(Published in Business Standard on March 21, 2015)
Before last Saturday I hadn’t boarded an airplane in over a year, because I love flying like I love being dragged through rusty nails and then rubbed down with salt. This time it was a Dreamliner, and it took off into the blackest, angriest skies I’d ever seen. Why create a fabulous aircraft, I fretted, only to give it to a nitwit who points it into the jaws of death? After a spot of hypocritical praying I looked out again, and got goose pimples: we were floating through a dim ocean, the sun a fuzzy pale spot beyond the surface far above. Eventually I realised that the shutter-free windows were photochromatic—after dialling down the shading, the skies turned out to be sunny and calm, the airplane far above the clouds, and the nitwit not in the cockpit but quivering in seat 34A.
The twilight zone sense of being underwater, though, was apt. I was going to the Maldives for a long overdue catch-up with my college pal Denise, with whom I last shared a room 24 years ago. Denise is the kind of unspeakably cool person who is not only nice enough to invite people to the Maldives, but also a diver. I’ve wanted to dive since childhood, having seen the wonders of the ocean reef via snorkel, but I’m on the lily-livered side of things. But Denise passed on the following salty sea saying: If snorkelling is like kissing, diving is like going all the way. So, after days of snorkelling in aquamarine waters, wiggling my toes in white sands, and staring at the Milky Way over cocktails, I finally decided it was time for an introductory dive. In hindsight I blame the gin and tonic, as is traditional.
Here’s how it’s done: You sign up, and immediately regret it. You sleep poorly the previous night. You make yourself walk to the dive centre despite a powerful recurring temptation to conceal yourself behind a bush instead. You let them strap you into the equipment, horribly aware of being a land animal. You wade into shallow water to practice breathing and clearing your mask, and kick yourself for putting your stupid name on a stupid list and now you’re going to die, and you haven’t even had dinner with Hugh Laurie yet. You resolve to rip off your mask and tank, hit the instructor on the head with chunks of coral and passing crabs, and run away in your flippers.
But then suddenly I was in a blessed silence broken only by my own breath, in a kaleidoscopic ballet of form and colour lit by lacy bars of sunlight. There were tiny orange-and-blue fish, big bright yellow ones, black-and-white clownfish, flamboyant parrotfish. There were little red starfish, and breathing corals. There were microscopic plankton, and enormous fish with faces like unhappy tax inspectors. Eels yawned toothily. There was even a little black-tipped reef shark, but I was too busy biting practically through my regulator to worry about it biting me.
It wasn’t all perfect. The air made my throat dry, and fear surged through me whenever saltwater entered my nostrils. I confused the signs for ‘Okay’ and ‘Want to go up’. My ears hurt, so I couldn’t go too deep. All through, I maintained a vice-like grip on the hand of my instructor, a longhaired Maldivian whose superpower was to make his eyes large and hypnotically persuasive, like that cat in Shrek, and thus keep me calm.
But it was fantastic. I was down for 43 minutes, or 42.5 more than I expected. For at least 35 of those minutes, I was able to enjoy watching the extraordinary, mind-boggling diversity of Creation go about its business underwater.
So I’m here to tell you this: if you haven’t had a fish poop in your face, you haven’t lived. And I’d like to dive again, but if I never do, I’ll always have the Maldives.