Centuries of trade have been brought to a head in a late-industrial stalemate that has yet to greet the green thinking of post-industrial commerce. Diesel stains mark the cotton collars of rickshaw drivers as an ugly smudge, in sharp contrast to their bright hennaed hair, and their carts that are a collective riot of colour. In the factories and workshops, henna-stained hands brocade, mosaic and embroider miles of fabric for export.
Some of the textiles are bought in from the nearby Rann of Kutch. It is India’s best embroidery, so detailed that it leaves many desert women workers almost blind, so that they progressively sew crazier patchwork. Inevitably, and horribly, populations will be broken on the wheels of commerce, the body turned from shrine to commodity. In India, fate and free will wrestle on every street corner.
Local women in Gujarat, sitting on top of a pile of dirt in the back of a truck
John Callahan, Emi Cataldi, Erwan Simon and I meet up with Baybay Niu from Taiwan and Valentina D’Azzeo from Italy, and take some hair-raising rickshaw rides through the tight-knit traffic. The city’s pattern is clear. Cut by the river Sabarmati, the old, eastern side is a melee of Muslim and Hindu architecture. In the industrial west, trades have established themselves in blocks: vast and eerie charcoal yards, sari stalls, and sweatshops busy producing bagru (patterned cotton), shisha (mirror work) and appliqué.
Transient life and the permanently sacred tangle in a symbol war that multiplies on the eye — holy cows, Hindu deities, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and industrial modernism all have voices.
Pomp and poverty intermingle, sweat and thirst are inevitable, strict religious and cultural codes meet more free will, elephants hold up the traffic, filthy toilets sing out the almost unbearable remains of the day. ‘Paradox’ isn’t worth contemplating — there is no currency in it. Rather, life here is what Carl Jung termed an ‘enantiodromia’, where opposites sit happily reconciled, things are changed into their opposites without reason, both speaking with one voice or perhaps a forked tongue.
Man and woman on a scooter in Diu Town
Escaping the traffic, we head to the Dada Hari Stepwell, and thread through the domed entrance. The stone is carved with Sanskrit calligraphy. Steps become thick-pillared platforms that fall to a central reservoir. Bats appear, disappear and reappear. The tender of the temple stops sweeping for a moment and gazes at us tenderly, a thick layer of dust on his eyebrows. He smiles and takes out a crumpled piece of paper from his trouser pocket explaining that this is one of many stepwells built in the city five centuries ago to preserve water, and to provide cool relief to travellers. Where the climate alternates between drought and downpour, water is a source of worship as the tantalising god who delivers too much too briefly with undue force.
It is 40°Celsius, the thirst now pressing, almost painful. But there are no watering holes in site. Thanks to Gandhi, the whole state of Gujarat
is dry from prohibition of alcohol. The Mahatma was born in Porbandar
on the Gujarati coast, and there remains a strong pride in his legacy in Ahmedabad (the regional capital). ‘Ame Amdavadi, Pani Lavyu Tani, Bharat ni Azadi — We, residents of Ahmedabad, who forced the freedom of India from the British,’ wrote the local poet Avinash Vyas. Here, Gandhi set up an ashram to mindfully plan freedom from colonial rule, and trained his followers for the 1930 Salt March to Dandi
, capturing the imagination of Hindustan and the world. Gandhi’s support for non-violence and Satyagrah — a quest for truth — can be taken as a modern-day message of tolerance and acceptance of difference. World music pioneer Don Cherry called this ‘multikulti’ — people living harmoniously side-by-side building from basic languages of the body and feeling — rhythm, tone, and melody. Multikulti shakes hands with free will by sharing instruments and influences.
For those who like their occasional slug of cold beer, there is usually a way to circumvent local customs. In India, of course, it is merely bureaucratic rather than strictly religious. John inquires about obtaining an alcohol permit. It proves to be longwinded — passports, letters, ticket stamps, then waiting in liquor stores packed with staff and alcohol, but at the end of the day, there is no officer to legally issue the paperwork. Luckily, the street market is buzzing. Recall the history of India — this is first and foremost a place of trade. John asks a few questions, waits a while, and scores some honeyed Hayward beers to take back to the hotel room.
