Nadine D´souza

The Big Swim

Breathless gasps, arms flailing, the eerie chant of prayers being recited, the last prayers they would ever make....
“C'mon get into the pool, will you!” shouted Seema and Anoushka in chorus. Two of my best friends were taking a swim in the clear blue water at the Optima Club. They were clearly having a great time, evident by their joyous shrieks and giggles. I sat there a safe distance from the water's edge, in case they decided to drag me in, overcome by a fit of euphoria which they seemed to be in.
“No, you guys carry on. I'm quite fine right here”, I yelled back, taking a gigantic gulp of my lemon ice tea and settling back into the comfy lounge chair. I adjusted my sunglasses on my head and squinted at the sun. Man is essentially a land animal, I thought to myself, there’s really no reason why one should go about frolicking in the water. Ironically, just a week ago I had finally learned to swim.
The rains in India are as predictable as the Indian cricket team. It peaks and goes into a lull so often, bets on both are bound to result in lots of money lost and gained. Personally, I have never been very fond of the monsoons. The romanticism and poetic inclinations arising out of such weather never really had an effect on me. For me, the rains just meant inconvenient commuting, dreariness and wet feet. As a result I tried never to venture out when it rained. “Drizzle is evil” was my motto.
The day had started out pretty well. The sun was shining brighter that it normally does during the monsoon. The roads were also dry. No puddles, no streams of dirty water and garbage running down the sides of the pavements and no flurry of umbrellas running riot on crowded streets. I still took my umbrella with me in case the weather changed.
The afternoon brought with it that tell-tale dullness. The air became cooler and breezier and the first drops of rain of the day started falling softly. I peered out of the window cynically, watching the drops get bigger and heavier. The light grey of the concrete road outside slowly began turning into a murky blackish grey. I closed the window shut and tried to concentrate on work, silently willing it to stop raining before 6 pm, which is the time I would be leaving for home. Very soon I lost interest in the rain and was fully engrossed in my work.
An hour or so after that, a sudden surge of activity erupted in the office. A colleague burst into the room and announced that the rains were getting worse and mild flooding in certain areas was being reported in the news on television. Slightly anxious phone calls were being made to respective homes to get the latest updates. This time when I looked out of the window, I could barely see a thing. It was so dark! The rain was hammering against the window with full force. I looked lower down and saw that the water level was indeed rising rapidly.
The phone calls became more anxious now. People began preparing to leave for home. Extremely reluctant to make the long journey home in such terrible weather, I stayed on along with a few others.
“There’s no need to panic. It will stop anytime now”, consoled Priyanka, a colleague and now a close friend. “Yes, of course, it’s just a bout of heavy rain, that’s all”, said another colleague. “Anyways there's not going to be a flood, that’s for sure”, said another overly confident colleague. They're right, I thought. The last floods that took place in the city were years ago. It’s not as if it’s some regular occurrence. And what followed after that was also by no means regular.
At around 3pm, Priyanka, who lived just about a half hour away decided to leave for home. At that point I received a call from my aunt, who seemed on the verge of a full-blown panic attack. “Leave now!”, she screamed into the phone, “if you wait any longer you will be flooded in!”
My normally calm temperament was ruffled a bit. I better leave too, I thought. But instead of going home, I decided to make my way to my aunt's house, who lived nearer by and also close to Priyanka's house. So, Priyanka and I said goodbye to the remaining colleagues, who were shaking their heads as though we were talking the walk down death row.
As soon as we stepped out, we realized how bad the situation was. We found ourselves standing in almost knee-deep water. “It's this stupid office complex”, bristled Priyanka, “they've never had a proper drainage system. The water starts collecting at the slightest shower”.
I started to breathe easy, thinking that once we were out of the complex, it would get better. But by the time we reached the main road, it dawned on us that we were in the midst of full-scale deluge. We were also not alone. The road was swarming with people wading their way home. We joined the train of people and walked on. Normally, we would have taken the bus or an auto rickshaw, as the distance is too much to walk. But the only buses that were on the road were overflowing with people and most of the auto rickshaws were out of service on account of the water flooding the engines. So we proceeded with the longest and scariest walk of our lives!
After walking for nearly an hour we were still nowhere even close to our destination. The water level was waist-high and the water current made it difficult to walk properly. People had deserted their cars and were joining the desperate walkathon.
It was getting darker too. We were still far away from home, now regretting our decision to move out of the office. The water was still rising. My legs began to ache with the effort of walking against the current. We both caught hold of a long thick branch we found floating near us. Using that as a sort of paddle, we trod on. The situation was worsening. There was panic everywhere. Parents had lifted the younger ones onto their shoulders. It was impossible for the children to walk, the water level having reached their height. Cell phones had lost their network. There was no way of contacting anyone to let them know that we were alive and okay. But then again we weren't too sure how long that would last.
Night came, thick and heavy. The moonlight providing no solace at all. The rippling water gleaming menacingly. The people were fewer now. Some having taken refuge in stranded buses or buildings. And some having fallen prey to the savage floods. We reached an intersection which was about fifteen minutes from Priyanka's home. We pushed forward sure we could get there soon. I had begun shivering from having been in the water for five hours straight. My jeans hung heavy on me making it more difficult to walk. The water was chest-high and rising. Just as we reached the intersection, we heard shouting telling people not to go any further. Still we continued further, knowing the destination was near.
A man emerged out of nowhere, his eyes wide with horror. He was wading unsteadily, his body trembling. “There are bodies floating ahead”, he whispered, “little children too…god bless their souls…blue in the face...bloated with water…floating corpses…” He waded on muttering to himself and anyone who came near him. We hadn't moved an inch. The water now touching our chins. We stood there letting the fear soak into every fiber of our existence just as the water had.
We looked ahead hopefully, considering the option that the man was deranged and didn't know what he was saying. But all we could see was darkness. Pitch black darkness. “I can almost see the top of my building”, Priyanka gasped. “We can't go on. It’s too dark and too risky. Plus you heard the man,” I said firmly, grabbing Priyanka's hand in the event she decided to surge ahead in desperation. But she too had given up, her body and mind no match for the raging torrent. We looked around in despair, realizing there were only a few of us left on the road now. The rain started beating down on us. We had already abandoned our umbrellas a while ago, as they were slowing us down. Unable to take the cold sting of the rain anymore, we made our way into the nearest vehicle. It was a school bus. We entered and sat down immediately, glad for the temporary relief from the floods. After a moment, we turned around sensing company. There was an old man clutching his walking stick so tightly, his knuckles had turned white. He was staring at the foggy window pane. His lips moving in silent prayer. Across the aisle, was a man, a woman and a little child. I assumed they were a family as they sat very close to each other. The child oblivious to everything was playing with a Superman doll. He launched it into the air, and then made it cruise in mid-air while he made a swishing noise with his mouth. Only Superman can save us now, I thought. And I actually found myself staring hopefully at the little plastic doll in red underpants.
The water was entering the busy steadily. It wouldn't be long before the bus was also flooded. We spotted a building ahead of us and proceeded to get out of the bus. The woman began saying something to us. We couldn't hear very well due to the din of the rain. “Pardon me?” I said, thinking that maybe they too wanted to come with us into the building. “Stay here,” she was saying “it’s no point going out there again”. “But we'll get flooded in,” exclaimed Priyanka. What we heard next gave us a burst of adrenalin that sent our survival instincts into overdrive and led us to the safe haven of the nearby building. “Leave it to god,” the woman was saying in a strangely calm voice, “he will decide if we have to live or die.” Right next to her, Superman continued to fly in mid-air.
