My first swimming costume was a hand-me-down. Being the youngest of three siblings, this was not surprising in “those days”, as my mother would recall. The item in question was grey-coloured and was essentially a short short-pant. The design element was this interesting flap in the front, which gave the costume a Roman skirt (if you have seen Gladiator, you would know what I mean) look from the front. Never did ask, but I am sure my mother would have retorted saying that “it was to cover the private parts”.
An equally big concern, to me, and presumably to a host of my countrymen, was exposing one’s out-of-shape torso in public. This is not to overlook those among us with flat washboard stomachs and taut chests; or the latest, six-pack abs.
The costume was held together at the waist, not by elastic or a string, but instead a metallic buckle, very similar to a regular leather belt, but without the sharp pin. Consequently, keeping the costume secure, up and around your waist, was quite a hazard and prone to wardrobe malfunction. It didn’t happen to me, but my classmate had the ignominy of effecting a perfect dive, only to have the costume peel off from behind as he surfaced gracefully (obviously, only the discerning noticed the otherwise immaculate dive).
I will pass up on the swimming instructors who guided (at least that is what they thought they did) a batch of 30-odd kids in weird attire. They obviously did a bad job. Something I discovered two decades later, while wheezing and gasping through two lengths of a 20m-pool in a city hotel, believing that I had done an aquatic equivalent of a marathon. A friend of mine, an accomplished swimmer by global standards, who was observing my struggles, remarked, “Hey, you’ve got it all wrong. You are supposed to inhale while your head is out of the water and exhale under water. You are doing both at the same time. Which means you are swimming while holding your breath.”
It was a turning point on my aquatic learning curve.
Oh, I forgot. By then I had shed the fashion statement of the 1970s and had moved on to a very colourful pair of short swimming trunks, held together by a string! Whether it was a sports goods shop or our very own Janpath, the choice was the same. So, it was what everyone else wore—except, of course, the stocky Russians (yes, by then Soviet Union had ceased to exist) who wore what can be best described as “jocks”.
Flash forward another decade. I found myself in the US. First, on a year-long sabbatical and then on a five-year assignment based out of New York. One of the best things about being in that country is access to a clean swimming pool all year round. And then, of course, the choice of swimming costumes—there are a range of options, whether you are male or female.
I soon realized the cultural differences between the East and West made me focus more on my swimming than my physiological embarrassments. It is what sociologists call the difference between a high context and a low context culture. The former reduces life to a series of contiguous subjective judgements about everyone and everything around us, while the latter lends itself to a more anonymous and matter of fact existence. To put it bluntly, people turn up in public pools, either to bathe or to ogle. I am sure, people-watching is a regular phenomenon in the West, too. But it is never in your face and with an implied judgement.
So, to cut a long story short, I soon moved on to using swimming costumes manufactured by top sports labels. While they were extremely comfortable, I am sure my mother would have balked.
But, that was then. Now, I am back in New Delhi. Have things changed? Definitely. There is a much wider choice of swimsuits today compared with what one got a decade ago. But the attitude…now, that is another story altogether.
(Anil Padmanabhan is chief of bureau, Delhi, Mint )