Sabretooth

In a world where most superheroes defy the laws of gravity by taking to the skies, Murthy Megavan is an amphibious oddity .“I am no Super Man. I am a fisherman. Some people call me a hero, but I’m really just a fisherman.”

The efforts of a few passionate individuals has seen the nascent surf scene at Covelong pick up in a big way. Photo: Röhan Abraham

Röhan Abraham

Selvan always slept naked. In the village of Covelong, people were habituated to his personal kinks. He would roam the streets in his birthday suit, and curl up in a ball on the beach after the sun had vanished beneath the horizon. He would spend his nights splayed about on the sand, gazing at the infinite vastness of the sky whilst listening to an orchestra of crickets as they belted out a hymn to the dying day.

One day, he met Murthy Megavan and his life changed forever, even though the same cannot be said about his exhibitionistic tendencies. His life of sloth and mild lethargy would be transformed under the watchful eyes of Murthy. The metamorphosis was so emphatic that a bevy of reporters would make a beeline to the quaint but forgotten fishing hamlet every time Selvan would venture out to sea, naked as the day he was born.

Fame is a bubble. Selvan was eventually forgotten, but his histrionics has put Covelong on the on the world map for tourists who come from far and wide to soak in the sun and ride the waves that wash the mildewed rocks lining the natural bay. Selvan’s name went down in history, and even though his paw marks which were imprinted on the sand have been obliterated by the peripatetic waves that have since kissed the shores of Covelong Point, he has spawned another generation of seafaring canines.

Baylvan has follwed in Selvan’s footsteps and is one of Murthy’s best pupils. Photo: Röhan Abraham

Selvan was the first surfing dog in a country which has one of the largest canine populations in the world. Murthy has also gone a long way from being a novitiate fisherman to a surfing instructor of world renown.

This figure is not inclusive of strays. Source: Euromonitor International

“I am Murthy. I am (a) local fisherman from the village. Now I am surf instructor. I am indebted to surfing for everything good that has ever happened in my life,” he said, quite simplistically outlining the apotheosis of his relationship with the sea.

In the summer of 2001, Murthy Megavan uncorked a bottle of surprises that was bobbing about in the placid lagoon on the inner side of the bay. The genie that emerged from the amniotic depths of the bottle had an American accent and his lanky frame towered over the diminutive fisherman, as did the surfboard he clutched on to, with his tanned arms.

“Call me Surf Swamy,” he said. However, there were no three wishes for immediate gratification. Murthy had to prove his worth to the man who would eventually become his friend and benefactor. All they had in common at this first meeting was a mutual friend in the deep blue sea.

Jack Hebner, who is now popularly known by his cheeky moniker, hails from Jacksonville, Florida, and was initially lured to make the voyage out to the subcontinent, by the spiritual traditions of ancient India. He arrived on Indian shores in 1972, and it is only afterwards that he fell in love with the picturesque beaches that hem the nation’s long coastline, and subsequently got attached to the sport of surfing.

Jack Hebner and Surf Swamy.

A person venturing out to sea on a surf board was then a novelty in the rustic hamlet of Covelong, and it had the locals in rapture. They were piqued by the spectacle of the white man who could walk on water.

Murthy was not one to be left behind and paddled out on a broken wooden window but his initial efforts were in vain as his makeshift board was battered by the waves and he had to return to being a keen spectator from the shore.

When Swamy finally called it a day, Murthy plucked up the courage to ask him for an opportunity to use his surf board. He was little over 21 and did not have the remotest idea that he was about to discover his calling. The wiry American consented with a smile, and after 20 minutes of riding the waves, Murthy was a changed man. He is 37 today.

“Surfing has taught me everything I know from how to respect people, converse in English, and lend support to social causes,” said Murthy.

‘No drink, no smoke, only surf, life is good,’ reads the message which is painted on the bottom face of his surf board. His ideology on finding happiness is simple, and he claims it is the virtue of abstinence that can lead to happiness and peace with oneself, and the surroundings.

In India, surfing is an exclusive sport which is out of reach for most people who live in seaside villages. Surf boards are very expensive since they are all imported. There are no indigenous brands which manufacture water sports equipment. Flirting with Poseidon can be an expensive preoccupation.

