A muchly shortened, much more tourist friendly, and much less mawkish version of this ramble appeared in this month's Outlook Traveler. Thanks due, per usual, to the Vyas (Sr.)
About 15 years ago, a news magazine carried a cover story on the 'Tier 2' cities of India that they thought were poised to break into the big league and become the metros of the 21st century. Poona became Pune and more or less lived up to its promise and is today a teeming hub of industry, education and technology. Cochin bloomed into Kochi, fuelled by oil money from the Middle East and the tourism boom, and is now a name that travellers around the world recognize. Coimbatore transformed into Kovai, and even if it didn't become a Pune or Kochi, at least the textile barons of Tiruppur made it the town in India with the maximum density of millionaires per square kilometre and (sadly) communal tensions and bomb blasts made it a household name in India.
The fourth name seems to have faded from the scene. Here were no great increases in employment opportunities, no IT or biotech explosions, the public sector presence had grown as large as it ever would; there were not even good reasons to indulge in nomenclature shenanigans.
While the powers that be lavished their attention on the state capital, Vizag sank back into the somnolence that we who grew up there were intimately acquainted with. The occasional news report made great predictions, auguries that sent frissons of excitement down the backs of faithful Vizagites. "Fastest growing city in Asia!" they proclaimed; "New international airport!" they prophesied. And we would dutifully point these out to each other, trying to believe that finally everything that our beautiful hometown deserved was coming to pass.
As the rest of the republic (at least the India Shining bits) hurtled into a future glittering with the lights of a thousand shopping malls, riding the liberalization-globalisation wave, we waited. Of course, there was "growth". The population went up, the numbers of visiting tourists in winter spiked, but nothing fundamental in the character of the place really changed.
Almost the only reason the rest of Andhra Pradesh knew Vizag was because of the "world famous in North Coastal Andhra" beach. (The rest of the country had never even heard of this town, even today almost everyone spells the full name Visakhapatnam wrong.) The beach has always been the town's USP, synonymous with it, Visakhapatnamu beechi, in chaste Telugu. In the Vizagite's mind and life, it occupies the same place as the bank of the Sarayu seems to have in the psyche of the Malgudi resident. It is a source of pride and joy, never more than a short ride from where we live, unfailingly shown to and shared with visitors from out of town, the place where Vizag kicked off its Bata Sandak chappals at the end of the day let the Bay of Bengal tickle its toes.
Back in the sixties, when my newlywed parents moved to town, the beach was a just a deserted stretch of sand and shingle, fringed by a thin strip of black top. People looked askance at you if you said you were going to the beach and you could expect the odd jackal for company. The Ramakrishna Mission had set up shop at one end of the road; close to a rocky outcrop that was mysteriously known as "Scandal Point" (Perhaps a man and a woman had been seen there together once, maybe.) That is how the beach acquired a name and became RK Beach. If you really felt like painting the town red, you could treat yourself to ice cream at the Kwality restaurant, and that was pretty much it.
This tranquil state of affairs continued more or less into the early eighties, after which individual houses starting appearing off the beach road in desultory fashion. There still wasn't much by way of "action", the Juhu-Chowpattys and Marinas of the world were a universe away. The municipality built and maintained a couple of parks with concrete trains, elephants, slides and the like. The highlight of the month when we were kids was a walk to the beach, followed by a few hours of getting wet and gritty, clambering over rock and concrete, rounded off with cutlets at the Fish Canteen.
When we were old enough to venture out alone, we were allowed to go "jogging" during the "winter" vacations. Off we went at the crack of dawn, pretending like we wanted to exercise. The jogging, a pell-mell run at flat out speed lasted for as long as our lungs cooperated (under 5 minutes), before we gleefully ran onto the sand to pick up shells. If you got there early enough, you could find cowries and the halves of dead clams before the slum children got to them. Innocents that we were, we didn't know they made a living selling shells to visitors.