Very few visitors to northern India are drawn to Ahmedabad, tending to head to Rajasthan or Delhi. Some, like the Medieval Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, were captivated by the city. From 1325, Battuta surfed an eastward wave of Islam on a 30-years long 75,000 miles voyage (three times the distance covered by his contemporary, Venetian Marco Polo). In a borderless, passport-free age of travel, half the known world was under Islamic rule. Battuta’s motto was ‘if you are a son of the land of the west and seek success, then head for the land of the east.’
Surfers and the British-built lighthouse at Diu Head in mainland Gujarat
From a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, via the whirling Dervishes of Turkey, Battuta arrived in Delhi where he befriended Sultan Muhmad Shah — the richest ruler in the Muslim world at that time. The Sultan appointed him Ambassador to China, and loaded him with lavish gifts for the Chinese Emperor. Battuta headed to Gujarat, the gateway to the Indian Ocean. In order to avoid Indian pirates on the sail along the silk and spice routes from Calicut (southwest India) to China, he hired the most renowned mercenary bodyguards in Ahmedabad. These Indian Abyssinians — Habshis — still live in the city. They arrived as Muslims from East Africa 800 years ago, adopted aspects of the Hindu caste system, and remain a close-tied community, never marrying outside their group, unlike the seafaring traders who made Calicut a patchwork quilt of culture. The tempestuous southwest monsoon left a short window of opportunity to go east. Down in Calicut, Kerala, Battuta’s junk sank in a storm. He lost everything but his life. Instead, he went to the Maldives on a trading vessel to gather cowry shells, his trading instinct intact, and amassed the resources to eventually make it to China.
Calicut was the great centre of ‘free’ trade that linked the Arab west to the China east, exchanging spices, porcelain and textiles. The ruling Zamorin Hindu King welcomed all religions to the city to work. There was freedom to worship and inter-marry, as long as public discussion of religion was avoided. These lucrative routes inevitably lured the Europeans into India, including Vasco da Gama’s Portuguese fleet in 1498, securing a letter of concession for trading rights from the Zamorin. But, spanning subsequent visits from Pedro Alvares Cabral (the first European in Brazil) and da Gama, tensions between the established Arab merchants and incoming Christians broke out into fierce rivalry. Alfonso de Albuquerque tried to patch up the quarrels to enter into a treaty with the Zamorin, and Goa became the headquarters of the growing Estado da India.
Bronze Portuguese cannon looking out over the Arabian Sea from Diu Fort. Diu Island was sovereign Portuguese territory for 424 years
A small island called Diu
(‘dweep / deep’ in Sanskrit), off Gujarat’s Kathiawar peninsula, had become an important outpost for the Ottoman Turks who controlled the northern part of the Arabian Sea. Sailing north from Kerala, the Portuguese spotted Diu as a lighthouse to the Gulf of Khambhat and the spice and textile markets of Ahmedabad. They invaded, and later built a fierce-looking fort sanctioned by the local Sultan to fend off Ottoman Turks and the Egyptians. Diu today has the reputation of a ‘locals only’ tourist spot and is not on the radar for global travellers.
In the morning we set off on the 250 miles drive from Ahmedabad to Diu. After a handful of long, sweeping corners the driver, disturbingly, begins to fall asleep. We boost up the Bhojpuri folk music. Its upbeat, energetic and bawdy style re-focuses his eyes. The road also becomes noisy: Rickshaws clang and wobble, tractors hobble, trucks blare horns, and cars blare back, where every wagon has a request on the tailgate saying ‘Horn Please OK.’ The occasional Hindustan Ambassador — the iconic national car modelled on the Morris Oxford and largely unchanged since 1948 — holds up the traffic. But it’s the slow moving carts loaded with textiles from the Rann of Kutch that lead to heart-stopping three-way overtakes on blind corners, before single-lane bridges.
Surfers and groundswell waves in the Arabian Sea
There is just a dashboard deity to pray to for safety. A few roadside wrecks alarmingly show the fragility of the power of prayer — or, the strength of conviction in reincarnation and eternal return.Winding our way around the coast in search of waves, going on our guts and our Google Earth predictions in search of waves.
