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Swimming

A small part of me is missing the ease of a Kansas summer. Like the quiver of the streets, time moves in strange lurches while traveling. Summer is predictably unplanned back home. The permutations in which we go out, sit on porches, drink beer, swim, and work changes from week to week, but the general rotation of these activities insulates the few shorts hot months with a blithe languor.

When the opportunity to swim in a sanitized pool arose, I jumped. It was a familiar throwback to this laziness, and water is a cruel mistress here. People offer and drink it in cool tin cups. Men stripped down to underwear bathe in it shamelessly in pumps sprung up near the street. But you know you have to clutch on your little plastic bottle for your dear non-dysentery life and close your mouth while showering. I was drunk just on the chance to submerge myself in an entire body of the thing.

“Will my bathing suit be alright?” I didn’t want to be inappropriate. I had brought my least favorite one, a one-piece. Dr. Harish, my CReSIS contact here, assured me this was standard wear here, too.

Dr. Harish, Anne, and I walked to the campus pool, a large outside one divided by wading and lap facilities. On the way in I bought a blue swim cap. It is standard for all women, to prevent clogged drains from the long, think Indian hair. After checking in, Anne and I went into the women’s dressing room, which was separated by a strong door, and then a curtained entryway. The men’s door barely had hinges. I put on my cap and my bathing suit. We giggled at my white alien hairless head and exited to the pool.

The pool was full. Full of women wearing swimming suits with pants. Literally suits. Essentially 1920s bathing dresses but with less frill. My bathing suit, although modestly covering the essentials and too much more by American standards, is cut high on the hips like a bikini. These jumpsuits were mostly hued black or navy. Mine is bright pink with polka-dots.

Dr. Harish joined us. “So, the left is the women’s side and the men are on the right. We typically do not cross over.” Oh. Oh. Okay.

My polka-dots and I waddled over the ladder. Acutely aware of the eyes of both genders, I wanted to hide my obvious displacement beneath the water as soon as possible. Anne hadn’t brought a swimming suit, so I was a solo missionary.

I lied back into the water warmed by the day’s heat. The public can access the pool from only 7 to 8 pm, which might be a function of school hours, and swim team practice, or a fear of contracting a darker complexion than the skin-whitening cream of the stores can cure.

Above, the spotlights replaced the setting sun. I stared up at the indigo sky. I could be anywhere in any summer. Except in the left hand corner of my gaze, a peacock’s long fermata form blazed from one tree to the next.

Some sects of Hindus gather at the Ganges, which lies tangent to this city Kanpur, every four years for a ritual washing called Kumbhmela. They believe that all the wrongs of life, no matter how distant or cumulative, will absolve with a bath in the dirty, dirty river. Thousands die each time, trading one blemish for another. Each believes he has the right to the first bath. The tension in the battles scares away even the police.

My skin, too, needed pardon from the heat. I dove down deep to the thickest water. For some seconds, I could hear nothing but the dull pulses of my slow swimming arms. In a pool of Indians, washed clean of my travels, my unjust complaints, my irrespect, I was ensconced in solitude; deaf.

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