One summer, a strange building started emerging from the sand near the Panduranga Temple. The day we found it we were pretty convinced that this was the spectacular ruin of some ancient civilisation that we were destined to discover, inevitably (a certain quantity of pulp fiction and a certain fecundity of imagination can work wonders on a 14 year olds sense of self-importance). Like the hominids from "2001: A Space Odyssey", we gathered around our own "monolith" and paid homage every evening, not understanding what it was, but quite carried away by the drama that the tides and the sands were playing out.
Alas, like all good fantasies, this one came crashing down when my annoyingly well-informed father told us that it was a concrete pillbox, a gun emplacement that the Americans who used Vizag as a hospital base during the World War II had built, to be used in the event of an amphibious Japanese invasion of Vizag. This, by the way, is not as fanciful as it sounds. The port was bombed by aircraft during the war, and a Japanese carrier fleet was running amok in the Bay of Bengal. Anything could have happened! In any case, we made the best of the situation and "occupied the position" in the evenings, after our brains had been thoroughly addled through a surfeit of Alistair MacLean novels and Commando comics. The pillbox disappeared after a few months, but reappears occasionally to this day, thrilling whole new generations.
The beach was rarely crowded, even on Sundays. The occasional movie shoot (Ek Duje Ke Liye, for example) would cause a temporary hubbub, which subsided with the pack-up. Once a year on Navy Day, the Navy would take over and put up a fine show – marching bands, sailors in crisp uniforms, weaponry, floats, the works. It was as though we had our own private Raj Path and Republic Day festivities. When darkness fell, a small armada of warships anchored off the shore lit up simultaneously, while an audible gasp went through the waiting crowd on the beach road, an annual moment of roasted corn-on-the-cob and shared magic.
Sometime during the nineties, RK Beach like the rest of the city did start becoming a busier place. A forest of apartment buildings came up on the road. The tourism department and Municipal Corporation saw it fit to try and lure more winter visitors to the city. Lawns and parks were laid out; the road was widened and lit up; a fairly ordinary aquarium and a more interesting museum were established. The Navy lopped off the conning tower of one of its early submarines and planted it on the beach, adding a touch of history (even if it was slightly incongruous) to the scene. Industrial quantities of tackiness in the forms of concrete sculptures of dinosaurs, mermaids, elephants, fishes, and boats painted in the most fantastic "marine" colours were introduced and lie scattered about the place even now.
Today, the beach is a shared space, an arena where over the course of a day, many worlds co-exist and sometimes collide. The mornings are dominated by the health nuts, mostly of the retired variety, vigorously pounding up and down the pavement, interspersed with the odd sportsperson, tourist and expat. In the evenings, it is a madder, crazier place, a truer representative of the urban middle class India of today. An entire city, starved of greenery and open spaces descends on the esplanade; there to commingle with each other, throw a ball around, eat some muri mixture (a puffed-rice, onion, tomato, chilli powder concoction that is sometimes heavenly), peer into the innards of a submarine, visit a temple, steal a few moments alone with a significant other in the secure anonymity provided by the throng, and to just watch the world pass by. While the crowd and the mess do occasionally evoke shades of the Juhus and Marinas of the world, it is still relatively cleaner, quieter and less crowded, particularly in the "off season" (March-November). It is still the sort of place where a teenager is nervous about lighting a cigarette, someone who knows the family might be taking their evening constitutional!
And between these two crepuscular peaks of commotion, in the middle of the day, RK Beach throws on an invisibility cloak, gets into a time machine, and goes back to being what it was like in less frenetic times. There is a fresh breeze, but hardly a soul to be seen in the hurtful glare reflected off the water and the sand. The occasional non-mechanized fishing boat traces large lazy arcs from point to point on the shore, all taut muscles and tauter lines, while the womenfolk wait somewhat nervously to see what the catch brings. A White-bellied Sea Eagle occasionally wings its way over the shoreline. And a lonesome hack who grew up not too far from the water digs his toes into the warm sand and ever so often uncovers a happy memory.