The swimsuit I own currently is so hideous it is almost a work of art. Or comedy. Most people start laughing helplessly when they see it — even those who claim to be my friends. Wearing it, I look like a giant sea anemone or like Gerald Durrell’s mother in his wonderful novel, My Family and Other Animals. Remember that scene when the Durrell family goes out for a beach picnic and the mother emerges in a swimsuit so frilly, the dog starts barking thinking his mistress to be a strange sea creature? My swimsuit isn’t as frilly as young Gerald’s mother, thank goodness. It is sleek, but that is all I can say about its virtues. It has sleeves; it is long and all-covering and it is perfect for the conservative housing co-op that I live in. At Juhu beach, I fit right in with the ladies who wade into the ocean in saris and salwar kameezes. But at Copacabana, I’d be a tad overdressed. Let me just say it this way: a Juicy Couture bikini, it is not.
Suit up: Is your swimsuit tailor-made for Copacabana or for Juhu?
Not surprisingly, every time I don my swimsuit, I question the whole notion of swimsuits. The prospect of skinny-dipping becomes alluring. Now, I am not advocating nudist colonies (although I see nothing wrong with them). However, as a parent, I subscribe to the “family values” approach towards public acts and events. Not the politicians’ version of it; not the anti-cheerleaders version of it; but the one that says certain things are appropriate for certain societies, particularly when children are in attendance. The irony, of course, is that children are supremely comfortable with running around naked. Just watch a kid strip off his shorts and jump into the bathtub and you will see bliss. The same child, when he gets older and becomes aware of body parts, is a different animal altogether. This is why I feel that skinny-dipping is a grey area. If done correctly, it is a superbly sensual exercise that might tempt you to do away with swimsuits forever.
Imagine this scenario: a searing hot summer night, dark lake, no moon and a family, or a group of close friends for that matter. Nobody can really see each other. Outlines are visible but barely. The environment is completely private. Skinny-dipping? Why not, I say.
I’ve always felt that one of the virtues of having a private pool is that you can swim in the nude. In India, with our regiment of help, this is not always possible. Then again, if you choose your moment right — at dawn before the help arrives or after midnight, skinny-dipping in your own water body can be fabulous.
Years ago, Protima Bedi streaked down a beach and created a furore. It was an act of theatre and rebellion. But my version of skinny-dipping is neither. It is an act of enjoyment to be done in a private environment, preferably when you are alone. Not for everyone, I know. But for some, it falls into the “why not” approach to life.
Most people who skinny-dip are young and probably high — on life and on other things. As with most things with respect to the youth, they skinny-dip because their friends are also doing it; because someone dared them to. As with most things done when young, they enjoy it. As we edge towards middle age, swimsuits are de rigueur and skinny-dipping becomes a distant memory. This is sad.
I am in the happy position of being surrounded by kids in the complex I live in. Every afternoon, about a dozen kids jump into the pool to stave off the summer heat. As I go in with them, I wonder if they will ever get to enjoy the pleasures of water sans swimsuit. I wouldn’t dream of doing it with other children. But with my own, I fantasize about exposing them to the prospect of skinny-dipping; about owning a bungalow with a private pool; about telling the kids that are close to me — my kids, nieces and nephews — to simply jump in. They do it in Brazil; why not in Bangalore?
Swimsuits are a necessary accoutrement in public. Some of the better brands such as Eres and Letarte make you look like a million dollars. But, they do nothing for your stroke or your flip. If you simply want to improve your backstroke, swimming in the nude is as good as swimming in a tankini. Then why swimsuits? Because, while I love many things about India, one of the things I rue about our society is that we are extremely prudish. The simplest way of establishing this is to look at our beaches (barring Goa, which is an exception). I was at Juhu and Chowpatty beaches last week. I grew up near Eliot’s beach in Chennai. I have never seen a bikini on these beaches. The men jump into the waves wearing shorts, but for most women, enjoying the waves is to be done in full regalia. Superimpose Brazil or any other Latin American country on any of our beaches and the scene will be completely different. Hence swimsuits, I guess.
Shoba Narayan is thinking of buying herself a new swimsuit; or not. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org