Living an ocean-blue dream and capturing it

Have you ever heard the hymn of the sea? Not the emphatic roar of waves that crash recklessly into the dented black of rocks. But the gentle symphony that lives under the turbulent attire of the surface. It’s a singular form of poetry that seeps in through every pore of the skin. Under water, all you hear is the sound of your breath, which leaves a train of bubbles marching to the surface, and the musical silence of deep blue. It’s the closest you can get to entering a wormhole and exploring a whole new reality, where gravity can’t keep you grounded, the senses are crippled, and the surrounding life forms defy all that your eyes have become accustomed to.

The training manual claimed that it’s the most memorable moment for any beginner. But nothing could prepare me for the first time I breathed underwater. A worn, uncomfortable regulator, which I clasped with my reluctant teeth, flushed dry, hollow air into my protesting lungs on demand from a cylinder hung on my back. All that meant nothing the moment I went down into the ocean blue, which I had loved all my life from the safe realms of the shore, and breathed. In that tiny instant, I became part of the ocean and everything that called it home.

Looking for a subject and something called neutral buoyancy. Pic credit: Anurag

Looking for a subject and something called neutral buoyancy. Pic credit: Anurag

One of the many ironies you get introduced to as part of an open water diver in training is the art of sinking yourself on purpose: You tighten a weight belt around your waist to counteract the buoyancy of water and deflate your BCD (buoyancy control device – a jacket that inflates and deflates on the touch of a button). It goes against all instincts of survival, so you train your mind to do it. As you cross the surface line, the lights go out, a blue tint takes over the world, and all your senses panic. It’s a hostile environment you aren’t supposed to inhabit. The steeply rising water pressure hammers your ear drums, so you equalize your air spaces. You’re taught to do this at every count of five. This and a dozen other things that you can’t afford to forget.

I was horrible in the first few confined water dives (shallow water dives). I drank half the ocean and inhaled some of it. But my dive trainer would have none of my skepticism. It was my dream to scuba dive, and he took it upon himself to see me through. In the training module, all sorts of potential situations are simulated and dealt with – you’re asked to flood your mask with ocean water that stings the eyes and drive it out with one swift forceful blow-out; swim 9 metres to the surface in one extended exhale (for an out-of-air scenario); sip on air from a leaking regulator, and more. I overcame one instinct at a time. By the time I reached my open water dives, I was getting a hang of things, and drinking less salt water than before, but hovering mid-water still confounded me. I kept rising or sinking while my patient trainer levitated in a monk-like stance in front of me. It reminded me of a clumsy Po blundering in front of Master Shifu. After all, it takes just an inhale to go up, an exhale to sink, and you can never hold your breath (lest you tear a lung).

In many ways, learning to scuba dive is like learning to walk, or balancing your first bicycle. You see others do it with almost no effort, and wonder why you keep falling and scraping your knees bloody. But once you get the hang of it, it liberates you. You turn directions by merely turning your hips, do somersaults, swim sideways, fin ahead with a superman fist extended, rise with just a breath, plunge with an exhale… you finally have the superpowers you always wanted. My most memorable moment was surfacing from my last training dive with a wide grin and hearing my instructor call me an ‘open water diver’. Or wait, was it the one where i first saw a stingray and swam circles with it? Or was it the moment i swam with a school of yellow snappers who let me into the clan? I can’t possibly choose.

Thank you for capturing me in action, Anurag

Being a photographer, I have an instinct to take pictures of anything wild and exquisite. Naturally, I itched to capture marine life the moment I laid my mask-protected eyes on it. Once I was a licensed open water diver, I started to learn the tricks of underwater photography the very next day. It’s the most difficult form I’ve tried, by a margin. The blue-green water is the biggest foe of sharpness and colour, the sunlight a mere trickle from the surface, and zoom lenses pointless – so you go as close to stinging fish and corals as possible while floundering for neutral buoyancy (a perfectly horizontal floating position). Not to mention the need for waterproof gear. Not getting into the nitty-gritty of all things camera, i’ll go ahead and present my first attempt at capturing glimpses of a world that I adore. A world that finally accepted me as its own.

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Have you heard the hymn of the sea? It’s the song within that we drowned in everyday’s cacophony.

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Rebuilding Nepal, one smile at a time: A photo essay

I had the fortune of seeing Nepal in November last year, in its full glory, while attending a climate change conference as an Indian journalist. When a deadly earthquake struck the affectionate country on April 25 this year and shattered its homes and heritage, their smiles haunted me. I knew i had to go back to see for myself what had become of the places that had welcomed me so warmly. I had to bring their stories to the world. A month after the quake, I got an opportunity to cover rehabilitation efforts in Kathmandu.

Although i wasn’t scheduled to, i hopped on a relief truck convoy (of Live to Love Foundation), with some kung-fu nuns of the Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery, headed to reportedly the worst-hit areas in the mountains, Sindhupal Chowk district. It was worse than i had expected or remembered from my time in Kutch during 2001. Whole villages had been wiped out, many houses lining the narrow, steep route barely hung on, some dangled precariously over the cliff’s edge; but the people continued to wear their smiles when confronted by a stranger offering to help, even if only by means of his camera. A week before that, social media was raging against the Indian media for overdoing their coverage of the disaster. While their concerns were partly true, if you set aside those who had access to Twitter even in times when people were looking for potable water, the ground reality was very different: i was welcomed, once again, with open arms. Not once did a local object to a picture being taken or a question being asked. A man taking shelter under tarpaulin sheets on the playground of what was once a school offered me tea. Such is the soul of Nepal; they lose their homes, families, and history, but not their kindness.

Here are some of my frames from a Nepal that was knocked down but got back up. Immediately after coming back to India, i filed my stories and apart from the frames that my publication carried, I stayed clear of publishing any more since it felt like indulging in tragedy porn. But now that the dust has settled and Nepal is rebuilding itself, i feel compelled to share its story with you. It’s a story not of disaster, but of resilience and compassion in the face of daunting odds.

Click on any picture to view them all in fullscreen mode along with their context (highly recommended):