Go Deep, Young Man!
I came across this deep diving video recently and it brought back a flood of memories. This is a story of growing up, formative moments, discovering something about yourself and about the world, and… bullying.
Flashback to when I was about 13 – 14 years old. One summer, my mother felt that I was becoming too chubby and so she enrolled me in a swimming class at my school. At that age, of course, even a little bit of change to your routine is sufficient to make big improvements, and I did become relatively fit by the end of the summer. Unfortunately, that didn’t last very long but something else that happened that summer did. It’s with me even today.
But first, let me give you some context.
This was the late 70’s. We used to live in Andheri, a far-flung (at that time) suburb of Mumbai. In those days, Andheri was not as crowded or even developed as it is today. The area around the railway station was built up and heavily populated, but once you went about a kilometer from it, it became a mix of fairly large dairy farms and small apartment buildings. It almost felt rural and ancient in places. No pastures or anything, but just rows and rows of buffaloes and cows in barns, with a few chickens and pigs frolicking in the sewage. The smell of cow dung and straw used to fill the air.
So it should not come as much of a surprise that the “swimming pool” at the school wasn’t really a swimming pool. It was actually a large well – a typical old style well lined with stones. No lanes or diving boards or anything like what you would expect in a typical swimming pool.
We did have a great teacher though. Mr. Naik, one of the staff members at the school used to teach kids to swim in the summer. For some reason, he took a special liking to me. I was a typical chubby bespectacled nerdy kid with no interest or aptitude for sports, but Mr. Naik thought he could make something out of me! He didn’t just teach me how to swim, he even sent me to compete in inter-school competitions! It was really funny because, having learned to swim in a well, I couldn’t even swim in a straight line! I tended to swim in a curve, so on the day of the competition, I kept bumping into the ropes that separated the lanes! It must have looked really funny.
Needless to say that there are no swimming medals hanging on the wall at the Bhalerao household.
But let’s get back to the main story.
Two types of people are guaranteed to exist in any school: teachers and bullies. The swimming well was no exception. So along with Mr. Naik, who I still remember with great love, there was also a bully, who I’ve tried to forget but can’t. (Well, at least I don’t remember his name anymore. So I’ve made some progress.) He made as big an impact on my life as did Mr. Naik.
He used to love to do the typical bully stuff like make lots of noise, do cannonballs, splash lots of water, etc. But alarmingly, he even used to sneak up behind other swimmers and pull their legs. If that didn’t work, he would even put his hands on other swimmers’ shoulders and push them down as hard as he could. The teacher would, of course, scold him, but he always found a way to do these things behind his back.
Unfortunately for me, he also took special pleasure in harassing me. (It’s a mystery to me as to why such people take a liking to me. I try to stay as quiet and out of their way as possible, but they still find me somehow. 🙂 )
If I and he were in the water at the same time, he just wouldn’t let me swim. He would push me down as soon as he could sneak up on me. And as soon as I came up for air, he would push me down again. And again. Until Mr. Naik would notice and shout at him. He would let me go, but he would constantly be looking for another opportunity.
Like any other kid who has experienced bullying, there’s usually no good choice but to learn to deal with it. As soon as I would see him come towards me, I would gulp some air and go underwater and swim to another part of the well and emerge. He would thus lose track of me and then he would pick on someone else. As a result though, over time, I actually started enjoying being under water! I learned how to hold my breath longer and in general become comfortable under water. I think the guy stopped coming to the swimming class after a few days, but by then, I had discovered a whole new underwater world.
Time and again, someone would lose something in the well. Glasses, coins, wristwatch, etc. Also, we would need to dredge up leaves and debris that would have fallen in. So Mr. Naik would ask for volunteers to go to the bottom of the well and bring things up. In summer, the well used to be only about 30 ft deep, so it was relatively easy. One would just need to learn to hold their breath for a bit longer than usual and they would be able to go all the way down to the bottom, quickly grab whatever they could get their hands on, and come up. Sometimes you struck gold and returned triumphantly. Most of the times, you would return empty-handed. But then, you could go again.
I became good enough that I could reach the bottom and spend some time searching for things. I could even get to the bottom, traverse the entire breadth of the well and emerge on the other side. Towards the end of summer, the monsoons started and the well started filling up. And along with it, my ability to hold my breath longer and longer so I could still reach the bottom easily.
I used to love being down there. At the surface of the water, you had lots of other kids, not to mention bullies. There was always lots of activity, shouting, waves, splashing water, etc. But take a couple of big gulps and dip your head under the water, and there’d be just you. As you descended, it got darker and darker. The well water wasn’t treated or anything, so it was not very transparent. It would get totally dark pretty quickly. All you’d have was your heart beating and your fingers groping for things. You became really calm, focused, even determined. Maybe the lack of oxygen plays with one’s mind. I’m not sure. But it is a different state of mind. It is an amazing feeling.
It taught me something really important. Surfaces, by their very nature, are superficial. Lots of froth, not much depth. You do need to spend some time at the surface because that’s where you get your nourishment, energy, company. But once you have gathered a sufficient amount, you can descend into a deeper world. There are treasures to be found there that only you get to find. They aren’t easily visible. All you can feel are some vague, fuzzy, muddy outlines. But when you do find them, there’s a wonderful feeling of excitement. Once you learn to search for them, you start finding more and more of them, and you want to do it again and again.
And I’m not just talking about coins and watches and things. I’m talking about finding deep hidden treasures within yourself as well as in the world. Those aren’t easily visible either. All you can feel are some vague, fuzzy, muddy outlines. But when you do find them, there’s a wonderful feeling of excitement. Once you learn to search for them, you start finding more and more of them, and you want to do it again and again.
Of course, one doesn’t realize such things until one is much older. All the play and fun of childhood starts to look like exercises in self-discovery and discovery about the world.
When I watched this video, all those memories came flooding into my mind. It was like I was down there once again – with this diver. Of course, I never made it beyond a fraction of the depth he went to, and never under the stress of competition, not to mention the stress of not letting your country down or any such thing! But to me, it felt very similar. (And in my case, it was actually darker at the bottom! 🙂 )
That turned out to be a very memorable summer for me, thanks to the two types of people you are guaranteed to find in any school – good teachers who believe in you for inexplicable reasons and bullies who don’t, for equally inexplicable reasons.