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Why I Miss The Pools (And Pool Rules) Of America

Leif Parsons for NPR

Dear Americans,

I hear it's swimming pool season for you. Enjoy it while it lasts.

And as you complain about the crowds at the nearest pool and the annoying list of rules, think of me, envying you.

When I lived in Boston, I swam in a public pool. I loved the quiet, the order, the rope floats that demarcate lanes, the chalkboard with chlorine and pH levels, even the smell of chlorine.

But I especially loved the rules. Rules like, "Always swim complete laps." "Avoid stopping in the middle of the lane." "No running on the deck." "No hanging on lane lines, ropes or rails." And the markers for slow and fast swimming lanes.

I now live (and swim) in Mumbai. On a typical visit to the pool, I might encounter:

  • The gentleman who swims backward, yes, really, right in the middle of a lane;
  • The police commissioner who's allowed to swim zigzag from lane to lane and around and around because, you know, he's police;
  • The elderly uncle who does yoga in the pool, specifically the pose called shava asana, which means he floats around on his back with his eyes shut and a beatific expression on his face, getting in everyone's way;
  • Multitudes of people stubbornly swimming laps in a pool for diving — and frequently having to slam on the brakes to avoid a diver splashing down from the diving tower.
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    Here in Mumbai, people swim like they drive. Which is to say it's a free-for-all. If people could honk in the pool, there would be a constant din. It's true whether you swim in an elite club (where members can sip fresh watermelon juice standing in the shallow end) or the public pool.

    Four years ago, the public pool near me reopened after six years of renovation. I now swim in a glorious Olympic-size, eight-lane facility. The "serious" swimmers swim in one direction when doing laps. Mostly.

    I mean, there's only one old guy trying to swim the width of the pool rather than the length. And one lady doing sun salutations in lane four. Six men are treading water abreast as they chat, blocking three lanes in the middle of the pool. At least once every morning I thwack my head against someone else's when doing the backstroke, even if I've checked to make sure the lane is clear before starting out. I suspect Indians learn to swim with their eyes closed, because there's no other way to explain how an uncle doing the crawl in a far-off lane has ended up in my path.

    Typically, I'm the only one who is outraged. Most people just swim around these obstacles in their path. Sometimes, I manage to catch the eye of a lifeguard, who may intervene ... or may not.

    Meanwhile, kids run amok, their nannies chasing close behind. For four years, the management has been promising to post the rules for pool conduct. So far there's nothing. And the lifeguards have no authority at all. The minute they try to discipline someone, the swimmer will pull rank – citing their profession or their uncle's political office. If the lifeguard persists, the member complains at the pool office, where the civil servant in charge (it's a government pool, after all) doesn't even know how to swim let alone how to run a pool.

    The pool, then, is a petri dish for how India functions. We're a nation full of "Me-first" entitlement, used to scamming our way out of any situation. Maybe it's a remnant of our colonial past: We mistrust authority with a passion, getting ahead is imperative at whatever cost. Where else can you get a driving license without lessons, obtain a medical degree for your nephew without medical school, or grab low-income housing even if you're not exactly impoverished? If a government official stands in your way, chances are he's so underpaid or so cowed by the sheer red tape of doing his job right that a bribe or a threat is your ticket out of anything. On top of that, there is no chance of redressal: The justice system is so overburdened that court cases take up to 40 years. It's easier to stay quiet, never speak up. Rules are mere suggestions.

    But once in a while, rules are enforced, even in the pool. Being a patriarchal country, India has exclusive "Ladies Time" for swims. At my pool, that's 3:30 to 5:15 in the afternoon, smack in the middle of the workday, when the sun is still high overhead.

    Most women who come wear an improvised burkini — imagine a sleeved tutu with cycling shorts or tights attached. It's partly for modesty's sake, but in an all ladies' time slot, the truth is more evident: The coverage offers protection against a tan. Indian society has a huge bias against dark skin: A visible tan is considered low-class and very distasteful. I know of athletes who have to stop swimming a month before family weddings so their tan lines are less visible in a sari.

    I try to go as often as I can and it's absolutely blissful. Not only is it empty of men, but when it's really bright and sunny, the women concerned for their complexion stay away. So I get the whole 160-foot-long pool to myself. And then I don't miss American pools at all.


    Poolhardy in Mumbai

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    Chhavi Sachdev