Gujarat is sun-bleached and treeless, the ground a uniform amber. The roads are flattened and parched, so dry they look ready to crack open, and occasionally do: A 2001 earthquake killed 25,000 in Kutch. The winds are now supercharged, spreading salt like desert snow. There are white marble temples for the Jains and more holy cows transporting Hindu souls, insouciantly crossing the road. Farmers in stark white cotton stand by with neat turbans, pleated jackets, jodhpurs and stud earrings. At Rajkot
, we stop at a line of dhabas — chai stalls, offering neat piles of alphonso mangos and coconuts. In Jetpur
, women with cholis, pleated skirts and heavy jewellery smile, puzzled by our rack of surfboards, also neatly piled. At Junagadh
, their sisters ‘man’ the roadworks. In Veraval
, we are stared at and giggled over, and properly so. We are not entirely convinced by the eternal return, hoping, in our simple, perhaps hedonistic, theology, that we survive the one-way traffic and get to surf at the end of the road. Finally the amber earth is broken by the occasional burst of vermillion coloured flowers. Soon banyan trees and grasses begin to override the scrubscape close to the Sasan Gir Forest National Park
where Asiatic lions and wild ass known as khur both prowl, unseen.
Night falls and we arrive in sub tropical Diu, glad to be alive and not today destined to be road kill, and check in at the welcoming Resort Hoka. We eat a multikulti feast — fresh prawns cooked in piripiri sauce, marinated in malabri spices, with rotis, bhaingan bharta (roasted aubergine), sag panir (spinach with soft cheese), and basmati rice. For breakfast we try the hoka fruit — dark, rich and sweet. The spiky hoka palm trees litter the island — the only Indian tree which has African origins, either imported from Mozambique by the Portuguese 400 years ago, or left behind from the Triassic era, when the western part of Gujarat (the Saurashtra region) was part of the African mainland.
Diu bears the imprint not of British colonialism, like so much of India, but the lighter touch of the Portuguese. They met local populations already familiar with trading seafarers — largely Muslim, from Persia, Egypt, and the Red Sea. Thousands had settled and mixed comfortably with the local Hindu populations. Like them, the Portuguese were here to establish healthy commerce. Over time, the mixing of dialects and languages gave rise to a unique ‘pidgin’ language as well as highly sophisticated forms of non-verbal exchange and barter that worked through coded handshakes. The Portuguese coined the word ‘surf’, from the Sanskrit ‘suffe’ meaning ‘the coastline’. This intermingling that cultures, languages and traders shared led to a metaphorical and literal common ground in the form of the beach — where water meets land, the strip between high and low tides representing a zone of psychic re-adjustment, where cultural habits had to be dropped, morphed, re-imagined and re-invented in the name of exchange and trade.
Walking in the 40 degree heat of the pre-monsoon season in Diu Island - it was hot
In this way, the beach zone becomes a kind of cleansing area and a common ribbon of engagement. Our crew isn’t afraid of covering some distance in search of what we love.
We wax up our boards and hike off the beaten track to the exposed Gomti beach. Bright painted trackers (rowdy Royal Enfield motorbikes with trailer carts) thread along the road loaded with up to a dozen women, heading to work in Vanakbara
village. The locals are friendly, smiling and waving, shouting ‘namaste — hello and goodbye’ (simultaneously). At Gomti, the only bursts of colour are the memorials for 100 fishermen lost at sea in a cyclone (their bodies could not be found and then not cremated). The beach here is a place where one is washed up, cleansed and renewed; where one turns to trade, or to work in the sea as fisherman, lifeguard, or surfer, and returns to land by crossing that sand bridge perhaps bearing the fruits of labour. What unfolds beyond the tideline is good, local riches cast as temporary sea glass forms that cannot be marketed — surfable waves that wash out a creeping sense of exhaustion of the senses. We celebrate our first surf in India.
From Taiwan, Chinese surfer BayBay Niu
East of Gomti, Nagoa is another beige-coloured horseshoe of silt and sand. This is the magnet beach for middle class Indian tourists, swimming in the more sheltered bay fully clothed. Many are families from Ahmedabad, Bombay and Delhi (who fly into the tiny airport in aeroplanes too small to reliably handle surfboards). Diu, along with Daman
to the south, has a so-called Union Territory status (governed from Delhi) attracting hundreds of Gujarati tourists in search of the novelty of alcohol. Jeep loads of sweaty men gather around Baybay and Valentina asking for photographs. Even the guidebooks warn about being harassed, but go to any public beach and you get a strong slice of humanity pie with a ‘glocal’ flavour — from the musclebound of Venice, California
, to the blondes on Fistral, Newquay
, the California of the UK. Thankfully the atmosphere at Nagoa
is flushed with just enough Kingfisher beer to feel relaxed and rubbery.
