How Shankar escaped poverty through his love for surfing

Shankar's cozy Mother Ocean Surf School is located on a quiet stretch of coast in South Indian Tamil Nadu. "Surfing is the most beautiful thing in my life, I have enormous respect for the ocean: I owe everything to her."

Shankar (39) grew up in a poor family with eight children in a rural area near Pondicherry. “My parents were farmers and worked very hard. Yet we barely had any clothes and often went to bed hungry. My father died of an illness, my mother from a cobra bite. When I was 12, I quit school to earn money.”

He had all kinds of jobs , often several at the same time, from selling coconuts to being a night watchman. His brothers worked in construction, but Shankar knew one thing for sure: that wasn’t for him. He preferred hanging out on the beach, where he met Aurovillians, residents of the international community just down the road. He learned English from them and a little French and a whole new sport: surfing!

Shankar: “In the beginning I secretly grabbed surfboards from surfers who were having lunch. I’ve had a lot of angry surfers chasing me! I was a rebellious teenager… I have now learned what respect means. Surfing has made me mature. The salty water of the ocean heals the brain, I am convinced.”

He will never forget the first time he caught a wave. It was life changing. Shankar: “An indescribable experience, so beautiful! I was immediately hooked!” A Swiss man from Auroville trained him to be a lifeguard, so that he learned the dangers of the sea and could give CPR. He is now an ISA Certified surf instructor, but his beach career started with rescuing people from the sea. “I’ve pulled a lot of people out of the water with a bodyboard!” he says, laughing.

With the money he earned as a lifeguard, he rented a small house on the beach. Two years later he had saved enough to buy the land surrounding the cottage. Where the house once stood, there is now a large blue-and-white two-story building: the surf school below, an Airbnb above. He built the house with his own hands. “With the help of friends and my brothers. It turned out well that they work in construction! The whole process took six to seven years. Every time I had some money, we built a little further.”

The building was finished three years ago. And then Covid came… It was a difficult time, but Shankar is good at putting things into perspective. Shankar: “For us it was especially difficult mentally, there was no one on the beach and we couldn’t do anything. But for poor people, Covid was really terrible. Day laborers who suddenly found themselves without work and income. If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that you should always be grateful for what you have.”



Shankar has a lot to be thankful for. Not just his surf school, but also his new family. During Covid, he met a girl from Mumbai through friends. They fell in love, got married and just had their first child. Shankar proudly shows a photo on his phone, a beautiful four-month-old girl. “My parents-in-law have also moved here, they live with us. Our house is a few kilometers away in a quiet, wooded area.”

Shankar not only takes care of his in-laws, he also helps his siblings financially. Shankar: “I give my sisters some money every month and pay the study costs for my nephews. I’m not saying I’ll always do it, but as long as I have enough, why not? Being family you have to help each other. It’s the right thing to do.”

Despite his good intentions, Shankar also faces envy and jealousy. Shanker: “I mainly have Indian customers in the surf school and I generally get respect from them. But in the village people talk behind your back. That’s how it goes here. I’ve learned to let that slide. People who gossip have issues with themselves. I prefer to focus on my own life and on the good people around me.”

A girl enters the surfing school. She has just come out of the water, her hair wet, a wetsuit on and a broad smile on her face. “She’s had a private lesson with Johnson,” Shankar explains. Johnson is a good friend of Shankar from Kerala and his wingman at the surf school. Now that Shankar is a father, he can no longer hang around on the beach day and night. “If I go to my family for a few hours in the afternoon, I can leave the surf school to Johnson without any worries.”

All in all, Shankar is a happy person. He worked hard to achieve his dream and he succeeded. When he thinks about the future, he only wants one thing: to go back to his childhood. Shankar: “I miss farm life. I like simplicity. I would like a piece of land, a cow, a goat and some chickens. Living off the land. And maybe some volunteers who will come and work for room and board.”

Of course, the surf school will continue as usual. Surfing is the basis. There are also some loans to be paid off, so the farm project is something for the long term. “Slowly slowly… Step by step, just like the surf school. If you work hard and don’t give up, you will get there. I have patience. That’s also something I learned from the ocean. Everything comes in its time. Just like good waves. I have faith in life. The ocean has given me everything. Whatever the future brings, I am very lucky and very grateful.”

Want to know more about Skankar and/or visit his surf school?
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Image: Mother Ocean Surf School

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De artikelen van Anne verschenen eerder in tijdschriften en kranten waaronder Fabulous Mama, Viva, Margriet, Linda en NRC Next. Anne is cultureel antropoloog en eigenaar van Uitgeverij 11