school. Very excited. One minute, he’s practising how to pull apart the yellow plastic curtain, to unveil the bright school building, with its thatched roof, flashy walls and a mural of a steely surfer. The next he’s welcoming fellow surfers who have made the trek from Auroville and Chennai for the opening. Then, he’s giving a pep talk to the gang of local kids he mentors, as they prepare to head out into the waves.
This school is the culmination of many years of work, friendship and faith. “I started with a broken wooden door when I was 10 years old,” says Murthy. “I used it like a boogie board, and taught myself to ride the waves with it.” Then in 2001, Murthy met an American, who turned out to be one of the now-famous surfing swamis of Mangalore. “He gave me his board, and I paddled out on it, then stood up. He was impressed, and I decided to get myself a board.” Finally, in 2003, he managed to buy an old board from one of the villagers. “An Australian guest gave it to him, and he didn’t really do anything with it. I bought it from him for Rs. 1,500.”
By 2007, met Yotam of EarthSync. “He came to the village to surf. Gave me a green board, and I started to practise with it. By then, about 15 people were surfing. All local boys. All fishermen. The good waves would come at 5.45 a.m. and we would run out to get them. We have an advantage, of course,” Murthy laughs. “We’re fishermen — we’re like fish.”
After triggering a surf culture in Kovalam, Murthy started thinking of starting a surf school. Noticing that surfing was working as a way to keep Kovalam’s young people away from alcohol and narcotic abuse, while encouraging beach sanitation, friends from India, Australia, Israel and the U.K. decided to help. Then Yotam, realising this was a remarkable story, began filming the effort to start the school.
Looking at his new building proudly, Murthy says, “If you work hard enough, and you believe, you will reach you goal. It’s all about attitude. If you have a surf board, and hold on to it saying it’s expensive, then, that’s all you will have. You have to share everything that you own and know. That is what made all this possible.”
He adds, “The less money you have, the more comfortable you are.” He learnt the hard way. After the tsunami, he lost his boat and his livelihood. He then decided to work with The Banyan Community Mental Health Project in the village. “I have been for them for seven years now. From 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., I surf, and report at Banyan at 9.30 a.m. I didn’t expect much when I started working for them. I am not good at English. I’m not a social worker. But they made me the outreach manager of the Kovalam project.”
Back at the school, Yotam talks about how he noticed Murthy was unusual the first time they surfed together. “There’s something about him. He immediately grabs your heart. He has a way with everyone. Teaches the kids for free… Some are homeless, he lets them sleep here. He draws people to him. The village didn’t take any money from us when we set this up. The panchayat head said, ‘if it’s Murthy, no problem’.”
The process of putting everything together was slow, and laborious — each surf board costs at least Rs. 40,000. With donations from friends and the help of Australian Group ‘Board For Billions’, which raised 40 ‘pre-loved’ boards, they are finally ready to start. In the meantime, Murthy is developing a local board made of wood. Taking him right back to his surfing roots. After all, that’s how it all began.