Sam Bleakley, Diu island beachbreak
The local rickshaw drivers are milling around, some drunk, some sober, some just about willing to accept some business. Their rickshaws are like black, three wheeled beetles, sporting Portugal football flags, and Hindu decorations. They drive in a permanent, loose rickshaw rally around Diu, sometimes stopping to call in at their favourite tavern in town, the Tepee Bar, other times hanging around Nagoa. We jump into two rickshaws to explore. The midday light is now bright and hard, doubling in intensity as it bounces off rough karst limestone.
The island is about seven miles long, separated from the coast by a narrow channel. The northern side, facing Gujarat, is a tidal marsh and saltpan. The centre was heavily quarried to accommodate the hulking Portuguese fort and three impressive Baroque churches. The south alternates between hoka and palm trees, rocky patches and jagged cliffs. Pelts of yellow mark the occasional beach with potential reef set-ups around Chakratirth
, but right now there is not enough swell to surf them.
The surf chariot of choice for Diu Island, the ever reliable auto-rickshaw
Where Bunder road meets Fort road, we leave the rickshaws, buy figs, almonds, cashews wrapped up in newspaper and some sugary Thumbs Up sodas. We quickly discover that that the allure of the town does not rest with the fort or churches (advertised in the guidebooks), but a warren of elegant Indo-Portuguese mansions and alleyways off Vaniya and Panchwat streets. Within minutes we become lost in a maze of crooked and narrow alleyways where old couples in smart shirts and bright saris sit outside and talk. You could be in Lisbon’s backstreets. ‘Fala Português?’ asks John. And many of the older men and women do speak a Diu Portuguese Creole (língua dos velhos — elder’s language) based on Portuguese and Gujarati, and also spoken in Mozambique.
Grand, carved Burmese teak doorways are painted indigo and lilac. High rooms meet narrow wrought iron balconies lined with old pipal plants. Facades are elaborately decorated, now faded and peeled. We spend hours wandering around, infatuated. John’s interest in photographing doorways is sated. He captures the colours and compositions beautifully. The old paints are washed to new tones of limes, creams and burnt oranges. Above rusting padlocks there are cracked-up coats of arms defining the histories of important Portuguese families. Others have elaborate azulejo tiling. People watch romantic dramas in shop stalls with rattling fans, inevitably selling sugary sodas — the universal elixir. They try to palm off torn notes when we buy some more snacks and smile knowingly when we rumble their ruses. Commerce is still king, the handshakes still coded.
Diu Town has hundreds of historic yet unmaintained buildings from the Portuguese colonial period, slowly dissolving in the monsoon climate
The buildings and old schools are mostly late nineteenth century. But this area was almost exclusively Portuguese, and when the Indian Army marched in to reclaim the Estado da India in Diu, Daman, and Goa in 1961, the homeowners left — to Mozambique, Lisbon and London. Later, Diu’s local Hindu, Muslim and Christian populations moved in, but again, many owners of these private homes have gone, more lately to Wembley and Sutton in London, and Sao Antonio, outside Lisbon. Some are covered in ‘notices of demand to a default of electricity and water bills,’ and a few have papers warning ‘this building is in a ruined condition and likely to fall at any time.’
They are collapsing. The peacocks have moved in. The neighbourhood is only partly occupied, partly padlocked.
A slow rot of post-colonial decay has set in. A few Ambassadors rust in the wider street sides, and some Indian Vespas — produced under licence by Bajaj — in blues and yellows, add to the rummage. There is a thin line between the animal, human and machine carcass when your worldview encompasses eternal return, cycles of transformation, and collective pulse rather than individual being. The ‘enlightened’ cows appear to relish in this setting, which only serves to accentuate their strange otherworldly personality as they wander the thoroughfares, wondering if the inhabitants will return.
