Friday, March 26, 2010

THE SWIRL OR OTHER STORIES - I

As a five year old girl , when I had walked into the men's changing room with my father, I was confronted with the existence of gender and buoyant force for the first time. The 4'o clock swim in the gigantic swimming pool labandoned by the colonial overlords who had long left the distant shores of the Orient, but not their polished wooden floors, smoke filled bridge rooms, smooth, green billiards tables and golden scotch in our fathers throats, beckoned my family for years.

As a silent yet hurried ritual, I would jump in the grey Fiat wearing my black swimsuit to enter the men's changing room five minutes later for a quick shower and run towards the light blue rectangle. It was no ordinary pool. It stretched as far as I could see with swirling bodies and bobbing heads, poking through its clear surface like a ship wrecked crew. Friendships were made, enemies were tortured, fathers and sons raced, mothers watched with silent pride or absolute agony over empty conversations about their husband's promotions and mother-in-laws. I stuck to the edge of the shallow end, flapping my arms in the comfort of inflated green fins attached to my shoulders. It granted everyone the freedom to enjoy their laps to the other end while I stayed afloat. A convenient arrangement and I didn't mind. The ride to the deep end on my father's back was a good enough compensation and I was content waiting for that.

But there was a rude shock coming and now I wonder why didn't it happen at an earlier date. So, as I was going through the drill and standing under the shower, a young twenty year old man, screamed at me. I looked up through the film of water and made out a blurry image of a man in briefs ordering me to get out. When nobody came to my rescue I realised it must be the gold wire that had been recently inserted through freshly punched holes in my ears had stolen my immunity and I ran out crying. Eventually I rubbed my red eyes and prevented the flow of wasteful tears and walked slowly to the Ladies changing room

Now this changing room was empty, grimy, slippery and functioned as a sweeper's closet. There was nobody to pat me on my back, no excited shouts and banter over the deafening sound of thirty showers. No 'namaste uncles' to be said and no father or brother for company. I never did learn to swim until puberty hit me, but over the years when I step into an empty and ignored changing room, that man's voice bellows out clearly. It's not that it mattered, but there was something about a door being slammed on your face that stays. Not as anger but as a reminder of the futility of all our actions. I am sure, no boy will ever be allowed to shower with fifty women for over a year in any changing room. But then again, I was treated unfairly and separated from my kin. I am not making a case for any kind of injustice, just a statement of facts.

So even though, in later years I was mercilessly thrown in a pool with the dual choice of flapping or floating like a dead body, I was made to hide my erect nipples and newly erupted hair in various follicles, I still choose to proclaim the screaming man as my first enemy. The first faceless stranger who branded me as the other.

But there is a story here somewhere, one which is not a case for rights and justice. It just so happens that I was travelling along the Western coastline of India in my twenties, still a bad swimmer but nevertheless one that could and had spent the day in a nearly empty compartment on a train that refused to travel any faster than its dead counterparts proudly on display in the Railway museum. But apart from that slight inconvenience, I was enjoying the cool breeze from a window framing a landscape that can only be described as strong, somewhere near Ratnagiri, when I met him.