Shorts In The Dark
Blue hai paani paani: Swimming pools? Well, they're pools of very weird stories too
It's summer and the pools are full. But from 'holy dips' to 'contagious epilepsy' and now, 'chlorates', my swimming classes have always been quite deep.
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Well-off India is in the habit of outsourcing its physical bodily movements. The very point of prosperity is that one shouldn’t have to lift a finger.
An illustration of this willed paralysis occurs in VS Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness. Naipaul is meant to swap seats with a fellow traveller on a railway journey. It has something to do with one of them being in the wrong berth. The other fellow, a government employee, refuses to gather his laid-out bedding and lay it afresh on another seat. Hierarchy demands that he wait till the next stop when his flunky will enter the compartment and perform the bedroll duty. The senior government official cannot publicly be seen performing a menial chore.
Naipaul is losing patience. He is not willing to wait until the next stop. In one lightning swoop, he does the honours himself, rolling up the man’s bedding and slamming it on the assigned berth.
The man doesn’t budge.
It’s the height of summer and I’ve been swimming. I’ve noticed, in Indian pools, adults don’t swim. Instead, they outsource their bodily movements to their gene pool. The adults sit and watch, gossip and supervise the children, from outside the pool. All these adults could do with some exercise themselves — diabetes and clogged arteries are tattooed on their faces.
One mother parks herself on a chair on the shallow side and instructs her son on how to move his feet.
‘Beta, lag chalao, lag.’
I asked the pool attendant if the mom knew how to swim herself. He said she didn’t. The pool attendant threw me an axiomatic truth: If you really know how to swim, you don’t waste your time bluffing from land.
How to make a splash: The most enthusiastic are probably non-swimmers. (Photo: Reuters)
Indian pools are surrounded by non-swimmers, all sitting and peering into the water as if it was one giant Liquid Crystal Display screen. If it’s a pool in a private club, then some Baggas and Khannas might enter the waters after a game of ego-driven squash, to warm down. By and large, swimming in India is a summer vacation activity for children.
We consider swimming to be a part of ‘playing’. In school in Allahabad, we stopped playing once we reached class eight or nine. Studies overtook frivolous sports as a priority. But it wasn’t just a matter of not having time in hand; it was a cultural part of ‘growing up’ that one stopped playing. Going to the gym or for a stroll is considered a suitable form of exercise for adults primarily because it is not a form of playing.
The only places where one plays sports till standard 12 tend to be old-fashioned boarding schools. In these elite spaces with club facilities, it goes to the other extreme. I taught in one for three years. Here, the football match between two school houses takes precedence over the maths Board exam the very next day. In future Founder’s Day events, it’s the match, not maths, that will be talked about over single malt whisky.
The odd adult in the Indian pool is up to maverick tricks — doing laps is rarely on the cards. One such person that I’ve observed comes every day, goes to the centre of the pool and spends twenty minutes chopping water with his palms in a cyclical motion.
Another, who wears a sacred thread, clamps his nose, lowers himself in the water on his knees and emerges with his hands folded atop his head. He’s maroing dubkis at the Kumbh. To watch this is to watch a painfully slow pilgrim’s progress. He seems blissfully unaware that this is a pool, laced with kindergarten pee, not a holy river, laced with industrial effluents.
It requires some suspension of disbelief.
Holy Dip? No, it's not a river. It's a pool! (Representative image: Reuters)
The odd adult in the pool is also an expert on contagious diseases. When my eyes went red from the excessive chlorine in Delhi Gymkhana’s hallowed waters, the lone life-member squatting on an inflatable float in a remote corner of an eerily empty pool booted me out, fearing an outbreak of conjunctivitis.
Recently, in Dehradun, a group from a residential centre for people with autism went for a dip in a public pool. They were given the boot as well. The non-swimming parents were deeply concerned for the health of their screeching wards. A complaint was lodged. The management claimed that since some of the autistic individuals have epilepsy, if any of them had a seizure while in the water, non-disabled swimmers might also have seizures.
Our resistance to water has a paradoxical element to it. We romanticise water. We sing love songs in the rain. We like to get wet with our clothes on. We ride the waves of the ocean fully clothed.
At Kempty Falls in Mussoorie, women can rent ‘ladis suit’ by the hour. It’s essentially a mutilated salwar-kameez, with the sleeves of the kameez cut off. The salwar pyjama ends at the knees. You wear this and go stand under waterfall.
A friend from Delhi recalls with horror the one time she tried the if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em approach at Besant Nagar beach in Chennai. Used to swimming in her swimsuit in the toasty sea off Brighton (and a string bikini in Puducherry), she observed the local ‘ladis’ and followed suit. She entered the Bay, fully clothed.
Growing Up (not): We consider swimming a part of ‘playing’. (Photo: Reuters)
It wasn’t a pleasant experience. A combination of the two heavies is not a good idea: heavy undercurrents exert a strong pull, while the clothes make you heavier, stick to your body. She says going into the sea in skin-tight swimwear is a safety essential. One’s salwar-kameez discharges tiny grains of sand for weeks on end afterwards.
In Cape Comorin, where the fisher folk worship Mariyamma, Jesus’s mother, the wives are not allowed to step into the sea the entire year. They can do so only on Christmas day — fully clothed. It’s considered a good omen as far as the catch is concerned. More fish caught means more prosperity.
Coming back to the pool I swim in, the other day, it turned a diabolical shade of green. I asked the attendant why. He said that the water had been contaminated by chlorates. I googled ‘chlorates’.
No such microbe exists.
Not only do we not swim in the pool, we spin yarns about tiny, not-visible-to-the-naked-eye Loch Ness monsters inhabiting its murky waters.