In 2003, an Australian tourist gave away a surf board to a group of local kids who had crowded over him in wonderment, and pleaded for an opportunity to take a ride on the magic carpet that would take them for a ride over the waves. It was from these kids that Murthy acquired his first board for the astronomical sum of Rs.1500, which by his own admission, was an expense his family could ill afford.

“My family’s financial situation was poor and my sister shouted at me when I came home with the board. It was only later that she relented because it was big money for us, and I hadn’t told her about it beforehand because I knew she would object,” recounts Murthy, who today runs a surf school with over 50 surf boards, half a dozen kayaks, and dedicated equipment for scuba diving.

When he first set out to conquer the sea, mounted on a broken wooden window, he was the object of ridicule among the local crowd that had gathered at the beach. Surf Swamy helped him find his feet, but someone who spotted his talent and provided him financial assistance at this early stage of his career was Yotam Agam, an audio engineer from Israel who is well known in the Indian music scene as the founder of the record label Earth Sync.

From left to right: Yotam Agam, Arun Vasu, Jonty Rhodes, Murthy Megavan, and Surf Swamy.

In 2008, Yotam gave him a board worth over a lakh, gratis. It remains a part of his collection, and is taken out on special occasions. “This board, my sponsor gifted me last Christmas,” he said, point to a sheathed blade worth Rs.80000, whose tapering end was sticking out from under the cover.

Once smitten, Yotam did not shy away from the sun dappled beaches of Covelong, and made a second visit in April, 2009. The documentary that he made on Murthy and his students helped popularize Covelong as a surfing destination in Australia, where it was widely watched.

Boards for Billions, an Australian NGO which works on popularizing surfing across the globe, took notice of Murthy’s community driven effort at laying the ground for surf-culture in Tamil Nadu,, and got together with a music group called the Gold Coast Crew. The latter organized a concert, the proceeds of which were donated to Murthy’s surf school which was then in a fledgling state. 30 brand new boards were shipped to Covelong as a gift from Down Under.

After much consultation with astrologers, Murthy settled on the auspicious date of November 16, 2011, to open Surf Turf, his very own surf school. Since he did not have the requisite infrastructure to house the boards near the beach, he was forced to compromise on the location and found a room inside the village which he rented out for Rs.8000 a month.

As his plans were taking wing, albeit on a small scale, Yotam pulled a rabbit out of the box by convincing Arun Vasu, the owner of the TTK group of companies, which is a conglomerate that manufactures everything from condoms to pressure cookers, to invest in his surf-startup. Arun, being an ardent surfing enthusiast, agreed to the plan but having long been involved in business, he was acquainted with the perils of putting one’s wallet where one’s mouth is.

To test the waters, Arun decided to fund Murthy’s ambitions for a year to determine whether investing in surfing was a viable bet to hedge in India. Till November 16, 2016, Arun paid the school’s bills. In the meantime, Murthy and the school got associated with mass mobilization and social movements such as beach cleaning, providing financial help to school going children, and setting up eye camps.

It was only a matter of time before his students began emulating him and started winning trophies at both regional and national level competitions. A long line of crystal plaques and gold-plated medallions jostle for space inside a crowded trophy cabinet. According to the latest rankings released by the Surfing Federation of India, the number one surfer in the country hails from Surf Turf.

Arun Vasu was sufficiently impressed with the results and bought land in Covelong in 2014 and construction started in February of the same year. The building opened for business in 2015. They have diversified over time and in addition to surfing, also offer lessons in kayaking, stand-up pedaling, scuba diving and wind surfing. The revamped Surf Turf also has rooms providing bed and breakfast to adventure tourists, and also features a trendy rooftop restaurant which serves both continental as well as Indian cuisine.

Surf Turf is today, more than just a surf school.

“Now there are 12 people who work here, including the chefs, housekeeping staff, a dishwasher and surf instructors. They all report to me,” said Murthy, who could not suppress a grin. The fact that the cashier is British and the waitress, Australian, epitomizes the multiculturalism among the staff, most of who are expatriates who chose to stay on, or volunteer to work in any capacity during their stay at the school.

Murthy is proud of the fact that despite his boys not having been to school, they have managed to become competent surf instructors who can speak much better English than those in the village who have had the good fortune of attending school, or even college.

Palani, one of the instructors at Surf Turf. He is also Murthy’s trusted lieutenant.

