Every year, as summer rolls in and the mercury rises, I head for the swimming pool (well, poolette, actually!) in our apartment building, and my mind goes back a few years…
One of the advantages of living in residential apartments in Bangalore is the fact that one gets to enjoy some common amenities: a gym, a swimming pool, a common green area, and so on. And one summer, I realized that there was someone willing to teach the ladies in the complex, how to swim.
Learning to swim was not something new to me. Like the man who said, "Giving up smoking is easy, I do it every day," I had tried to learn to swim in the past, too.
The first time was when my daughter learnt to swim at the Bangalore Club; a sense of "so-what-if-I-am-scared-of-the-water, in-fact-because-of-that-I-must-learn" made me also enroll for the classes.
Alas, the classes were 50 per cent successful. That is, my daughter learnt (she was 8 or so) how to swim, effortlessly and easily, and at the end of a week’s worth of classes, was splashing happily in the deep end.
But me? I would keep standing in the shallow end, hoping that the instructor would not notice me….and making desperate attempts to please him while yet ducking away. On the third or fourth day, I developed a ear-ache, and when the doctor told me that I had a mild ear infection, and could not swim for a week, I nearly hugged and kissed him….I went back to the instructor, made it sound as if the infection was threatening my brain, and signed off from the class with such ill-repressed glee that the instructor nearly asked me why I had joined in the first place!
A few years went past. My daughter left to pursue her studies abroad (no, she didn’t swim across the Atlantic) and I went to live in Oman, where my spouse had taken up a job. There, I made friends with a tall, willowy lady who was astonished that I didn’t know how to swim. "I’ll teach you in a trice!" she said, unable to guess what sort of material she was trying to mould.
After a few days of effort, however, she admitted defeat. I would hold on to the railing at the side of the pool for dear life, and instead of kicking out and mastering the stroke, would kick out at her instead when she tried to separate me from the railing. "You don’t need a swimming instructor," she said. This statement would have made me happy, if she had not followed it with, "You need a psychiatrist!"
Another chance to learn
So there I was, in my apartment building in Bangalore, eyeing the notice that said ladies could join the classes….and I was really thrilled to find that four other neighbours of mine had exactly the same idea.
On Day 1, therefore, the five of us presented ourselves to Seeta, the gentle-looking coach. We were very happy to see that Seeta didn’t seem the type to bully us, and would be willing to listen if, after a few days, we said we couldn’t do it.
It was a real sight to see us in the swimming class. While the young tots, with perfect trust in Seeta, ran to the deep (er, deep in our apartment pool is five feet six inches!) end and took a running jump into the water, there we were, huddling miserably at the shallow end in a lump of miserable, scared womanhood. "Come on in!" invited Seeta with a smile. "I’ll take care of you." "Please remember that I have a husband and two kids, and can’t afford to die just now," implored one of my friends. Seeta never bullied us, but she never gave up, either!
Dead fish would float much easier than we could. There was M, who would make huge tidal waves with her efforts. There was N, who had on the latest swimwear, but seemed reluctant to let it get wet. R had bought a swimsuit somewhat too large for her and it threatened to part company from her body in the pool; we used her baby’s diaper pins to keep the suit on! V was the one who wanted to remain alive, and then there was me….to make me let go of the side of the pool, I think, must have been one of the highlights of Seeta’s career as a swimming coach. I would NOT look at the bottom of the pool, because if I looked, surely I would end up there.
Entertainment for the watchers!
We also realised that we were providing entertainment for many sections of the people who lived in the apartments. As soon as the class started at 8 am, all the male servants in all the flats facing the pool would develop a pressing urge to come and clean their flat windows, an operation that would go on till 9 am, when the class finished and the woebegone group of five, spluttering and gasping, would get back to the welcome shelter of the changing room.
The merry peal of children’s laughter also dogged us to further misery. "See, Aunty!" one tiny five-year-old would chirp. "You just have to jump in like this!" and off she would go into the pool, while we gingerly put the tips of our little toes in.
Our swimwear, too, was a source of untold humour. I had a regular swimsuit, but the thought of all those window-cleaners made some of my friends invest in swimsuits with sleeves and leggings, too…indeed, one friend bought a black swimsuit which covered her entire arms and legs, and when she wore her black cap, all that could be seen was her hands, her feet…and the fear on her face!
At this point, must unfairly, I too joined the leg-pulling gang, calling her swimsuit a ‘Burqa’ swimsuit (this was long before the Burqini was invented) and asking to buy a veil, gloves and socks and finish the job properly! "We are not as uninhibited as you," sniffed one of the sleeve-and-legs brigade to me. "You are about twenty years younger than I am," I said, cleverly. "If that window-cleaning lot look down at the pool, which of the two of us do you think they are going to watch? Not me!"
But even the weariest river winds somewhere safe to sea or rather, even the weariest swimming instructor sees the students learning at last. And so, there we were, if not quite mermaids or water babies, at least able to float around in the pool and occasionally, with a lot of kicking, even make it from one side of the breadth of the pool to the other, in about twenty minutes! I am sure I saw Seeta hide several smiles, if not actual laughs, in the waters of the pool. I am sure she must have dined out on the stories about us for weeks, if not years, as we did our breadths.
And what swimming the lengths? Did you say lengths? To the *DEEP*, dangerous (practically crocodile and shark-infested) end of the pool? Shudder, shudder. The minute we lost our footing on the bottom of the pool, we would surely lose our heads and lives, too.
But over the period of a month, that miracle, too, happened. We did, somehow, manage to go over the length of the pool, though this was much assisted by standing up in the middle (remember that it was less than five feet deep at that point!) and taking mighty breaths, much as if we were going for a cross-Channel or trans-Atlantic attempt. Our sense of achievement, too, was more proportional to swimming the Palk Straits than negotiating a tiny swimming pool!
The most ironic end to our swimming classes came when Seeta broke her leg (no, she did NOT break it kicking one of us into the pool!) and could not come for any more classes that year. But by this time, we had got to the point where I actually was able to teach myself the backstroke!
The years have passed, but we still remember the terrifying but heady days of learning to conquer our fear of the water, and to swim instead of sink. And when I slowly get into the pool (to this day, I cannot jump in at the deep end, but must carefully ease myself in!), I remember Seeta and wonder, with whom she is struggling this year?
So those of you who are petrified of the water, and are reading this, take heart. If I could learn to swim, so can anyone else in all of humankind. So go ahead this summer, learn to swim! It’s the most refreshing exercise possible. Thank you, Seeta, our hearts may still be in our mouths as we approach the deep end of a full-size pool, but those hearts are full of gratitude to you.