One of hundreds of stunning buildings from the Portuguese period in Diu Town, with local resident
While there are the irritants of an encounter with a fresh cow turd (holy by implication), or with a hurtling bike, rickshaw or tracker blaring horns, this place is irresistible. In old Goa, the equivalent Indo-Portuguese houses have been identified, preserved, protected and rehabilitated — the locals now cashed in. Despite the numerous offerings around the streets to the elephant headed God Ganesh — the remover of obstacles and deva of intellect and wisdom — old Diu is in a ruined, stupefied state, trees growing out of walls. This could change, given the insistent history of the area as one of commerce, co-mingling and exchange. Any one of the old temples or mansions would make an outstanding guesthouse. “The locals are sitting on a tourism gold mine here,” says John. Instead, the government ‘Collector’ of Diu is obsessed with improving the roads and catering only for local liquor tourism.
Emiliano Cataldi, surfing in the Arabian Sea at Diu Head
We meet a middle-aged man proudly checking out another impressive building. “I was residing here 40 years ago,” he says with a heavy Indian accent (sometimes described as ‘Hinglish’). Now he is based in Ahmedabad, while his brothers have moved to London. “I have a mind map of the whole building, every knot of the wood. Actually I was observing the seashore from the fourth floor.” The old bourgeois phrases — ‘actually’ and ‘residing’ and ‘observing’ — are bizarre imperial legacies. He explains that there was once a great sense of community. There still is in the inhabited parts. All the doors were apparently left open, and all the houses used a communal water collection system opened up during the monsoon to capture the unpredictable water god. Teamwork worked, but now the team has gone to Mozambique, Lisbon and London, and the local post office advertises special parcel services to these diasporas of Diu.
Catholic chapels inside Diu Fort, legacy of the Portuguese period
On Fort Road we are greeted by the insistent sound of tabla drums announcing a formal wedding procession — the groom’s party heading to the bride’s house, covered in elaborate jewellery, a sword, a hat and flowers. The celebration will continue for days. Our days, instead, offer a different marriage ceremony, surfing Gomti beach and checking the pointbreaks and reefs around Diu town to fulfil our vows to the global surf god ‘Huey’. We feel in-synch, until the manager at Resort Hoka warns us that we have become a source of suspicion to the local authorities.
There is a tedious system of form filling on check-in at any hotel on Diu, and the paperwork eventually gets back to the so-called ‘Collector’, or head bureaucrat. The mixed nationalities of the surfEXPLORE group and rumours of our ‘surfing’ around the island have led the authorities to the ludicrous conclusion that we are computer hackers ‘surfing the net’! India is suspicious of travelling photographers and writers, and to get journalism visas is near impossible these days. The government still forbids the sale of detailed maps in border areas, including the entire coastline.
The hotel manager admirably defends us when questioned by the authorities — as ‘holidaymakers doing water sports’ — to keep them off our backs, but advises us to nevertheless keep a low profile.
The paradox is, that there is no Internet connection here, anyway. We’re well out of range of the global village, our laptops gathering dust.
Emiliano Cataldi surfing in the Arabian Sea
We drive out to Kodda Madhwad village on the Gujarat mainland, and find our way to the Diu Head lighthouse where there is a fine right pointbreak (breaking from right to left from shore), spotted earlier on Google Earth. A small group of kids walks out to greet us, asking ‘what is your village?’ This is the global village revealed — from Google Earth to ground level reality. We surf a rattling wave with two sections in rich light. Here the Indian Ocean blues are re-mastered in a muddy brown Arabian Sea. We are hoping for some multikulti, but happily settle for what is on offer — good Indian Muddy Waters.
Muddy, in fact, was the godfather of Chicago blues — heavy toned, thick voiced, with agile rhythms and imaginative slide techniques. He shocked audiences in England in the late 1950s with his loud, amplified electric guitar and thunderous beat. One critic retreated to the toilets to write the review because he found the band too noisy. The Rolling Stones named themselves after a Muddy hit, ‘Rollin’ stone’, a stepping-stone to multikulti as cultural tolerance.
Driving back to Diu a flock of flamingos gathers along the expansive salt marsh. While John photographs the spectacle, I am invited to play cricket with the local kids. Being the only Englishman onboard, I am called into bat. Their bowling pace with a weathered tennis ball is a hit, and I bowl a few overs in return. This makes a change from our usual experience of football as the primary medium of communication when language fails. And these are the unexpected and intimate surprises that are unforgettable in travel — flamingos, fast bowling and muddy blue waters.