He attributes this to the foreign tourists who flock to Covelong in droves, and are as much attracted to the pristine water and the golden sand, as to his boys and their surfing prowess and attitude. He claims that many foreign tourists who are neophytes to the art of surfing improve by leaps and bounds under the tutelage of his charges.

“If any celebrity comes, my boys teach them how to ride the waves. Jonty was not a very good surfer. I first surfed with Jonty in 2013 when he took a break after the IPL season. He’s an intermediate surfer but a very good guy. When he came for the second time, he stayed for five days at this establishment, Surf Turf. He took a lot of photos with me and the local boys. He said he liked their speech and attitude,” Murthy said.

Murthy, with Jonty Rhodes and Arun Vasan.

Jonty Rhodes, the former South African vice-captain, who is widely regarded as the best fielder to have ever played the game of cricket has promised to return a third time, this time for an even longer stay.

Moving closer to home, celebrities from other parts of the country have also started paying visits to Covelong to relax and master the art of taming the waves. In 2013, before the school building was constructed, Milind Soman, the Bollywood actor made a pit-stop to Murthy’s establishment eschewing the creature comforts offered by Fisherman’s Cove, which is a Taj property that has its own private beach, and is located just a stone’s throw from Covelong Point.

“I set up a small tent on the beach and fed him some locally procured idlis and vada. He enjoyed it. He would eat and then go surfing, swimming, running… crazy man. He was a very good student,” narrated Murthy of his travails with celluloid heroes. Tamil celebrities have also made Surf Turf their port of call.

It is a matter of pride for him that the best surfer in the country is from Surf Turf. A number of smaller surf schools have mushroomed in other parts of the country such as Mangalore, Kerala, Goa, Bombay, Odisha, and Pondicherry which have made the professional circuit in the country even more competitive.

“Those from elsewhere are scared of my boys because of their aggressive surfing. My Tamil boys are able to use full power because they don’t drink or smoke. Drink, smoke, party … waste of energy,” Murthy explained. In fact, he has acquired a reputation as a strict disciplinarian who demands complete focus and abstinence from intoxicants.

Many talents that were spotted by Murthy have made it big on the world stage. One of the boys trained by him and now works as an instructor at the school, traveled to Fiji in October last year to represent India at the World Paddle Boarding Championship.

The event in Fiji was organized under the aegis of the World Surf League (WSL). Paddle boarding is a 20km race where competitors have to stand on the board and paddle. Of the 40 nations that sent participants to the event, Sekhar finished 32, which is a commendable achievement according to his friend and mentor.

Murthy’s first tryst with fame was in 2009 when the New Indian Express did a story on him when he trained his dog, Selvam, to ride a surfboard, both in the relatively calm backwaters, as well as the sea.

Canine pupils receive free board and lodging at Surf Turf. Photo: Röhan Abraham

“That was the moment I realized that I’m a hero,” he says emphatically.

In fact, he was taken aback when a few wise men who were visiting the school said that what led them to the holy grail of surfing in India was not the Star of the East, but an article that appeared in ‘SpiceRoute’, the in-flight magazine of Spice Jet.

One facet of Murthy’s character has been his ability to channelize his newfangled celebrity status for the betterment of the community by lending a hand to social causes.

Surfing school boys at the inundated OMR toll booth​.

“During last year’s floods in Chennai, me and my boys suspended the school temporarily and expended all our energy in the rescue and evacuation of people who were stranded. I think one photo is very famous, the one where one of the boys takes a ticket for the boat at a flooded toll booth on the OMR,” he quipped.

Murthy’s journey has inspired many within the fishing community of Covelong and neighbouring districts, but his story fell upon a much larger and diverse audience when he was invited to speak at a TEDx talk at Chengalpattu Medical College in 2013, which was broadcast all over the world. The underlying theme of the talk was ‘Dream: Live: Achievement,’ the progression that embodies Murthy’s rise to stardom.

“I told them my story, before and after 2001, and how meeting Surf Swamy was the turning point in my life,” he reminisced. Murthy explained how the parasitic relationship between a fisherman and the sea changed all of a sudden, and that the water did not seem so anodyne anymore when one took to surfing.

Familial discord had broken up the Megavan household when Murthy was still in school. His father left home and still hasn’t come back to the village, with rumours doing the rounds that he is hale and hearty, and is living with his new family in another town. His mother followed suit and left for elsewhere, leaving the children with their grandmother.

