I am an avid collector of seashells. There is something about these lifeless remnants of calcium carbonate from the exoskeleton of mollusks that never cease to fascinate me. Have you ever looked at them closely, observing the ridges, the patterns of rings, the different shades of colors? Like fingerprints, every shell is different from the other one, even the one lying the closest to it. It is so much fun digging your hand in the wet sand after having targeted a particular shell embedded in it, visible only half way. There is so much mystery involved in how big it would be, or how colorful. Sometimes your eyesight deludes you into picking up something that was nothing more than a half split and discarded groundnut shell. And then I jump excitedly when I find two little shells jointed together at their tips. It makes me think of the life that was nested within it, popping its head out occasionally to feed itself or move or see the world. The shell protected it from danger, from adverse weather conditions, giving it the luxury and comforts of a protected existence. And then the life within it died and was washed away, leaving behind remnants of hard rock to live a life of loneliness and solitude till it is either picked up by a collector like me, or vanished into the elements of the earth in anonymity. If shells could tell stories, have you wondered what would those autobiographies look like? Subjected to the sun and the moon and rain, being washed away by the sea again and again, tossed back and forth from the sea to the shore, so many of them all lying lonely, discarded, disjointed, witnessing hundreds of generations come by and go?
I have often wondered how long shells last before the elements are degraded back into the earth and recycled. What gives them their distinctive color and size and patterns? Is it influenced by the environment, or by the genetics of the organism? How can one determine the age of shells? If there was life on other planets, would there be seashells too? There are hundreds of questions I ask myself when I look at a shell. Like people spend hours looking at old photo albums and reminiscing about happy memories, I spend hours, looking at each and every shell I have collected. Back in India, I have thousands of them collected from different parts of the world, neatly dated and labeled in transparent jars. How it broke my heart to leave everything behind. When a friend was visiting Europe and asked me what I fancied from Europe, I’d asked the friend to collect as many shells from as many different beaches as possible. So my collection included shells from the beaches of France, Spain, and Italy, not to mention dozens of beaches in India. My greatest collection were these hundreds of little conch shells in Vizag that housed the hermit crabs, and our home stunk for days while I boiled them and cleaned them.
So what got me thinking about shells, of all things? The weather has been darn good for the last 2 weeks, and after a day’s bunking classes and coming early from work, me and my roomie decided to go to the beach. Now the beaches around here haven’t impressed me a lot in terms of their shell collection. I wasn’t even expecting shells in a beach that is no more than 2 feet wide. But there they were, tiny pieces of black and white jutting their heads out. They weren’t pretty and all looked the same, no beautiful ridges, just tiny lumps of black and white and grey. But even before I knew, I was crouched on the sand, collecting these little shells with both hands, as many as I could, stuffing as many as I could in my pockets and socks. A few hours later, I was a happy kid, running gleefully on the beach. I put my prized collection in a transparent container and placed it on my study table, in between pens and pencils, for me to see them whenever I look up. Now these shells do not run the risk of being lost in anonymity, washed by the waves and ending up being nobody while no one knows them. They can live with me to be marveled at by people who visit me and see them.