Above the stairs leading down to the fifty-meter pool at Pune’s Tilak Swimming Tank is a yellowing old photograph of the Tank circa 1935. Back then the tank was a large swimming hole with stone sides that look much like an abandoned New England quarry. The image shows a few people bobbing in the water, and a platform for jumping.
We joined the Deccan Gymkhana’s Tilak Tank in December. And we have been swimming ever since. There are three pools: a regulation fifty-meter lap pool, also used for water polo, an open tank, with water pumped directly from an underground source, and a shallow pool for kids. The tank, as with most public parks, is open in the morning and the afternoons. During the middle of the day the gates are closed.
In the winter months, when school was in session, we would arrive at about four in the afternoon. In January and February the compulsory shower before entering the pool felt quite cold, even though the air temperature was in the low thirties. The water was crystal clear. And there were only a few regular swimmers-that is, until five or so, when swim classes got underway and small children in tight swim caps would practice the backstroke in the fifty-meter pool with a coach, and their mothers, shouting encouraging words. The kids seemed to be mostly enjoying themselves. Though their shiny brown bodies would get cold and they would whine to get out of the pool. The swim team, kids of various ages, would arrive before five and begin warming up with light jogging around the tank and stretching. Team members would then run through a rigorous workout into the early evening under the watchful eye of their coach. Cheel circled in the afternoon and in the evenings large fruit bats arced in the air above the water. The lights would then come on and the pool would empty and children with warm up jackets and woven caps would head off into the night. By March, the air temperature began to climb into the mid-thirties and the water began to warm. More swimmers would arrive by four and so we would do our best to get to the pool when the gates opened at three. Through April, and now into May, the warm waters of the tank draw over a hundred swimmers by five in the evening. Today the kids run through the gates and, with their swim trunks already on under the clothes, strip to their shorts, pull on their swim caps and leap into the pool. N and E like to be the first ones in each of three pools. When we arrive at three, we have more than an hour before the swim classes arrive.
Since December our delightful friend Gautan has been a regular fixture at the pool. His workday is sensibly organized around an afternoon swim. He starts with a splashy dive from one of the blocks. He then swims a wicked-slow and always fluid crawl for one thousand meters, stands in shallow end and visits with us or other friends, does a penultimate fifty-meter butterfly and then finishes with shallow dips on the edge of the pool. As the temperature has warmed and the pool has become more crowded, the kids are now joining in ball games with other early swimmers. Their parents continue to enjoy the meditative back and forth rhythm of laps in the big pool. After a few months, we both feel as if we are actually getting a stroke again.
Three lifeguards are ostensibly in control of the premises, dressed in black shorts and red shirts-good natured guys who occasionally blow a whistle or help out when someone needs a swim cap or goggles. There is the batch of instructors who put the young swimmers through their paces. There is the small group of staff who keep the pool areas clean and three teenage Indian boys who seem to be in charge of the pump house. There are two security guards who watch the gate and wander about making sure that everything is in its place. In the pool, however, it is every man for himself-and, occasionally, every woman for herself. For swimming with Indians is much like driving, or perhaps like keeping your place in line at the food market. There is little to no interest in discipline. The concept of swimming the length of the pool in a single lane is lost to many. And the efficient use of a single lane by circling is next to impossible to teach. (We’ve tried.)
The ratio of men to women is most often about 25:1. However it is encouraging to see equal numbers of boys and girls in the learn-to-swim classes. Mostly mothers, in colorful shalwar kameez, sit and watch their kids. Many Indians have not had the opportunity to learn to swim, particularly people of our generation. And especially women. There is also the Indian discomfort with the woman’s body in public. R swims, of course, as does a woman who is a French Ayurvedic student; and there are usually one or two middle-aged Indian women in the water. No bikinis here. Just a few women, lots of men and kids–all grateful for a break from a hot afternoon and the freedom to immerse the body in water.