“My grandma is the only person who took care of me and my two sisters. I am forever grateful to her for teaching me the values that I hold so dearly. She still lives with me and my family,” said a solemn Murthy. He bought an old fishing boat which he sold in 2008 after he took to professional surfing while volunteering at NGOs.

On December 26, 2004, violence was to visit the peaceful fishing hamlet with nature’s fury raising its hand to strike down houses and transport their inhabitants to a watery grave. The steady gains made by the community were squandered.

Covelong was badly affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, with the tidal wave claiming 96 lives in the entire district of Kancheepuram. Human settlements were pulverized by waves as high as coconut trees. Roofs caved in, and houses were reduced to the state of crushed matchboxes. Those who were in the vicinity of the beach when the tsunami made landfall did not even have time to rue their misfortune.

The trauma of loss and bereavement left indelible scars on many who lost loved ones, pushing them into depression, often bordering on mental illness. Many children were left orphaned.

“After the tsunami of 2004, I worked with an NGO called Banyan whose aim was to improve the lives of mentally ill people. I was the first staff in Covelong. Initially there weren’t too many locals but now it has picked up. More and more people with mental illness and chronic depression are coming out in the open since the taboo around it seems to be on the wane. An equal number of volunteers have signed up to help them cope with their illness,” said Murthy.

He asserts that he might not be educated, but he has learnt how to care for people from his grandmother, and that basic human kindness can help anyone tide over their difficulties. He climbed the rungs at the NGO and was promoted to the post of Outreach Manager, before calling it quits on his day job to focus solely on surfing.

The triptych of NGO work, surfing, and family formed the canvas on which his being scuttled about. Lack of time, made him sever ties with Banyan, although he still volunteers for outreach programmes. Moreover, after founding Surf Turf, almost all his time and energy are spent in managing the school and imparting lessons to students and keeping an observant lookout over the horizon for beginners who might be pulled under by rogue currents.

A peal of sweat glistened on his brow as he sifted through the numerous surf boards in the storeroom, which has a sea facing view, and resembles the deck of a ship. In the well kempt milieu of the chandlery, a pile of cardboard boxes with DHL stickers on them are haphazardly scattered on the carpeted floor like flotsam from a shipwreck.

Most of the cardboard boxes were the disemboweled carapaces of surfboards that were sent over to Murthy for testing by Tribord, which is the water sports subsidiary of Decathlon, the French sports gear manufacturer.

Representatives from Tribord had visited Surf Turf in 2014 and were sufficiently impressed with Murthy and his team to send them prototypes of newly developed boards for testing. Depending on the board, Murthy would revert back to them with feedback and suggestions for modification.

However, fame hasn’t been a bed of roses for Murthy. A section of the local population have become envious of his success and resent the kind of money he gets paid by foreigners. Also, lurking paparazzi and video cameras have made the some locals disenchanted with the sport of surfing in general.

But those who have a grouse against Murthy’s rise to stardom are in a minority. He even lets tourists who cannot afford to pay for accommodation in the rooms to sleep on yoga mats in the storeroom.

“You trust me, I trust you. If you like my surfing and my attitude, then go to your state or country and promote Covelong,” declared Murthy with a twinkle in his eye. He will be spending the last week of the February in Sri Lanka on a surfing tour.

A blonde woman with an aquiline face stopped him as he passed the foyer overlooking the beach. It was almost sunset and he’d already called it a day. The sleeves of his blue surfing gear were tied up around his torso, and trailed him like a cape.

“You look like Superman,” she said mischievously.

Sport as catharsis: Murthy’s story has catalzzed the next generation to chase their dreams. Photo: Röhan Abraham

“I am no Superman. I am a fisherman. Some people call me a hero, but I’m really just a fisherman,” said Murthy, adding a riposte of his own to the banter.

Plenty of water has flowed under the bridge since Murthy Megavan first encountered Surf Swamy at Covelong Point and decided to ape the rangy American by paddling out to sea on a broken wooden window. Surf Swamy is 76 and Murthy is no longer the wide eyed youth of yesteryear, but the father of the bellwether movement that got the surfing scene on India’s east coast up and running.

In a world where most superheroes defy the laws of gravity by taking to the skies, Murthy Megavan is an amphibious oddity. He prefers to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground.