When I was 17, I read a chapter in my English textbook called Deep Waters. It was an account of a man’s intense phobia of swimming. As a child, he had attempted to learn swimming. However due to some unfortunate circumstances he lands on the deep end of the pool struggling for life. ‘Deep waters’ is an account of that man’s fresh attempt in the pool as an adult, his constant labor to emerge triumphant against his deepest fear. I could never relate to that chapter. There were other chapters as well that I could not relate to. Like the one on resuscitating a still born or about two Armenian boys and their fascination for horse riding or that poem by Kamala Das called ‘My mother at 66’. I could never associate with these stories.
Within the past six years, I have come to one understanding that you have to be at a certain age or maturity to appreciate some stories. You have to witness that certain trajectory of experiences or that nuance in your emotions, to feel what the writer feels. Now, I understand some stories better but even now Deep Waters seems an alien territory to me because waters have never troubled me.
I was 11 when I learned swimming. My mother and I, both of us had zero faith in the prospect that I will shine at any activity that requires me to make use of my physical faculties. Yet, we both believed we’d give it a try. By the end of that week, I could swim freestyle. My mother was so surprised that she came to the pool next day to confirm with coach if I have managed to overturn history. The coach confirmed that I indeed have. I swam for that summer and for the next summer. And like that I learnt my first sport and my last so far.
My hometown houses the National Institute of Physical Education. For my 15th summer, I went there for swimming. That marked my transition from looking at swimming as a recreational means to a formal sport. Our session began with a ten minute warm up session, after which we were taken to the pool. Depending on one’s skill level, we were divided into three groups- beginner, intermediate and advanced- found swimming at different depths of the pool. I wanted to relearn swimming so I joined the beginners, pretending not to know how to swim at all. Swimming here was strict business; there was absolutely no room for sauntering in the pool or making small talk. So for 45 minutes everyone just swam. Given this level of dedicated concentration at the sport, my act did not last for more than a week. The instructor believed that I was picking up the sport much faster than the rest and within another week I found myself at the intermediate side of the pool.
I was in class 10th that year- the year that every Indian student first appears for the board exam, read, the first level of academic validation for every Indian student. I was an academically inclined individual then, who believed that marks could make or break your life. During those summers, I had an early morning science class followed by a mathematics class- that surfaced in my life courtesy lousy Physics and Maths teacher at school. Every day I would sleep after attending the class and then leave for the swimming class in afternoon when the summer sun would peak at its extreme best. On some days, I would be exhausted and in spite of being inside the pool I would not commit to swimming because at the point it would never seem significant to me. The instructor started teaching me the backstroke and as far my memory helps me it came fluidly to me. I showed no signs of effort on balancing my body over the surface. And like that, I stepped up a level at the only sport I have known.
Eventually, ten minutes before closing the session, another instructor would gather us to dive into the pool from a height of 5 feet. On my first time, he told me that he wanted me to stick my arms close to my body and jump straight into the pool. But I did not jump. He coaxed me, but I did not yield. Ultimately, he warned me that he will have to push me and to that I smiled and said that I wouldn’t mind. So he pushed me and I landed in the pool. This became a routine. Every day he would coax me, every day I would not yield and every day he would have to push me. One day, he tried explaining to me that my rigidity is finally hurting me. Because every time that he pushes me, my body cuts across water in a non streamlined position resulting in an agonizing soreness on my limbs. He presumed that I was scared but he did not know of what. It was never the water or the height that I feared, but I feared having to take initiative, I feared that I did not know how to jump, I feared that I would do it all wrong and that is the fear that I have carried all along.
The institute arranges a closing ceremony where the parents are invited to see their children swim and in the end the students are given a certificate. I missed the last two days and the ceremony because I had an extra class. Being the academically inclined student that I was, I placed marks above swimming and skipped those two days where the instructor was going to help me focus on my breathing pattern- my Achilles heel at swimming. You may ask me why? Because I had an extra class on the chapter on electric current those three days. At that point in life, it was more important for me to understand what resistance and potential difference meant. To me, that was going to be of more aid in future than swimming could ever be to me.
This Sunday I swam after 9 years and all I remember is how to kick my legs in the water. I cannot use both my arms and my legs together. If I try to move my head to breathe, I end up completely disoriented with my limb movement. I cannot balance my body on the surface while attempting the backstroke. And the funny thing is that I don’t even remember what I learned in those extra classes except for that the unit of resistance is ohm and there are two types of circuits- parallel and series. And that is how I unlearned the only sport I knew.
For all my life, I placed my education over everything that life had to offer me. I cried in the classical dance class, I forgot how to do paper mache crafts, I rushed through my strokes while coloring, I skipped the physical education periods conveniently, I prioritized text books over all the half read novels and I lived under the illusion that I will be able to build a life on the basis of my education. With every passing day, that illusion is falling apart and forfeiting a piece of my mental peace in its wake. Every difficulty in my life currently stems from the education I chose for myself some six years ago. I am standing at the final juncture of my education and while I merrily make jokes on how by the end of this I will be rid of this gigantic albatross on my shoulder but inside I am not even half convinced that I want to continue this for another year. The problem is that my choice of alternatives are scant and even if they aren’t as scant as I have deemed them to be, the bigger problem is what it was back then, I still fear taking an initiative. I often think, that I could have done better at my life, had I been more agile with my choices and actions.
While I may not find deep waters troublesome, I have found my very own deep waters in breaking the status quo. And while the author managed to turn the tables on his fear, I don’t believe if have the ability and the luck to do that.