I first jumped into the water when I was eight years old. It throttled my breath and made me discover the smell of chlorine. For decades thereafter, I was a mannequin of metal learning a dance of feathers in the pool.
“Keep the body loose”, yelled the coach. His words pierced the surface and scattered into the water before they crawled into my ears. The foaming green waters – agitated by my body and soaked with my fear – would not allow me to. At the end of each length, I was breathless and exercised. By the end of a few more, it was time to dry myself and go home.
One day an old man stopped me as I stepped out. He was a regular at the pool. Bald, short & stocky. He would slip into the pool and swim like he had forgotten to stop. I had never seen him do a full session. I saw him start at times but never finish. I saw him finish at times but never start.
He wanted to know how many lengths I did. “Ten-Fifteen”, I replied, my voice tentative and stripped of all conviction – like a weak defence of an impractical proposition. “A man your age should do atleast fifty – the effect of the exercise kicks in only after thirty five!” he replied. I returned to the pool and did my first fifty length swim that day. It was grueling – but wounded pride filled my body with resolve and kept it going. I paid attention after thirty lengths. The stroke became easier as I progressed. After a while the mind withdrew and left the body to continue.
Spending an hour inside the pool was a gift to me from the old man. I don’t know his name and outside the pool I have met him only once, on the aerobridge boarding a flight to Delhi. But I was grateful to him for slapping me back into the pool that day and I managed to tell him so then.
There is no age limit for absorbing basic truths. They surround us and pause, until our own readiness yields to allow them in.
An active hour alone calms the mind and sheds the inertia of the body. It builds a relationship between the soundless water, the quiet & watchful mind and the meditative rhythm of floating movement. Over time I developed my own minor technique variations in the pool. They made the effort recede and enabled me to maintain my fifty length routine. It was slow and languid. My wife saw me swimming once and asked me what I planned to do for exercise.
But swimming was my retreat – where my day submerged back into a purposeless joy. Like sidewalk strolls that transform into a slow motion mock sprint replay of an olympic final. Deeply engaging and soothingly idiosyncratic.
I enjoy reaching the other side of the pool and not being breathless anymore, but keen to turn and continue. I imagine swimming away from a ship wreck at sea, alone with the breathing rhythm of salty waves around me and no land in sight. I then pace myself so that I can continue swimming until it draws the shores into the horizon and inches them towards me. Anything I can do without tiring, I can do endlessly.
At the end of fifty lengths, the shore remains perpetually suspended at a distance – waiting for my return. The absence of ambition makes it a practice in patience.
I float in the pool and move my arms delicately, carving them into the water without leaving a splash. I allow the legs to stay still and develop their own natural stroke rhythm. Intermittent and soft. And with this my body stays relaxed and the expulsion of energy is optimized. I surface for air with capacity to spare and so the breathing is calm. That removes fear from my mind and leaves me contemplating my invincibility in the stormy seas.
I have no speed in the water. I can generate a small amount by moving some power into my kick. But a talented ten year old can race me down the pool. It makes me wonder about the singular relevance of speed and competition to the exclusion of others. We compete with a habitual intensity – driven by the imagined pressures of survival or the elusive pleasures of victory – for goals that are at times not our own. But the allure of solitude makes me rediscover what unfolds alone while swimming, beyond the shadows of other people. A disappearance into the activity evolves with time and builds an enduring love for it.
Yesterday I arrived into an empty pool. I kicked the wall and began to glide. The surface of the water and the floor of the air coalesced with each other into a twilight zone. Gravity collided into the ripples of buoyancy. It made sounds disappear into muted echoes and my movements slow down into a dance of feathers.