Can you truly call yourself a ’90s kid if your folks didn’t bundle you off for cycling, karate, or swimming every summer? Indian parents did not want their kids wasting time watching Cartoon Network all day, so they came up with a checklist to create a master race, and the way to do that was to teach the subjects a new skill during every vacation.
First, I started with cycling, because I live in a Gujarati family and it was the cheapest investment. The next year, The Karate Kid was a huge hit, and I was screaming, “Hu! Ha!” every morning in a white robe with the confidence of Bruce Lee and the ability of a ’90s-era Adnan Sami. Once land was conquered, it was time to venture into Poseidon’s realm, and master the art of swimming.
My father believed in the old-school instruction method of throwing me into a slow-moving river and hoping for the best. After definitely swallowing a few litres of dirty water and probably a few small fish, he gave up the DIY tutorial. It was time to approach the experts, and I was enrolled in a 21-day swimming camp close to our house.
The excitement of buying a colourful swimsuit and fancy goggles immediately disappears when you’re first faced with the tang of chlorine and the scary depths of the adults’ pool. Your nerves are then calmed with the sight of floats around, and the swimming teacher and lifeguards all seem like nice and helpful people.
But then, even a totalitarian state once burst with hope and positivity in the air when it all began, which is the same feeling you get during the first few days of swimming lessons. Your float is reassuringly tied to your back, you’re happily splashing water on your new friends, and the only exercises are leg movements in the baby pool. About a week later, things start to escalate. The swimming coach becomes more dangerous in the water than a coked-up crocodile. Scared toddlers are thrown from the diving board and horrified kids are set adrift without floats, struggling for their lives and gulping down weird-tasting water. After swimming class, I always hoped the strange taste was from the chlorine, and not from someone emptying their bladders into the pool in fear.
A prerequisite for being a swimming coach is that you must be a strict asshole with no empathy or humanity left in you. Everyone should be terrified of you all the time. I secretly believe all the glowering, fierce extras playing soldiers in Border were swimming coaches on their winter break. If you could make up the perfect swimming teacher, you’d use Amitabh Bachchan’s authoritarian baritone, Rajnikanth’s bristling mooch, and Hulk Hogan’s bright, technicolour chaddis. I was so terrified of my coach that whenever I saw him outside the pool, in the market or at a fair, I’d pretend not to have noticed him.
I suppose their despotism has some roots. When you are trying to bully a skill into children, there is no place for sympathy, or human rights. How do you think the Chinese ended up with 100 medals at the Beijing Olympics? Dictatorships only work when people subscribe to a method or system, and it’s no different for water dictatorships.
When the 21 days of hell were over, parents were invited to the mujra to watch their kids glide across water like mermaids. It was a simple exam – you had to jump from the diving board, swim the length of the pool, and voila! You’ve cleared your test. It sounded simple enough, but when the time came to jump, I was too scared and held on tightly to my mom’s chunni. I even turned on the waterworks, hoping my tears would save the day with all the adults around. But dictators don’t get to the top by being soft or showing mercy.
The cold-blooded dictator sent one of his executioners, also known as lifeguards, to forcibly drag me away from my mom and carry me to the diving board. Like an animal being sacrificed on Eid, he handed me over to the dictator, who gently held me by the neck, and then threw a helpless seven-year-old into a 13-foot-deep pool from a height of 25 feet, in front of an entire audience of adults who all stood and watched in silence.
This is not a story of redemption with a background score by Hans Zimmer, where the swimming teacher’s tough love finally paid off, and I discovered I could swim like Kandivali’s Michael Phelps once I hit the water. Instead, I struggled and feverishly flapped my hands for about a minute before drowning and eventually being rescued. The teacher’s disappointed look made me feel like I just missed the DU cut-off by three marks. But for me, it was a bit like watching Bodyguard, I was just glad it was over. Thanks to my coach, I was scared of going near a pool for years. I would look at water the same way Jaadu from Koi Mil Gaya looked at darkness.
Screw Gabbar Singh. Maybe the punchline to our childhood horror stories should be, “So jao, varna swimming coach aa jaayega…”