Flocks of pink flamingoes take flight from their salt marsh home
As the pre monsoon southwest winds increase, Gomti takes on the appearance of a shimmering blue duvet, as swarms of stinging bluebottle jellyfish make this their local break, ensuring that surfing here is unbearable. We explore more coastline, and near Kodidhar spot a surreal baobab tree perched on a precipice like some kind of film set. The baobab is real, but bizarrely there is a Bollywood movie being made nearby. We are denied access to the set, but cunningly sneak in through an adjacent village and via the hoka forest as it is a Sunday, and no one is shooting. We quickly get confused as we attempt to distinguish the real from a fake village. The only sure landmark appears to be a ruined church and lighthouse on the headland. But that also proves to be a fake.
Surfers on Diu Island, a chunk of limestone in the Arabian Sea
Emi recalls the Italian writer and literary critic Umberto Eco. He was one of the first commentators to describe an emerging world of ‘hyperreality’, where contemporary culture is now full of re-creations and themed environments — we create these realistic fabrications in an effort to come up with something that is better than real — which gives us things that are more exciting, more beautiful, more inspiring, more terrifying, and generally more interesting than encounters in everyday life. These include theme parks, wave-pools, city-centre beaches, bio-domes and Western movie sets where actors engage in mock fights. In his description of Disney, Eco also notes that behind these facades there always lurks a sales pitch.
When Eco travels the artificial river in Disneyland he sees animatronics. Then, on a trip down the real Mississippi, the river fails to reveal its alligators. ‘You risk feeling homesick for Disneyland,’ he concludes, ‘where the wild animals don’t have to be coaxed. Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can.’ This is reproduced in high definition nature programmes on television, where you get angles and views you would never get in the ‘wild’. Famously, the social critic Jean Baudrillard said that the Gulf War ‘never happened’. Many were insulted, because there were real casualties, but Baudrillard meant that the war was the first to be broadcast live to an international television audience where conflict appeared as traces of missiles launched on distant targets, guided by computers; or green-tinged night-time film of distant explosions. In Dubai, the Calicut of the twenty-first century, you can visit the Ibn Battuta shopping mall, buy Arabian spiced perfume, and take a virtual tour of the Muslim world as witnessed by Battuta in the fourteenth century.
But there is arguably no better place to get a taste of the real world than India. It is kaleidoscopic — for every twist, a new picture emerges.
From Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism, to free wills living at the geographical heart of what is the world’s largest democracy. For the Hindu majority, imagine living with the view that not just simply touching a certain person, but just being ‘touched’ by his or her shadow, would pollute you. This is part of India’s caste system. Perhaps the realities of arranged marriages are what make Bollywood such a successful film industry — a source of freedom as a dreamy escape for the masses. We hear from the Diu locals that this film will be in the typical Hindi masala (spice) format: high melodrama, music, dance, comedy, violence, striking outfits, lashings of romance and countless love-song sequences. The maverick hero battles injustice, and, against all odds, wins through to marry the girl he loves.
Emiliano Cataldi, surfing in the Arabian Sea over one of Diu's limestone reefs
Eager to better express our own form of free will in the surf, we continue to explore east, through Ghoghla beach, all the way to Simbor, then back west to Diu. Baybay and Valentina marvel at the Gangeshwar Temple, right on the tideline, and dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva, the destroyer/transformer god. Following the advise of a visiting family, Baybay and Valentina make an offering of sweet smelling flowers at the lingam, mark or sign. The offering is snatched by the surf, which is building in size rapidly. It turns out that the best break on Diu is right here, under our noses — now evident on the last stretch of coast we inspect on the island.
Nearby Fudham town, overhead rights thump a heavy slab. This spot is fast, shallow and free-flowing. I recall the late jazz pioneer of World music, Don Cherry, who said ‘free will manifests in different forms.’ This is our manifestation of Indian free will. Emi and Erwan are out back like a flash, and straight into two tight tubes, mastering all the right notes. More agile rhythms and imaginative angles, loose off the bottom, snaps under lips, tubes and clean exits. I hang at the edge of the boil, inspect, then paddle deep and gamble with the reef. Baybay finds her mojo, grabs her rail and points her nose, charging her longboard with stunning poise. Foot-thumping, head-nodding Valentina bottom-turns around some crashing curtains. We all score some smokers, surprised at the wave quality on offer. The spirit of Don Cherry has certainly entered the line-up.
