Everything is Fair in Water and War: How I Beat 10-year-olds at Swimming


Everything is Fair in Water and War: How I Beat 10-year-olds at Swimming

Illustration: Akshita Monga

It was 1999. I, six years old, watched my neighbourhood’s three oldest boys walk up to our local cable operator. In one smooth handshake, currency was exchanged for a slip of paper. On the slip was a number: 91.

As I realised later, “91” was the designated channel that would screen Baywatch that night. Only the operator’s hormonal audience had access by payment – the 90’s equivalent of sharing your Netflix account.

“It’s a show about lifeguards.” one of the older boys explained to us pre-pubescent lambs. Lifeguards – as I found out after my introductory watch – that move in lusty strides, as if the urgency of saving someone’s life sexually aroused them.

So 20 years later, when a pot-bellied lifeguard pulled me out of the sea in Goa, my crippling fear of death was interrupted by a random thought: “Man, this guy looks nothing like David Hasselhoff.”

Before I could truly register my disappointment, my heaving Goan angel asked me why I didn’t swim back to the shore when asked. “I didn’t know how to,” I spattered out. As the entire beach watched me reduced to sea-salt and snot, I explained that I’d never learned to swim.

I did not expect this epiphany to come in a pool surrounded by noisy kids, intimidated by how quick they were at picking up a new skill.

I was too nauseous to explain that none of the schools I went to had swimming pools, or that most of my landlocked family had barely seen the ocean and believed that Maths tuition was a more pressing investment.

“Then why did you go that far in?”, asked the ab-free saviour of my life.

Because I was an idiot, I thought to myself. An idiot with zero capacity to swim who looked at a sea with infinite capacity to drown, and thought, “Eh, I’ll be fine.”

As the entire beach was now aware, I was not fine. Come to think of it, I was also not fine on a Kerala beach in 2013 and extremely not fine in Thailand in 2014 where I pretty much gave myself up to Yamraj before another not-Pamela-Anderson pulled me out.

So last summer, in a fit of ennui, impatience, and disposable income, I decided to sign up for swimming lessons at the tender age of 25. After explaining several times that the lessons were to be for me and not my (imaginary) children, I managed to find someone who didn’t mock my earnestness and signed up immediately.

I walked into Very Maharashtrian Sports ComplexTM on the first day of class and quickly realized two things: One, the rest of my class was under the age of 10. Two, this made me a fully-grown man paying to frolic in a pool with kids under the age of 10. I didn’t know what was worse. Suddenly, the moustache I grew over the summer felt like a terrible idea.

The 20 parents watching their kids from the gallery validated my self-consciousness as their eyes scanned me for the slightest hint of Shakti Kapoor in my stride. Amongst the many crimes of paedophiles, nearly denying adult men of a swimming education might be the most unexpected.

Aware of the scrutiny my presence was inviting, my Very Maharashtrian Instructor placed me at a “safe” distance away from the contingent of kids, causing me to spend the next hour trying to listen for instructions from 10 feet away.

Once my sincere efforts to learn convinced the overlords that my sexuality was adequately orthodox, I was taught how to kick water (take that, you flimsy state of matter!) and moderate my breathing (ooh, bubbles!) in pawing proximity of children.

I had expected to feel old at some point in my life. Maybe when I’d go to a party and not understand any slang or maybe when I’d have to ask my nephew to fix my phone. Or when I’d have nephews at all.

I did not expect this epiphany to come in a pool surrounded by noisy kids, intimidated by how quick they were at picking up a new skill. While their brains adapted to instruction like dough, mine had already solidified into very mediocre pie. I have never thrown pie overboard, but I suspect buoyancy isn’t its strongest suit.

So like all old men, I decided to get even by getting competitive about non-competition. I did the laps twice and won all the races. I kicked their ass and rubbed it in their little faces. Turns out it feels great to be top of your class, even when your class’ average wingspan is shorter than your chest hair.

In two months, I could swim from one end of the pool to the other without my life flashing before my eyes. It was time to meet my big blue nemesis.

About to head to a little vacation by the coast, I bid goodbye to the children who had floundered with me these months. They nodded, unsure of how to respond to a man who’s clearly getting his mid-life crisis a decade early.

I then walked to my instructor hoping for a pep talk. He put his hands on my shoulders, hesitated for a moment – overwhelmed by emotion, no doubt – and said the four magic words: “Your fee is due”.

Inspired by this clarion call, I handed the receptionist two moist notes and flew away. Before I could yell “swimcap”, I was on the beach.

My companion whipped out his camera. I whipped off my shirt. “Gonna get you this time asshole,” I muttered to the sea. The sea chose to stay silent, presumably left speechless by my pettiness.

I sprinted into the water with unnecessary aggression, as if all my life had led up to this completely avoidable moment. As the water got moustache-high, I went under. I kicked and sculled with the grace and spright of someone who has just learned that they aren’t a brick. For a moment, the world – oceans included – made sense.

And that is when I felt a weight in my swimming shorts.

In this world now, there exists a video. It depicts a man in the sea, holding a drenched phone up in the air with one arm and paddling desperately back to the shore with the other, as if saluting his own stupidity. He then scrambles to wrap this phone in his towel while remaining entirely drenched himself. It could have been the poster for a Black Mirror parody.

I had nearly drowned in the sea thrice. Somehow, this was more embarrassing.

The shirt was put on and the camera switched off. I spanked my phone like it was an old TV remote, hoping that the advancement in technology hadn’t made it averse to some light middle-class kink.

Just as it breathed its last waft of WiFi, a pair of sinewy forearms offered me a box of uncooked rice. I looked up to find a lifeguard – finally matching my Los Angeles County notions of fitness – suggesting that I put the phone in it to dry. I accepted, marking the first time I had ever listened to a lifeguard.

“I’ll get you next time,” I muttered to the sea before leaving. The sea declined to comment, complacent in the confidence that a shivering man holding a box of dry rice probably never will.