She Sells Sea Shells on the Sea Shore: Bengal’s Sea-side Trinket Industry

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Beaches sell. Sand and water beaten upon by a sharp yet soothing sun creates an incessant paradise, leaving visitors with a feeling in the stomach not unlike the waves they come to see- churning and fluid; the ebb and flow forming a single feeling which is both local and global; an invitation to be part of something transcending human life; the very ocean whence life came from gives a shriek of infantile yearning, an open invitation to come plunge in its depths, and be at one with the raw force of life.

Meanwhile, the indigenous population grins in silent pleasure, ready to milk the divine cow of tourism. The beaches of Bengal host a booming trinket industry -local products molded into fashion products which the tourist, wide-eyed and charmed, consumes with earnest vigor.

Popular culture scantly remembers the diminutive Mary Anning, a paleontologist and fossil collector of the early 1800’s; the inspiration behind the timeless tongue-twister- ‘She sells sea shells on the sea shore.’ It was, originally, a four line verse, running like this:

She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

Little did she know, that the cephalopods and ichthyosaur fossils she dug up from the beach adjacent to the Blue Lias cliffs would form a part of pop culture, whose stream of consciousness ran so deep, that toddlers were both riddled and educated with a single line summing up her life and legacy- ‘She sells sea shells on the sea shore.’

Zoom in to modern day Bengal, a thriving yet constantly expanding economy, which has recently flexed a new form of economic hustle muscle. West Bengal has a 950km coastline, peppered with numerous picturesque beaches, from Digha, through Mandarmani, to the quasi marshland-beach hybrid- Bakkhali.

Hosting the teeming throngs of tourists is bountiful business, and the entertainment does not end with momentary consumption. The tourists want keepsakes, which should be locally made (how else would they let their trip speak for itself), and is trendy and eye-catching. Some of it must be cheap too, for distribution as tokens of the vacation and as remnants of their goodwill. Most want a rustic fashion statement, while some decorate their doorways and mantelpieces with them. All in all, the trinket business is a tidy recycling process of commonplace beach-side items; painted and varnished to encompass the entire seaside experience into a priceless miniature.

Shells dominate the scene, sold as individual ‘conches’, or as part of a larger collective- necklaces, earrings or even drapes and custom made rugs. The conch horn is a traditional household item procured from the largest of shells, and is used as a marker for auspicious occasions. One can find conch horn shops scattered around the beach, graciously overseeing the trinket business like a benevolent mother. If shellfish are so popular, can snails be far behind? Various marine snails form the cowry, which is essentially the top-shell of a snail. Cowries have been used as currency across many cultures; and to this date, every teen scoops a pile of sand and drains it using water to capture a cowry or two. The cowry is subsequently dried and used as mantelpiece decorations. Flashier cowries are sold in trinket shops, because the best and flashiest come at a price.

Due to extensive natural forces at work- tidal waves, the sun, the monsoon and Father Time, the rocks of the seaside areas turn into impressive monoliths sculpted by an unnamed sculptor. Various polished stones, which have braved the test of time and are not sand, yet, are sold at the beach-side trinket store too. Beautiful and raw, it serves as a constant reminder of the unseen forces of nature, which work under the radar, and are yet crucial to human life as a whole.

The beach lies at the margins of a country’s border, yet is an asset that is both appreciated and revered. The beaches of Bengal have developed a taste for the high life, and these trinkets are the raisins atop the tart of a new age of tourism in Bengal.

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