Long-period groundswell from the Indian Ocean can reach Diu's limestone reefs, producing some of the best surfing waves in India
Cherry was master of the fragile pocket trumpet, and composer and bandleader with Ornette Coleman on Symphony For Improvisers — a classic in the library of ‘harmelodic innovation’ — where harmony and melody fuse throughout improvisation. Cherry explained: ‘The form of jazz where you had the composition, then the sax solo, trumpet solo, piano solo, drum solo, the trade fours — that concept doesn’t open for surprises. And surprise is, to me, one of the most important things in life, for inspiration.’ On the album sleeve Cherry famously traded the usual sharp suit worn by most Blue Note jazz players for a hip multi-coloured crocheted jumper and later took up full, traditional African dress. His music began to draw on extensive travel, a global quest from India to Brazil to Africa to absorb and fuse as much as possible from different cultures — a musical surfexplore. At the same time, Brazilian artists like Antonio Carlos Jobim were merging jazz with samba. Joao Gilberto took the continuous sound of samba, where all space and silence are occupied by beats, by rhythm, a sea of sound, and opened it up. He slowed down the polyrhythmic changes, and created Bossa Nova.
Sam Bleakley, surfing the limestone reefs of Diu Island
Cherry’s experiments with world music arrived in the shape of the album Mu. There are flutes, shells, percussion, guitars, harps and endearingly bright, heartfelt Indian carnatic singers. Cherry puts it all together in a fluent style that is melodic and swings, but is not slave to a metronomic beat. His lifetime work came to fruition in ‘Multikulti’, an album, and a term coined to describe people living harmoniously side-by-side building from basic languages of the body and feeling. Cherry challenged the dominant mode of jazz in an ironic gesture or a sly civility, first by maintaining melody throughout, and second by amazing harmonic counterpoints between unusual instruments. Flute might meet high notes of the pocket trumpet like two birds in conversation, with a sitar drone as accompaniment.
Rooftop view of Diu Town and the Arabian Sea from St Thomas Catholic Church of the Portuguese colonial period
Multikulti is pulsating, undulating, like great surfing that swells and ebbs, and changes with the volume and shape of the water. And as the tide pushes, the reef at Fudham gets leaner and meaner. The top of St Thomas church, now a converted guest house and museum, provides the perfect vantage point to survey the scene and soak in this particular moment. Rebirth is not a promise, but a promise of the present.
For three consecutive sessions we stay knitted to the slab, celebrating Diu’s most majestic break, bass notes on the drop, whistling flute at kick-out, spinning melodies in-between. ‘Don plays rhythm rather than time,’ said the Multikulti reviewers. ‘When the saxes are firing, Don is slurring. When the alto is so high above the register it sounds like a whistle, Don is imitating the human voice in song. When the tenor is making some flipped out confessional, Don is making brilliantly understated jokes.’
On our final afternoon we walk around the old Portuguese quarter, soaking up the scene, John framing more vivid moments through the viewfinder. The top of St Thomas’ church (now the Diu museum) has been converted into a whitewashed guesthouse called Sao Tome Retiro. From here a great perspective on Diu unfolds. The sun sets, the sky becomes blueish-grey, and the rooftops take on substance as they are no longer bleached out but profiled against the darkening canvas. There is a summit meeting of birds, kids playing, beeping rickshaws, trackers, a muezzin, another wedding. Women in shimmering jewellery, fuchsia reds and mica-like greens, march down a road to the heartening sound of tabla drums.
Beyond the rhythmic tabla playing there is always a sense of impending chaos and disorder, even collapse. But in the middle is a wonderful sense of calm, perhaps an eternal cycle embracing all creation.
Surfers are welcome in this mix. I cannot wait to return to the colour, vitality and spice of these uncrowded, if muddy, waters, to create more multikulti. In Hindi, tomorrow and yesterday are the same — cul, and so are hello and goodbye — namaste. This tells you everything you need to know about India — stay in the moment. Rebirth is not a promise, but a property of the present.
Emiliano Cataldi, checking the lineup at one of the limestone reef waves on Diu Island
Hindu swastika on Diu Island
Muslim residence on Diu Island
Hindu Temple on Diu Island