by Aparna Amte Bhatnagar
The moment that Shalini had waited for years had arrived. It was no longer a wait as the event was unfolding before her eyes…Accomplishment had never tasted more satisfying.
She took a deep breath as she sipped cold beer from a can and indulged in a bout of nostalgia…
Jolly Club had been the place where the richest families of Bhopal had gathered for their Sunday lunches. The club, situated in the heart of the city, housed the only restaurant that overlooked a shiny, turquoise swimming pool. During winters, the families preferred to be seated outdoor near the pool. These seats would be abandoned in summers as the affluent moved indoors to lounge in air-conditioned comfort. It was a busy place – the restaurant.
The lavish menu of kebabs was deemed to be among the best in town and the most popular feature. The resplendent exhibition of the most expensive sarees worn by women dining in the restaurant was the best in town too.
In sharp contrast to their better halves, the men stripped down to their swimming trunks, proudly displayed the signs of prosperity – a well-rounded paunch and a receding hairline. Their wives sipped tall glasses of fresh lime soda, watching their husbands and sons frolick in the pool from behind enclosed French windows. Young girls often sat with their mothers, listening to their gossip. Occasionally, they excused themselves to take a walk around the club — a chance to chat on their own.
“Are you crazy? You will have to wear a swimsuit on front of everyone! Even the boys!” Shalini’s friends would remind her when she expressed her desire to jump into the pool.
This thought had been haunting Shalini ever since she was a little girl. The last time she had been in the pool was seven summers ago. She still remembered how her father had tied floats on her tiny arms and led her into the pool carefully. She resisted it at first, but once her body was submerged in the water, she felt good.
Her older brother swam across the length of the pool without any floats tied to him. Shalini had urged her father to teach her to swim just like her brother. After much coaxing her father taught her the techniques but didn’t take off her floats. Angry at her father, one afternoon she threw the floats and dove into the pool. Her mother had screamed which prompted the lifeguard on duty to dive right after her. It was a tough afternoon for the little girl — recovering from the shock of chaos that had ensued.
From the following Sunday, she was strictly ushered towards the swings where girls her age would play. The girls usually fought among themselves for the swings, but Shalini never fought for her share of time on the swing and preferred to sit on the bench instead.
The coach signalled that they were now ready to begin. The sun was shining bright, making it a picture-perfect day, a rarity in that part of the world. The waves dressed themselves in their best shade of blue. And to top it all, there were even a few albatrosses that played near their boat making it look like a scene from the Hollywood movies Shalini had watched. It was as though even the universe had been waiting for this day just as Shalini had been.
“So, what?” Shalini protested to her mother. “Look at the boys, they are wearing nothing but an underwear in the pool!”
“You are now a teenager. You cannot be wearing a swimsuit like that. And besides, why this obsession with swimming? It’s not like we are living in the middle of the lake!” her mother had said.
“Why can’t I go and swim during the women’s timing?” Shalini persisted. But she knew the answer to it. Women’s timing for the pool was from 12-4 pm on weekdays — the time when Shalini was in school. Shalini did not argue with her mother on this topic anymore.
One Monday, Shalini feigned a stomach ache to avoid school. She wanted to complete reading her book. She was at the page where Rhonda’s pulse was throbbing because Richard’s hand happened to brush past her and they locked their eyes. Having read similar books in the recent past, Shalini knew what lay ahead and eagerly looked forward to reading it.
It was right then she heard her mother’s voice call out her name. The tone indicated an urgent errand. Shalini placed the bookmark carefully in her book and walked to the kitchen.
“Your father just called. He has forgotten his jacket at the club yesterday. Go and pick it up, before they spoil it. It’s an expensive one — that imported one, remember?”
Shalini looked outside the window, the sun glared making her eyes twitch. She had wanted to protest, but her mother seemed to have already figured out her fake stomach ache. Besides, if she refused to go now and the club really did misplace the jacket, she knew her mother would blame it all on her.
The club was a short distance away. Shalini quickly walked past the scorching dapples of sunlight, slowing down only when the shade of the dense trees shielded her.
In her fifteen years, Shalini had never seen the club this quiet. Mondays were when most of the staff would be on their weekly holiday, after an overworked Sunday. The ones present seemed to make the most of the opportunity by enjoying an extended lunch break. They made their displeasure evident when Shalini asked them to look for her father’s jacket.
“Maybe someone kept it in the store room,” one of them said. Shalini followed him to the store room, hoping she could help spot it quickly. She wanted to get back to the world of Rhonda and Richard as soon as possible. It was a mess down there. She picked up some cartons and sifted through them herself.
