The most important lesson I learned at a swimming pool is from a time before when I could swim.
I loved our school swimming pool. It was crystal blue, large, square, and tiled white. On many early mornings, I’d sit at the bleachers with my back to the field, and watch the gentle swells of the water. Whenever a breeze blew moisture my way, I’d open my mouth and swallow whole chlorine-and-pine wetness.
The pool was always a playful brimful. Its fullness would toy with my limited understanding of surface tension – that although the water bobbed and threatened to erupt, it never did. It flirted with the rules of confinement; laughing garrulously at the prudish well-cut white boundary, but always gathering its skirts before spilling over.
It was a pool with personality – a fiery mentor befitting a school that groomed young ladies. It was a living, breathing thing whose belly would shudder, and it would cluck its tongue at winds that took themselves too seriously. It would put up a fight when little girls with blubbery thighs in neon swimsuits would thrash about blindly. It would coax into its vast care crying children who’d rub their eyes to rid themselves of tears, shame, and chlorine.
During monsoons, it was pitter-patter company when I’d sit in my buttoned-up cardigan and play with raindrops that clung to the chain-link fence, using the ends of my plaits like paintbrushes. The pool’s deep end would be a liquid emerald, light winking in its depths and running a cold current through the backs of my knees.
It was the year I was finally assigned my house colour. Red. It was Spring. The trees that arched over the pool sent flying kisses to the water below, and the pool would blush in concentric, ever-expanding circles – an endless charade that I’d watch with my fingers tangled in the diamonds of the wire-fence. Pink lips of flowers would caress blue and tuck themselves at the far ends of the pool, waiting for the exasperated pool-cleaner.
That day, he was even more exasperated.
Bright coloured ropes had been drawn to mark tracks, and a sound system had been set up. The synchronised-swimming team adjusted each other’s bright blue swim-caps, and waved at familiar faces on the other side of the fence. The swim coach was in a starch-stiff salwar and her stainless steel whistle flashed a sunlit smile.
We made crepe-paper pom-poms for each other. We yelled jingles. Our team is dynamite, our team is dy-na-mite. Our swimmers huddled, a devout teacher crossed herself, and the speaker crackled. The swimmers stood on the starting blocks. The more conscious ones snapped the ends of their suits. A few stretched. A few tensed. My favourite senior’s thigh muscle rippled. A shot sounded.
The girls sprang like jaguars and splashed us onlookers. They sliced through the water, and flipped under to turn around, and my senior took the lead — when the girl next to me screamed. Red blossomed on my white skirt and in my hands. My pom-poms had bled colour. A few of the older girls exchanged meaningful looks and breathed. One girl caressed my head.
We sailed the relay. We broke for lunch. We jostled for seats in the front row. Our house was leading, so we hooted and whooped. It was now the 200 meter race.
The swimmers lined up, but it was an unusual time for quiet.
The last swimmer to limp her way to her block was Sheroza. Sheroza had survived a near-fatal accident two years before. She had lost her brother, and had come back to school a completely different person. She touched her toes with a little effort. She snapped on her goggles. Her black Speedo cap banded and hid her tight curls. Her eyes seared the track ahead, and an angry long gash ran the length of her right leg.
I winced when the shot rang.
The girls were off. They butterflew their way down their tracks, golden, glorious wings spanning conquests that day and forever more. The swimmers tumbled under water and rose again, water phoenixes rising lap after lap. And yet, the only chant on everybody’s lips: She-ro-za. She-ro-za. She-ro-za.
Silence fell. The girls from our house finished first and second. Six tracks had finished the race. But everyone’s gaze was riveted to the seventh: Sheroza. She turned her last tumble. The trees hushed each other. The water quivered when Sheroza’s arms would break from the pool’s face, and slide back under. Break. Slide. Break. Slide. A pensive bird’s wing-beat on her way home. It escaped someone’s lips, “Come on Sheroza!” Sheroza surfaced, and hiccuped a sob. Break. Slide. “Come on Sheroza!” Break. Slide. The six other girls in the pool wiped their eyes. Water lapped at the sides of the pool, heaving and rooting for Sheroza. “Come on Sheroza!”
The other swimmers hugged Sheroza for a long time and she cried, and cried. The rest of us couldn’t stop clapping and sniffling.
The pool hummed softly, and waited.
I was 22 when I learned to swim; when I learned of the cadence of water – and that its power is in how it can make even light buoyant. I learned to disperse tears amidst its molecules. I learned of its haunting shadows in my shivers and crimped fingers on chilly November nights. I learned of its parallel universe with its own quality of silence. I learned of the sculpting qualities of water; its soft, painless chiseling at everything we hate about ourselves – our bodies, our lethargy, our fear.
With a little help from refraction, water can throw light on how just a little wetness is enough to unsettle us.
And yet, water is what it takes.
A rectangle of it. An ocean of it. A cloudburst of it. A fountain of it.
Water takes into her lap our rough edges, our unrelenting realities, that we may break from her surface as brilliant sparkling victors.