Ten years ago, when Nithin was steeling himself against the chilly dawn breeze for another day of uncertainty on his grandfather's fishing boat off the coast of Kodi Bengre village, a strange sight caught his eye. Two people - college kids from the city by the looks of it, wearing costumes and shouting to each other in English - were in the sea with him. But what bowled him over was that they were not on a boat, and what was more, they were having fun in the sea!
Nithin did not know that morning that his life - and those of the 7,000 others in this fishing village - was soon going to collide with the lives of these two strangers - Ishita Malvaiya and Tushar Pathiyan - and that this collision would transform Kodi Bengre's soul.
"Earlier, people here didn't even swim for fun. Generations of people have looked at the ocean as just a place of hard work, struggle, income -- it's very transactional," said Ishita, whose fame as India's first female surfer has spread far beyond the village where she and her partner Tushar set up the Shaka Surf Club in 2011. In 2019, she was featured on the Forbes '30 Under 30' list, providing yet another fillip to the footfall on this place which juts out like a finger from Karnataka into the sea on the map.
Nithin saw Ishita and Tushar going out to surf for a few days, marvelled at how they seemed to have turned his workplace into a place of joy, and one day gathered the courage to go up to them and ask in broken English if they could teach him to do what they were doing.
"Life was tough before. Fishing means tough days and restless nights. Surfing suits me much better," Nithin said with a broad smile. He has been a surfing instructor at the Shaka Surf Club for the last few years, teaching tourists and local children how to catch waves, just like he had been taught ten years ago.
All male working members of his family have been fishermen for as far back as anyone remembers, but Nithin said all it took to get good at balancing himself on a surfboard on water was just practice.
Surfing dreams give fishing community a lifeline
The surfing dream soon caught on. More children began to show up wanting to surf. But what Ishita and Tushar were giving villagers in return was a chance at other livelihood options too. While toddy shops and fishing trawlers were the only source of livelihood in this village earlier, now small shops have come up in their place to cater to tourists.
They realized their impact when teachers from the village's government school approached them.
"These kids would just hang around with us. We talked normally with them and saw all of them picked up English quickly. Soon, a teacher from the local school approached us and asked if we could teach English to all the kids because there was a clear academic difference between those who came to surf and those who didn't," said Tushar.
An arrangement was put in place for the European surfers coming to the Shaka Club to also take English classes at the school during their stay. The teachers at the school were provided laptops. When the school was in danger of being closed down during the Covid pandemic as the number of students threatened to dip below 20, Ishita and Tushar took up painting the school so that more people sent their children to school.
There have been some key social changes as well.
Sneha, one of the youngest surfers in the village, is one of the students of this school. "I have been surfing since I was in Lower KG," said the 12-year-old.
Ishita is happy that she does not hold the distinction of being the only female surfer in India, or even Kodi Bengre, any more, but laments that many girls quit surfing as they reach puberty even now. "Surfing helps break barriers between genders. It's still a big deal in a small village when a girl goes into the water, but in the waters, everyone's the same," she said.
Sulochona, 58, was the first woman in the village to surf and notes the shift in perception as well.
"In the beginning, we were a little worried about Ishita and Tushar. We wondered what they were gaining from this, why they were doing it here…After a year had passed, Tushar asked me if I wanted to surf. Surfing made me very happy, though I haven't done it for a few years. My own children have gone to the city for work, Ishita and Tushar are like my children here," she said.
Sulochona's husband has a shop outside the Shaka club now and "makes more money than his fishing days."
And no wonder – because new customers come in all the time. Sandhya, 21, who moved to Kodi Bengre from Bangalore after completing her graduation last year, said she arrived at the village because it was the first result after she googled 'surfing in India'.
And yet, not everyone is pleased with the village's easy searchability now. The local panchayat looks on the surfer duo with suspicion, raising accusations of 'bringing outside culture in'.
There were shouting matches earlier. First at the school and in the surf club, where men came upon panchayat leaders' directions to ask women to not walk around while in wet clothes – which anyone would have after a surf session. But Tushar recognised this as a natural reaction against "too many unknowns."
Now, things have calmed a little. A temple priest who would be visibly daunted at boys and girls driving around together now comes by to watch surfing.
Access to the open sea has also upended other latent divisions – those of class, caste and religion.
Ishita and Tushar said the local villagers' innate knowledge of the ocean may have helped them to pick up surfing quicker than others – they all know exactly where the wave's crest is and have a natural advantage over city surfers.
But their biggest victory has been in helping foster a healthier relationship between the locals and the waters.
"This is also probably the first generation of fisherfolk in the country who are enjoying themselves in the sea," Tushar said.
Can Indian surfing catch the Olympics wave?
With surfing featuring at the Tokyo Olympics and being approved for the next two editions, can India, with its 7500-km coastline, dream of surfers on the world stage in the near future?
"It's not too far," said Ramesh, a former surfing national champion who is now an instructor at the Shaka club. "But for most people, seeing it as a sport to excel in is still some way off. It is improving though, maybe if sponsors come on board, pro surfing may pick up more," he said.
There is one more obstacle to India catching surfing's Olympic wave. The fledgling Surfing Federation of India (SFI) is recognized by the International Surfing Association but not by the Union sports ministry or the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), which is required for participation at the Games. Also, a sports federation needs 12 state associations to get recognition but India doesn't have that many coastal states.
"The Olympics may be a few years away, I just hope the vibe of surfing stays fun in the country. It has been becoming more and more competitive in recent years," said Tushar.
Ramesh, who is aiming for a place in the Paris Olympics, on the other hand says only one thing can push surfing to the forefront of public imagination – a Bollywood film.