Another Time, Another Place
In the first of our 2021 Spotlight pieces, Saman Shamsie reminisces about childhood visits to Buleji Beach.
I had a charmed childhood. I say this, because our Karachi-based family had a hut at Buleji Beach which is located somewhere between French Beach and the nuclear power plant KANUPP. Very few people went there and it was our private paradise. The beach was always a safe place. My sanctuary. I have only happy memories there. I’m not sure if I fitted in at school. Was I a misfit or did I just feel like one? It’s unclear. But the beach was a place of belonging.
I went often with my family and close friends and I always felt the seawater coursed through my veins. Karachi, the city by the sea, is not the safest of places especially if you are female. Even then, back in the 80s, when some of the boys who my sister and I knew bicycled over to each other houses, we did not. But the beach was a safe haven where we could run wild and free and do everything the boys did and not be told, it’s not safe. There were boys in our beach gang and we could go as far they could.
At Buleji, the huts were up on the cliff. Down below, in front of the huts, was a sandy beach very conducive to swimming. When swimming, as children, we always stayed within our parents’ view. As long as they could see us from the huts, we were fine. The waves at the beach were an exciting reminder of the power of the sea. Even our safe haven could turn against us if we forgot to respect it. So respect it we did. We could swim from September to mid-April. The remaining months were monsoon season, when every year we heard stories of people being swept out to sea, never to return.
I got a glimpse of the power of water once when swimming. It felt like I had been caught by the water. I was swimming with all my might but moving neither forward nor back. I tried as hard as I could and when my limbs tired a little I stopped trying to fight the water. A wave came and carried me forward. I was safe. I was not alone in the sea that day but was the only one who experienced this grip of the sea. This fleeting grip of fear. The only other time I have felt this fear was when I was held up by a man with a gun—outside my house in Karachi.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Karachi, but it has restrictions. As a teacher, I get to travel every summer and my concept of a good holiday involves a lot of walking. I walk in Karachi parks but nothing beats the joy of walking freely on the streets. I suppose I could walk at Clifton Beach, which is very near my home but somehow we never really considered it a beach that we could run free in. At Buleji, one hour’s drive from our house, we dressed as we pleased and nobody seemed to care. And our walks? Well, they were the stuff of stories.
Our walks took us much further afield than our swimming—especially as we grew older into our teenage years and then into our twenties. Teenage years, especially, were all about group activities. But Karachi had few outlets for the young in those days. Chaat at Flamingo on Boat Basin and ice-cream at Kaybees in Mohammad Ali Society. By the early 90s , espresso coffee machines were the trend and we would pile into a car, listen to mellow music and drive all the way to the airport for a steaming cup. But for a longer day together, there was Buleji Beach. The fun of long car drives listening to tapes of depressing music, en route, was a joy we discovered in the teenage years on our way to the sea.
We laid a towel out on the ground and with the help of a fisherman nearby lifted the mammal on to the towel. Then we all grabbed one corner each of the towel and lifted the dolphin and placed it back into the sea
Once at the beach, we would walk along the stretch of sand, but ultimately our walk would be interrupted by rocks and cliffs we had to scramble over. This was especially true if we went down to the beach and turned right. There was no sandy beach to swim in—only rocks and cliffs. It was our favourite part of the beach. How far we could explore depended on how far out the tide was. One year it was so far out that we waded, waist deep in areas, and reached the beach which housed KANUPP. It was a sandy cove with the power plant standing some distance from us. We were convinced the water was warmer there! There were guards standing near the power plant, their guns pointed towards us. We had no option but to turn round quickly and hurry back to familiar territory.
We loved this sort of adventure. It made us feel like The Famous Five or the children of Narnia. Children’s books were about adventure and doing things on your own and at the beach we could feel this sense of independence the city never allowed. We wanted to explore and discover new things and the beach satisfied our curious minds.
As I said, we explored the area as far as the tide would let us. Some cliffs had caves that we could climb up to. Another cliff had a tunnel we had to bend to walk through. Every year the geography of the cliffs and rocks changed as the tide and water erosion took effect. Another reminder of the power of the sea. There were innumerable rock pools and the rocks were covered in green or red or iridescent seaweed. In the pools swam tiny fish and little crabs. Sometime a rock jutting out of the sand had a million larger crabs scuttling down. Little shells housed creatures that wiggled out partly when placed in water, but made a fast retreat when held in our hands. Little jellyfish sometimes pulsated in these rock pools. Occasionally, we even found a squid or a cuttlefish lying on the beach. Once we turned a cuttlefish over and saw a small pouch which one of us pressed. Black inky substance squirted out.
Jellyfish and bluebottles were usually an omen. Monsoons were on their way. Other than the tides, these sea creatures could inflict a lot of pain on us. One year a boat full of fisherman pulled up in front of our hut. We went over to talk to them and to examine their boat. They offered to take us out to sea. The sea water we swam in was generally cloudy and had a lot of mud swirling in the breakers. Visibility here was very poor. Further out at sea, we peeped over the edge of the boat and the water was clear and calm. We asked if it was safe to swim and getting the nod of approval, we dove into the water. At first we were exclaiming at the fact that it was so clear we could see our legs through the water. Next, we were all screaming as we got stung by little jellyfish. The fisherman laughed at us and claimed the jellyfish were tiny. Tiny or not, we had had enough. They pulled us out of the water and we rubbed the little pinpricks that had developed on our arms and legs.
