She sells sea shells on the sea shore

by Rucha Karkarey

“My favourite days of the month were when the new moon pulled the tide furthest away from the shore. The sea recedes and exposes an alien world in the little pools of water abandoned behind on the shore. Those were days when we used to descend like vultures upon that inter-tidal land, in search of the beloved cowrie shell.”

Amina listened wide-eyed as her grandmother spoke. “Back then cowries were like our currency in Lakshadweep. We kids, used to exchange them for favours and even sometimes as tokens or gifts. The largest and most colourful ones were most sought after, because they could be exchanged for food, books and slates.”

Amina’s mind raced with joy. Her grandmother had just shown her a way out of her dilemma. She would no longer have to miss her exam at school. It did not matter that her father was on a week-long fishing trip with his brothers or that her mother was away in Kadmat island. Suddenly her teacher’s ultimatum and her broken slate did not bother her anymore.

Last month, Amina and her sister had found thirty large cowries in one little tidal pool. She knew just the spot; it was near the newly opened tourist resort at the southern tip of her island. She was confident of finding shells to exchange for a brand new slate from Bimmi stores.

She ran to her window and saw that the tide had receded far enough. She raced down the road towards the resort on her cycle. “Aye!” she gasped as she peered into the pool. “Tiger cowrie! The king of all cowries.” It fit smugly in her entire palm. Its pattern of orange and black speckles, perfectly deep groove on the base, serrated margins and porcelain, smooth texture, was simply perfect. She thought of all the wonderful things she could trade with her friends and sisters, without her parents knowing. She thought of that new slate she could have in time for her exams. What a revelation.

The next day, before school she headed straight to Bimmi stores. “ Ammavar, oru slate kodkamo ? “ (Uncle, can I have a slate please?), and she proudly held out her prized shell towards him. He gingerly picked up the cowrie and smiled. His smile reflected a distant childhood memory. He ruffled Amina’s hair as he placed it back in her tiny palm. “That’s a beautiful shell my child, surely the largest I have ever seen. Keep it safe. Tell your mother the slate is seventy rupees “.

Amina’s heart sank. Her shell was priceless. She surely would have exchanged it for a new cycle, let alone a slate. Why didn’t ammavar see it so? Perhaps cowrie shells were common and everyone had them, there was no novelty in a beautiful cowrie anymore. Perhaps some other creature would find use for it in the water, she thought as she trudged along the road to put the cowrie back into the tidal pool. She dreaded going to school and facing her teacher.

Just then a strangely attired figure approached her. He wore a large sized hat, a camera around his neck and funny, strappy sandals. He spoke to her in words she could not comprehend and pointed frantically to her hand. “Tiger cowrie”. She picked up familiar words from his speech and said “ ade (yes)”. He took several pictures of her, and her shell. He then handed her a hundred rupee note, picked up the shell from her hand and said, “Tiger cowrie. Great size! You have more? You want more money? Tomorrow? No? Thank you!” and left.

Amina made a note of the funny man’s words. She made a note of them on her brand new slate. She wanted to ask her teacher their meaning after class. She couldn’t wait to tell her friends of the funny man who gave her money for seashells on the seashore.

She wondered if they would see him again.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 28 August 2013.