By Pulkit Arora
It was 1999. A six-year-old me was watching my neighborhood’s three oldest boys walk up to our local cable operator. They sheepishly handed him a 50-rupee in exchange for a number: 91. As I realised a couple of years later, “91” was the name of the designated channel that would screen Baywatchlate in the night. Only the operator’s hormonal audience had access by payment – the gully equivalent of sharing your Netflix account. “It’s a show about lifeguards.” one of the older boys explained to pre-pubescent lambkins like me.
Lifeguards – as I found out after my introductory watch – move in lusty strides, as if the urgency of saving someone’s life simultaneously arouses 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.” Even before I could register my disappointment, my Goan angel asked me why I didn’t swim back to the shore. “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.
At that point, 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 into the sea,” asked the frazzled saviour of my life. Because I was an idiot, I thought to myself. An idiot who can’t swim but who looked at the myriad possibilities of drowning and thought “Eh, I’ll be fine.” And even though I didn’t have to spell this out, the entire beach was aware that I was anything but 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 in a fit of ennui, impatience, and disposable income last summer, I decided to sign up for swimming lessons at the tender age of 25. After explaining several times over the phone that the lessons were to be for me and not my (imaginary) children, I managed to find someone who didn’t mock my sincerity and signed up immediately.
When I walked into the Very Maharashtrian Sports ComplexTM on the first day of class, I realised two things: The rest of my class was under the age of 10. Which made me a fully-grown man who was paying money to frolic around 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 doubts as their eyes furiously scanned me for the slightest Shakti Kapoor vibe. Amongst the many punishments for the crimes of paedophilia, nearly denying adult men the right to swimming education, might be the most unexpected.
Aware of the scrutiny that my presence was inviting, my Very Maharashtrian Instructor, placed me at a “safe” distance away from the contingent of kids. Unfortunately, it meant that I spent the next hour trying to listen for instructions from 10 feet away. But then, when my sincere efforts to swim convinced the overlords, 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.
Look, I knew I would feel old at some point in my life. I even had an idea about how it would play out: I’d go to a party and not understand a particular new-age slang or maybe when I’d have to ask my nephew for help with fixing my phone. Or you know, when I have nephews at all. But never in my wildest dreams, did I realise that this epiphany would come to me when I was in a pool surrounded by noisy kids. I ended up picking up things far slower than them.
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. As I learnt, it feels great to top your class, even when your rivals still drink Horlicks.
So like all old men, I decided to get even by getting competitive about non-competition.
In a matter of days, I could float and then swim from one end of the pool to the other without my life flashing before my eyes. And that is when I readied myself to meet my nemesis again. Before heading for 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 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, looked me dead in the eye, 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 was leading up to this completely avoidable moment. As the water reached my face, I went under. I kicked and sculled with the grace of a pig. And that is when I felt the weight of a phone 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 Black Mirror had the show been a parody.
The sea had nearly drowned me four times but I take pride in the fact, that it was unsuccessful in my fifth attempt… even if it lasted a mere five minutes. 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 Indian kink.
Just as it breathed its last waft of WiFi, a pair of sinewy forearms offered me a box of rice. I looked up to find a lifeguard 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.
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