We went to the beach every weekend with a group of friends, over a course of 15 years. Mid-week night plans were sometimes made when an astrological phenomena was reported in the newspapers. An eclipse of the moon, the night the planets were in alignment above the horizon. The comet Hale-Bopp was spotted at the beach, as was Haley’s comet. Hale-Bopp hung over my gate for days but again the city failed us in comparison to the beach. Without light and air pollution, the stars and comets were always bigger and brighter, at Buleji than they ever were in my backyard. Over my gate, Hale Bopp appeared to be a streak across the sky, the length of my index finger. At the beach it was arced across the firmament, the length of my forearm. In the city, we saw the night sky full of stars. At Buleji, the whole Milky Way was visible. Despite the help of encyclopaedias, the Big Dipper and Orion were the only constellations we really recognised. What we could have done then with SkyView and other such constellation apps available on phones today.
One year, we were up in the hut when we spotted a school of dolphins in the water. Their dorsal fins cut through the water and stuck out in the way one has always seen in pictures. There must have been a hundred of them swimming through the water. The top arc of their bodies visible to us. At times there were two of them swimming so close together, it seemed like one mammal had two fins. Everyone once in a while they jumped, ever so slightly through the air. We watched in awe. It was a magical sight. A one-off. I have never seen so many dolphins ever again. Not here, not anywhere.
Buleji was like our hidden gem. Growing up, most people went to Sandspit and Hawkesbay. Many years later, French Beach pulled in the crowds. Most people had and still haven’t heard of Buleji. Another close school friend had a hut next door to ours. One year they had a party at the beach and to help visitors find their hut they put up a sign. The school friends were Tushna and Shaan and so the sign read Tushaan. Imagine our delight when 15 years later Google maps came to Karachi and the beach on the map was signposted, not as Buleji but as Tushaan Beach. Even Google maps kept our paradise a secret.
Our Prince of Tides moment came one year when only five of us American-college-returned students were at the beach. It was completely deserted that day and we cherished having the whole space entirely to ourselves. This was now the 90s. I had read and loved the novel The Prince of Tides. There were a couple of stories in it that had really captured my imagination. The day the three Wingo children found pilot whales beached on the shore. Their sense of helplessness as they stood and watched the mammals die had a great impact on me. The second story was when a Florida zoo captured a white porpoise that swam in their river. The children drugged a guard and the porpoise and carried it out on a stretcher and returned it to its natural habitat. The stories were so vivid and that sense of adventure dazzled me. Growing up we wanted to emulate Enid Blyton characters. Instead, that day, we got a small taste of the Wingos.
Our moment was some sort of mix of those two Prince of Tide stories. We were out walking when we saw a dark form lying on the rocks. A charcoal grey dolphin! Could it really be? It had been seven to ten years since we had seen the scores of dolphins swim past our hut but we had never seen a dolphin up close. Of course our first instinct was to touch it. It’s skin felt hard like stretched leather or a tarpaulin. This came as surprise as I had always imagined it would feel soft and glossy. More satin than tarp. Perhaps it was the result of dehydration as it lay just out of the reach of the sea for God knows how long. Our touch resulted in the dolphin opening it eyes.
It was wounded with blood on its fin but otherwise quite alive. It gasped for air—by which I mean its blowhole opened ever so slightly. We dipped our towels in a nearby rock pool and then wrung them so water fell on it and cascaded down its body. The blow hole opened wider. We laid a towel out on the ground and with the help of a fisherman nearby lifted the mammal on to the towel. Then we all grabbed one corner each of the towel and lifted the dolphin and placed it back into the sea. We gave it a push and it took off towards the setting sun. We just stood there staring at it until it blew a spout of water out through its blowhole and then it leaped high into the air creating an arc in the sky just above the setting sun. I doubt I was the only one with goosebumps as the mammal thanked and saluted us as it swam towards the horizon.
The fisherman, Hajji, said it was wounded and did not have the strength to survive. He was probably right. The dolphin’s course had changed. It was no longer swimming towards that red ball that was the sun but moving parallel to the beach towards what we knew was the rocky part of the sea. I felt the triumph of the Wingos as they released the porpoise into the river as well as their sheer helplessness when they were unable to help the beached whales. A least I didn’t have to watch the dolphin die. I had the advantage of hope. Hope that the fisherman was wrong. The dolphin was no longer in our sight of vision and my last memory of him was of a dolphin swimming happily and bravely. To me, he is and always will be my ‘prince of tides’, braving the power of the sea.
For various reasons, the hut is no more. The childhood friends are still around but the beach gang is now just individuals living here and there busy with their lives. I have fallen into the rhythm of the city and Sundays is now rarely a beach day. Visits to the beach are a reminder of what once was but as Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
Saman Shamsie is the author of three books for children: Where the Rivers Meet (OUP 2020), The Magical Woods (OUP, 2014) and The Adventures of Slothful Sloughoff (OUP, 2010); her story ‘The Heartbeat Tree’ appeared in Magic Stories for Eight Year Olds (Puffin India, 2011). She lives in Karachi, Pakistan, where she was born and educated at the Karachi Grammar School.
She graduated from Allegheny College, Pennsylvania, and in 2013 received a master's in education management from King’s College, London. While in London, she was involved in the Preston Road Community Library Campaign and later named its Children’s Laureate. She has remained in touch. In 2016, the library held a ‘Saman Shamsie Young Writer's Challenge’ for children. She also took part in the Alchemy Festival held at the South Bank in 2016.
Saman Shamsie is now a primary school teacher at the Karachi Grammar School, but previously taught O Level physics there. She travels to London every summer.
All images are courtesy of the author.