On a scorching Sunday morning, an eight-year-old me is thrilled again to wear my new swimming gear. My parents signed me up for swimming class, which I was habitually against initially. I like water, but I don’t when I have to fight it. Almost a week since the classes started now, I enjoy this time.
I hear the muffled voices of my trainer, Mr Das, through my swim cap as I try to follow his instructions. He shows a group of children the effect of kicking the water to stay afloat. On the sixth day today, we are still holding on to the edge, flattening our bodies and kicking the heck out of the water.
“Not so hard, be gentle with those kicks,” I hear Mr Das shout. Most of us kids haven’t learnt how to be gentle with anything. We are having fun with water, splashing it as hard as possible.
I see my dad sitting outside the pool with the other parents. They are talking, laughing, and being friendly strangers to each other. Bored with all the kicking, I want to swim in the deep pool.
I am the typical obedient guy who doesn’t do anything he is told not to. But, today, I try. As I release my hold, hands still floating just above the edge, the kicking legs start pulling me backwards. I try to hold on, but my hands slip. I see I am floating away from the safety of something to hold on to. Panicked, I stop kicking and open my mouth to shout for help. I feel the chlorinated water in my nostrils and my throat. "This is not working. I am going to die," I hear myself say. My eyes are watery. I know they are tears, but I am not sure if anyone else does.
And then suddenly, I feel a hand hold my body from below and carry me closer to the edge. Mr Das has handled many such curious kids over his career. He puts me closer to the edge and shouts, “hold that edge tight and start kicking.”
I am safe, and I can breathe again. I look towards my dad. Oh, he is oblivious of all that I just went through. I still feel the taste and smell of chlorine. Feeling terrible, I kick harder than usual.
That is when the smell of chlorine hits me again, and things start to become hazy. I look towards my dad. He and his friends are still prattling. But I see an urgency in the staff around the swimming deck. In the pool, around me, all the kids are loosening their holds off the edges. “Don’t do that,” I try to warn them. I don’t think they hear me. Even I do not hear myself. What is going on? I see myself floating away from the edge, water very close to my mouth and nostrils. I try to hold my breath, but I need to cough. I panic again. Angsty, I move every part of my body. My eyes search for Mr Das, but I don’t see him around.
My movements slow down suddenly. The commotion around is dying. The voices getting fainter, my vision dreamier. I still feel there is water all around me. I am not feeling right. At this most unfortunate time, everything goes dark. No vision. No sound. An eerie silence. "I am dead", I hear myself say.
But, I hear the faint voices again now. I try to open my eyes, the hazy chaos comes into focus. I am lying on a lawn with strangers running helter-skelter. Other kids are lying around me, motionless. A lady I don’t know is trying to feed me glucose biscuits and milk. I feel it would be better not to put anything down my throat. I am already sick; my dad would know. But I can’t see him. I feel alone, naked. I try to shout for him, but my voice echoes within me. As the chaos around goes faint, I pass out again.
I wake up another time. We are in an ambulance this time. Now, I do see the face of my dad. He didn’t swim, but his eyes were still watery. He is holding on to my hand tight with those pained yet resolute eyes. I don’t feel naked anymore. Amidst all the turmoil around, I pass out for the third time.
I open my eyes again; I am feeling light now. I find myself in the waiting area of a hospital. My dad is still around me. Though I am lying comfortably on a bench, he holds my hand very tight. As if he doesn’t want me to get harmed by an impalpable danger. The kid in me doesn’t know it then, but I know now that he blames himself for the event when he feels he almost lost me.
“I don’t want to go near a swimming pool ever, dad,” I say to him in a weakened voice.
He looks me in the eye, brushes my hair and responds, “I will never leave you alone, my son. Ever.”
The two are entirely differing feelings. But I know his promise will govern my life experiences, at least my teenage phase. I never climbed into a swimming pool until I lived with my dad. He never sent me to any place where he could not be with me. For the better part of my youth, both held on to the resolves we took that day.
Eventually, I did learn to swim the way most of the folks in rural parts of India do. I kept jumping into the water bodies until, one day, I had picked up how not to drown. The water body was the swimming pool, and I learned to stay afloat only as a young adult. But that eventful day of the chlorine leak birthed an overprotective dad, for whom the safety of his child became paramount.