As soon as we got out of the bus, we saw that the building was not so near after all. The water was almost reaching my mouth. I pursed my lips tightly afraid the dirty water may enter in. By now the current was really high. I was barely able to keep my balance. A number of times, I slipped and jumped up gasping for breath. “Swim!”, shouted Priyanka over the water. “I can't,” I cried helplessly, cursing myself for procrastinating about the swimming classes I had been meaning to take. “Try! There’s no other way we can reach the building!”. Priyanka had begun swimming further, stopping now and then to turn back and see how I was doing. I can't do this, I thought. I'm going to drown. A sudden wave threw me off balance completely and I found myself sinking into the thick brown water. “Swim!!”, I could hear the hollow shouts echoing beneath the water. In a flash of confidence, I lunged upwards. I wasn't going down, I told myself, at least not like this. As I lunged forward, I tried paddling my legs. But my arms and legs refused to work in tandem, and I kept sinking. I did this wild desperate exercise a few more times. Slowly, I managed to gain control of my limbs, making it easier to synchronize their movements. Ignoring my distressed muscles, I continued to move. And a few minutes later, I was swimming, very awkwardly, but still, I was swimming! Pretty soon I could catch up with Priyanka who had slowed down considerably so I could keep up with her. Together we swam towards the building. I had to keep stopping for a break as my body tried to adjust to its new-found ability. We finally reached the steps leading into the building, where the water level was not so high. We could walk up from there on.
We huddled together on the staircase of the building. As soon as we entered the building, we climbed non-stop until we reached the third floor and were completely out of breath. Although the water could never reach as high as the third floor, we were not taking any chances.
We sat in a pool of water, shivering, tired and hungry...but alive! We sat in silence, too tired to even speak. I looked longingly at my networkless cell phone, wanting desperately to let my aunt know that I was safe, knowing she must be sick with worry. The rain still showed no signs of stopping.
Just then one of the doors near us opened and a lady peered out at us. Taking in the sight of our sorry state, she came out and approached us. “Come in for a while. Dry yourselves a bit and have some tea,” she said. Thanking god for sending us an angel, we eagerly followed her into the house.
We continued to be in darkness as the electricity had been cut off in many areas to prevent electrocution due to the dangerous water levels. But the darkness was now soothing and comforting. After we dried ourselves off we were given cups of piping hot tea. Cupping our hands around the deliciously warm tumblers of heaven, we sipped slowly savouring the refreshing tea and our new lease on life. Soon after we dozed off, inspite of our wet clothes. I woke up with a start many times during the night, finding my muscles still flexing and relaxing as if I was still trying to move against the current.
Morning dawned sans the rain. The sun shone extra bright as if trying to make up for the havoc created in its absence. The water level had fallen drastically and the roads were almost clear. We awoke, barely able to move a muscle, the night's struggle taking its toll on our bodies. We were given tea and bread once more. Gaining a wee bit of strength, we profusely thanked our dear host and her family for their kindness and left the place we will always look upon as a sanctuary.
We stepped out of the building and before we parted ways towards our respective destinations, we hugged each other. We had been thrown together in extreme circumstances, which had undoubtedly brought a sudden closeness and affection between us. That was the only positive thing that came out of the whole experience.
Upon reaching my aunt's house, I was showered with care and concern. A long hot shower, warm clothes, platefuls of food and hours of much needed sleep later, I was finally feeling fine. I then sat down with the newspaper and the television on to survey the consequences of the night that was. It was bad. Damage to life and property was tremendous. We were lucky to have survived. The death toll was rising as bodies were being discovered by the minute. The man was not so deranged after all, I thought. I was glad we paid heed to his maniacal muttering and did not stray further.
Now a week later, the aches and pains have gone. Incidentally the rains too have gone, much to my delight. The crystal clear water in front of me bears no resemblance whatsoever to the murky waters of the deluge. The sun is gleaming strong and bright, having obtained full charge of the skies.
“C'mon you spoilsport! Don't you want to take a swim? The waters just right!”
I put my sunglasses back on. Slid further down the chair. And dozed off in blissful relaxation. But only for a while…my dreams soon reliving the trauma of my rather forced swimming lesson.


All rights belong to its author. It was published on by demand of Nadine D´souza.
Published on on 27.09.2007.


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