In theory, pool crashing sounded like a fun idea. A day off from work spent hopping from one glorious five-star hotel pool to another. Super, I said. Where do I sign up? Our editors, however, had another idea. When they suggested we try it in both Delhi and Mumbai, one of us Indian, the other American, they assumed (quite wrongly, as it turned out) that our experiences would be vastly different. “It’ll be a fun experiment,” one offered, not seeming to care that we faced embarrassment, humiliation and possible blacklisting. “But we don’t really do these things,” I countered.
In Mumbai, most people belong to clubs with big pools. And those who don’t, invariably know someone who can sign them in. “And that’ll be the interesting part. To see if you can get in,” they countered. And then get thrown right back out, I muttered.
My first stop was the Trident and the Oberoi pools, which are on the same level, connected by a path with breathtaking views of the Marine Drive and Queen’s necklace. Despite a sign proclaiming the pool was for hotel guests only, I swanned in, making my way to the Oberoi pool—the Trident one was closed for undisclosed reasons. Other than four or five sun-baked hotel guests, there wasn’t a soul in sight: no pool attendant, no hotel staff. I parked myself on a lounger—a fresh towel had lovingly been folded and placed on it—and read my book for a bit. With nothing or no one to look at, however (except high-rise buildings that cast a permanent shadow on the pool), I soon got tired of just sitting. On my way out, a lost hotel guest asked me if I knew the way to the pool.
My next stop was the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower. There were dozens of people there, mostly foreigners, in the pool, sitting on tables, spread out on the lawn. The one Indian family sat, fully-covered, in the shade, frowning into the sun. About a dozen staff members, including an officious looking pool attendant, milled about ferrying food to and from the kitchen. I had already bought a copy of British Vogue to look more tourist-like, so when I walked in, no one paid much attention.
There were no loungers free, and every surrounding inch of the pool was occupied. A sun-burnt Italian couple kept looking my way, but they might have been staring at the dome supposedly built the wrong way around by the Taj’s architect. I plopped at a table, and opened my magazine. When a waiter approached, I told him I was waiting for somebody. I flipped through my magazine, people watched, and suntanned for a bit. The problem was, I was so jittery about being caught that I couldn’t get myself to relax: I kept peering over the magazine, worrying if I was looking too shifty, which—had anyone chosen to notice—I probably was.
If this was any other country, I might have attracted glances because I was still fully clothed. Here, everyone probably assumed I didn’t need to suntan: I was dark enough. Half-an-hour later, I left, dry as a dung beetle and likely the same shade. Would I recommend anyone trying it? Probably not. The stress, as it turns out, isn’t worth it.
Us louts in Delhi have a few lucky friends with farmhouses that boast of pools; a few who buy a summer membership at the Sheraton or another private club; or the very lucky few who head for the hills—or London—to escape the heat. Sadly, my job does not pay me enough (or give me enough vacation time, er-hem!) for any of these options. Heck, I can hardly afford a blow-up kiddie pool.
I’m left with few options: Lose my friends after endlessly harassing them to come over for a swim, pay Rs120 a visit to be leered at by the lifeguards while I swim in the over-chlorinated lap pool at Siri Fort, or break the sacred five-star hotel law and crash their pools.
So, when this assignment comes up, I happily call dibs. On top of playing hookey by the pool, I get to test my sneakiness skills and see if I can pass off as a bored tourist idling away my vacation by the pool instead of at the Red Fort.
I was pretty confident of my success. First of all, we all know (but rarely admit) it pays to be a girl. We bat our eyelashes; we look confused. Pool boys melt and head off to fetch towels. We also all know (but rarely admit) that the reverse of the white (wo)man’s tax (to make up for all those times I’ve had to pay double my auto fees) is that I can again bat my eyelashes, look confused, throw in a little angry tantrum and pool boys scurry away, not wanting to fight with another stupid gora.
For some reason, though, none of my friends had my back: “There’s no way,” my boyfriend smirks. “I tried last summer and I couldn’t do it.” “But you’re a boy!” I shout.
I’d chosen to go alone to attract less attention to myself, and had never thought that spending the afternoon alone at a pool would be boring. But, of course, the same day I chose to head to the hotels, my friend invited us all to use his pool. I had to leave a group of gossiping friends to potentially earn a spot on the infamous Imperial blacklist—with nothing to entertain me but a hastily bought magazine.
At the three hotels I visited, the Taj Palace, The Oberoi, and The Imperial, only a handful of guests lounged at the pool, and only one other person swam. The atmosphere was serene, calm and the pools were, well, cold and wet.
But I hate to admit it, it was not the peaceful, pleasant experience I had fantasized as my best-case scenario.
First of all, I realized something about myself: I would make a terrible criminal. I couldn’t concentrate on my magazine because every official-looking person that passed by the pool was definitely the guy coming to throw me out. The man in the sharp purple suit? Obviously an undercover security guard who was going to arrest me. The smiling speckled gym trainer? He seemed a little too eager to go get my towel; he was obviously running off to report me to the front desk. And, as I looked around at the relaxing hotel guests, I realized public humiliation at age 29 is far less enticing than it is at age 16. I didn’t really want these tourists heading home with a story about that weird American girl forcibly removed from the hotel after she tried to sneak into the hotel pool.
But, when no one did actually kick me out, I felt even worse. Everyone’s so nice at five-star hotels. The employees are all just trying to be polite and give you the best day you can have.
At the beginning, I saw myself as a bit of a vigilante Robin Hood: take the pool from the rich five-stars for the sake of poor journalists everywhere. But, in reality, I would probably just be getting the employees in trouble if I got caught.
Then, on a purely childish level, I was disappointed that no one appreciated my spying skills. I had plotted various escape routes. I took extra rides up the elevators to get a room number of a door, in case I was asked for one. I carefully chose my outfit to look like I was just coming down from my room.
None of the preparations were necessary. Hardly anyone looked my way—I didn’t have to bat my eyelashes even once.
I left the hotels with no great discoveries on social issues such as race, gender, or the division of wealth. I felt like a brat for taking something that wasn’t mine. So I guess it’s back to square one: I hope my friends don’t mind, but mind if I come over next weekend to use the pool?