I was in Sambalpur a few weeks back and we’d gone to a picnic spot beside a lake. While everyone was playing in the water, I was basking in the sun near the bank. They proceeded deeper and deeper into the water, diving down and raising their arm to show how deep the water was. I was playing with pebbles, splashing water, trying to act busy. But not for long. “Don’t you want to come inside the water? There’s no fun just sitting there!” No response. “Are you like, scared of water or something?”
I know Pamela Anderson is the most famous Baywatch girl. But for me, she will always remain second to Yasmine Bleeth. I had caught a glimpse on an episode on one of the lucky afternoons in my summer holidays. I know this has been talked about many times, but there is something about the beach, the sea, and red swimsuits that sends teenage hormones on a sprint.
Swimming was among the cool things on my list of cool things since that day. But I had never got the opportunity to learn it. I finally decided to learn in my XI standard.
I registered myself at a swimming coaching class. What I dint know that the oldest guy in the batch was eleven years old. After bearing the ignobility of standing in my briefs with kids who reached up to my knee, I quit the coaching.
A few months later, we went to Balasore, my father’s native place. There is a pond behind our house and the kids all learn swimming in it. My father called me to the pond with the promise that he would teach me swimming. He told me how he and his five brothers had learnt swimming on their own. It was just something you learnt while growing up. “We learnt it on out own, in a month. We just dived into the water and learnt it”.
When I gingerly stepped into the water, I was expecting my father to come in behind me. I was already in the water and to my horror, I realised he was going to teach me swimming the way he had learnt it. “Paddle your feet and move your arms.” How easy it sounds, like “Switch off the lights and close the windows.” I was unable to move a muscle. After a few minutes of struggle, I gave up. I could see my father on the edge, egging me to go on with his hand raised. Looking like Rocky Balboa’s coach when he was badly beaten in the eye. Seconds later, my cousin brother jumped in to the water and pulled me out to safety. I came out of the pond, shaken, and shivering. Strike 1.
Just about 2 weeks later, I went to my bodo bapa’s house. There is a canal that flows right next to my uncle’s house where people bathe. Bathing is a community event. You came in groups with your friends, swam a bit, bathed, and went home. My cousin brother Raja Bhai had taken me along with him to bathe. I think there is something about the people of Balasore and has to do with their helpful nature. When he learnt I didn’t know how to, he offered to teach me how to swim. After some insisting, he took me into the water holding my hand. I waded into the water, my legs in the water, my hand in Raja Bhai’s and my heart in my mouth. Once we were a little inside, he left my hand, asked me to paddle, and turned to speak to his friend. Same result. That sinking feeling again. When he turned, he saw my hand struggling above the water and pulled me to safety. Strike 2
A few months later, I was at Puri. I had gone with a few friends to the beach and we were playing in the water. While the rest were diving into the water, I was playing safe, staying well behind the others and tamely splashing water like the Gopis do in those ISCKON pictures.
After a while, we noticed a girl in a red swimsuit nearby. Now, it is difficult to find anyone below 75 kilos in a swimsuit in Puri. And she was young and pretty. The sight of her caused an exodus among the guys on the beach and everyone including out group gradually moved a little closer.
They would wait for the girl to look in their direction, and then with a loud “Yaaaaaaay” dive into the water. I joined them for a number of reasons. Adrenaline rush, peer pressure, memories of Yasmine Bleeth. Red swimsuit.
“Yaaaaaaaay” and Splash! I went diving into one of the waves. The next wave was a bigger one, and I dived right into it, and when it was going back, I realised I couldn’t feel any sand below my feet. The red swimsuit girl was among the first to notice me screaming. “Somebody, pull him out. He doesn’t know how to swim”. The same sight again, a haze of brown and water getting into my mouth and ears. A bihari guy jumped into the water and pulled me out. Even within the water, I could hear him screaming out to me not to pull him in too. The last thing I remember was a light brown colour everywhere around me and water entering into my eyes, nose, and mouth.
When I opened my eyes, I saw the beard of a man who looked like Sivapathacus from our history text book, inches from my face. Yes, I had drowned again. Yes, I had been given CPR by that early old man. Strike 3.
“No, no. Nothing like that. You guys go enjoy! I’ll just sit here and relax.” If ever that proverbial situation comes when I have to choose between the devil and the dark sea, I will embrace the Devil and try to bargain with him!