She couldn’t find the jacket, but came across something she had only seen actresses wear in movies earlier.
Filled with curiosity, she asked the staff member, “Whose are these?” She wanted to know who was this mystery woman who came to the club and wore that swimsuit. This character was now more interesting than Rhonda.
“Oh this! This belongs to the club itself. We had bought it some years ago, if some women wished to use it. But you know how it is here, no one wears such clothes.”
Shalini took a whiff of the suit, it felt clean, like an unused piece of cloth usually does. It was a bright shade of yellow, just like the harsh summers of Bhopal.
“So how does one get to use it?”
“You have to write your name in the register, pay Rs. 100 per hour.”
Shalini imagined herself in the turquoise blue pool, shining bright in her yellow swimsuit, making crystal paths as she swam across the pool — yes, Rhonda’s world had ensured Shalini had a strong and vivid imagination.
She looked at the pool through the window of the store room. There was not a soul in sight — the men would be at their offices or shops, the women in the kitchen, the girls in their bedrooms and the boys in the by-lanes playing cricket.
She searched her pockets and found only seventy rupees. She convinced the staff to let her use it for an hour even though she did not have the full amount. They didn’t seem to be bothered and quickly took the crunched notes from her.
Shalini was amazed when the swimsuit fitted her like a glove. It seemed to have been tailor made for her. Her otherwise lanky legs looked athletic in the suit. She admired herself for some time in the women’s changing room. She stood in front of the mirror and rehearsed the swimming strokes she had learnt some years ago. But there was no time to waste on theories; it was time to try out her skills.
The coach gave a thumbs up to indicate that the swim was progressing just fine. A member of the crew on the boat adjusted his lens to get a better picture. The sun was bright, but not as hot as the one in Bhopal that afternoon. The waters were a deep shade of azure blue, not the bright blue as it was in the pool that afternoon.
But then again, that was Bhopal. And this was Britain.
Shalini was careful when she entered the pool, holding on to the rails as she felt her feet touch the floor. She let go of the railing and stood firmly in the pool, firmly planting her feet on the pool floor, lest they give away.
The water was upto her stomach, half her own height. She carefully began walking in the pool, making sure she stayed close to the railing.
For the on-looker, she would have seemed a little odd — a girl alone in the pool, grinning and giggling to herself. She had the familiar feeling again after years — the feeling of fitting in, belonging. The lightness was unparalleled.
She held on to the railing and felt the water buoy her up, setting her gently afloat with her face down. She raised her head from the water only to breathe for a few seconds. That was exactly how her father taught her to swim. “Keep your body straight, especially the back,” he had repeated over and over. “It helps the body stay afloat,” he had said.
It did then. It did now. After all these years, she had still managed to do it.
After a few minutes, it was time to take her friendship with the water to the next level.
“Imagine your hands are like the wheels of a cycle, and pedal them one after another into the water,” she distinctly remembered her father saying.
She slowly let go of the railing, and closed her eyes tightly, imagining her hands being round with spikes in them, that would require pedalling for any movement forward.
She must have taken four or five strokes, where she felt the water sucking her in. She hurriedly stood up straight in the pool. It felt good to have the floor beneath. She felt safe.
“If only papa had let go of my floats back then,” she had sighed, “I would be swimming in bigger pools by now, maybe lakes, rivers and even seas.”
She longingly thought about it for a few seconds before she took a determined leap again.
Practice makes perfect, this time she recalled her mathematics teacher. He had been right after all. Just few minutes in the pool, and she was swimming now already.
“I will come here again,” she vowed to herself, thinking of ways she could come to the pool alone, often. It would have to be carefully planned. She would study in the mornings and be proactive in running errands. And then, when her mother took her afternoon nap, she would quickly sneak out of home, or think of an errand, and come to swim here in the afternoons. The sun was the least of her problems. It entailed sacrificing money saved for books and golgappas ( an Indian savoury snack), but she was ready for that.
“It’s a perfect plan! And then, I will become a swimming champion, I will participate in competitions and win.” Shalini’s train of thought continued. “I will be the best swimmer in Bhopal, in India. Heck, I will even swim across the English Channel!” she smiled to herself at the thought.
It was close to an hour that Shalini had been in the pool. Now, she was swimming effortlessly. Engrossed in her dreamy thoughts, she had forgotten an important principle of good swimming — regular deep breaths. When it became uncomfortable, she hastily put her head up to take in some air. But instead of air, she took in water. The water rushed to her head and she felt numb. She felt the water sucking her down. She straightened her legs to reach for the floor and tried to stand up straight. But she couldn’t feel the floor below this time.
When she had entered the pool, Shalini had not noticed the lifeguard, dutifully watching over her from a distance. It was an unusual phenomenon for him too — being on guard in the strong afternoon sun on a weekday. Perhaps it was this harsh sun that made him abandon his tall chair for a shaded chair under a huge poolside umbrella. This comfortable escape from the sun, quickly turned into an afternoon siesta for him.
Shalini tried to shout for help, but the more she tried, the more water she gulped. She splashed on the water frantically with her hands, hoping to reach something to hold on to. Thankfully for her, the continuous splashing of water was noisy enough that quiet afternoon to wake up the napping lifeguard. It only took him a few seconds to reach Shalini. But for Shalini, it had been an endless wait.
She sat on a chair by the pool, taking deep breaths, with a towel wrapped lazily around her. Although she was breathing normally now, she felt her pulse soaring. She was angry. She had trusted the waters fully, and thought they were friends. She felt cheated.
Amidst the various thoughts running through her head, she heard a familiar nasal voice. In the middle of the summer heat, she froze. Her parents and brother had been called by the club. They told them the entire story. And like every story, it was laced with some imagination and few exaggerations.
“How could you let this happen? She’s just a little girl,” her father lashed out at the club management.
Her mother though, was convinced that Shalini was completely responsible for what happened. “You should get her card cancelled, she can’t come alone to the club then,” she had whispered to her husband.
Shalini was too tired to protest. She knew she would never be able to swim there. The only way she could ever swim again, her young mind thought, was to leave the place and carve a life of her own. The quest for which did take her out of Bhopal a few years later.
Shalini had muttered a quiet prayer and had given a thumbs up to Divya as she jumped into the water to begin. As per protocol, the boat had followed Divya at a distance — just in case something were to go wrong. But Shalini did not worry about things going wrong. This time, the practice was perfect. It wouldn’t. It couldn’t.
Shalini had ensured Divya was disciplined about the training. It was Shalini who drove her down to the club in the wee hours of the morning. They said conquering the English Channel and that too for a girl of fourteen would be tough. If she was successful, it would make her the youngest Indian to do so.
In the midst of her savouring the moment, Shalini heard everyone shouting Divya’s name. She hurriedly reached for her binoculars and looked in Divya’s direction only to see her gasping and struggling to stay afloat in the harsh waters.
A screech followed. Shalini rushed to the edge of the boat, urging the rescue team to do something. Tears swelled up as she saw her young daughter battle the large waves. She seemed so tiny amid nature’s fury. The rescue team huddled to plan the next steps.
“How could you let this happen? Now what are you waiting for?” Shalini screamed at them and urged them to deploy the rescue boat. Amidst the chaos, someone diverted her attention back to the waters. Divya had begun swimming again. She had won over the difficult waves.
Everyone was cheering and clapping. Shalini’s stream of tears continued. “How did I let this happen?” she thought quietly to herself.
The press had already been informed. Reporters gathered around Divya who politely smiled as she gulped down bottles of water. They darted familiar questions towards her. Divya had been prepared by her team for this moment. And she responded to them perfectly, earning a loud cheer.
It took some time for Shalini to reach her daughter amidst the crowds. Shalini hugged her tightly. She quickly ushered her daughter towards a room. Divya sat down with a large smile on her face. “See mom, I did it. Your dream is fulfilled. You must be so happy!” Divya bit into a large bar of candy with a look that emanated a deep sense of satisfaction.
Shalini was overwhelmed by Divya’s innocence. Her little girl had shown unwavering commitment towards a dream that wasn’t even her own. Shalini, brought up up on a staple diet of talks of unfulfilled dreams and resentments, suddenly felt her daughter had, perhaps, not been allowed to dream any other dreams other than that of her mother’s. Divya’s regimen required her to wake up at 4 a.m and go through an exhausting day of training, school, homework and some more training. Deep breaths couldn’t relieve Shalini of the heaviness she felt her in heart.
“Divya, can you tell me something?” Shalini asked her with a lump in her throat. “What do you dream of my dear?”
“Me? What do I dream of? Let me think…” Divya said nonchalantly, still munching on candies. “Hmmm.. Pizza! Yes, I am dreaming of a cheesy pizza!”
Shalini couldn’t help but laugh at the blatant honesty of her daughter who was unaware of the dichotomy in her mother’s heart.
Shalini smiled to herself and planted a firm kiss on her daughter’s cheek,
“Yes, that’s a good start. Let’s go have pizza…..And then, let us fulfil your other dreams my dear!”
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