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Chapter 3
I was named after a swimming pool. Quite peculiarconsidering my parents never took to water. One of myfather's earliest business contacts was Francis Adirubasamy. Hebecame a good friend of the family. I called him Mamaji,mama being the Tamil word for uncle and ji being a suffixused in India to indicate respect and affection. When he was ayoung man, long before I was born, Mamaji was a championcompetitive swimmer, the champion of all South India. Helooked the part his whole life. My brother Ravi once told methat when Mamaji was born he didn't want to give up onbreathing water and so the doctor, to save his life, had to takehim by the feet and swing him above his head round andround.
"It did the trick!" said Ravi, wildly spinning his hand abovehis head. "He coughed out water and started breathing air, butit forced all his flesh and blood to his upper body. That's whyhis chest is so thick and his legs are so skinny."I believed him. (Ravi was a merciless teaser. The first timehe called Mamaji "Mr. Fish" to my face I left a banana peel inhis bed.) Even in his sixties, when he was a little stooped anda lifetime of counter-obstetric gravity had begun to nudge hisflesh downwards, Mamaji swam thirty lengths every morning atthe pool of the Aurobindo Ashram.
He tried to teach my parents to swim, but he never gotthem to go beyond wading up to their knees at the beach andmaking ludicrous round motions with their arms, which, if theywere practising the breast-stroke, made them look as if theywere walking through a jungle, spreading the tall grass aheadof them, or, if it was the front crawl, as if they were runningdown a hill and flailing their arms so as not to fall. Ravi wasjust as unenthusiastic.
Mamaji had to wait until I came into the picture to find awilling disciple. The day I came of swimming age, which, toMother's distress, Mamaji claimed was seven, he brought medown to the beach, spread his arms seaward and said, "This ismy gift to you.""And then he nearly drowned you," claimed Mother.
I remained faithful to my aquatic guru. Under his watchfuleye I lay on the beach and fluttered my legs and scratchedaway at the sand with my hands, turning my head at everystroke to breathe. I must have looked like a child throwing apeculiar, slow-motion tantrum. In the water, as he held me atthe surface, I tried my best to swim. It was much moredifficult than on land. But Mamaji was patient and encouraging.
When he felt that I had progressed sufficiently, we turnedour backs on the laughing and the shouting, the running andthe splashing, the blue-green waves and the bubbly surf, andheaded for the proper rectan-gularity and the formal flatness(and the paying admission) of the ashram swimming pool.
I went there with him three times a week throughout mychildhood, a Monday, Wednesday, Friday early morning ritualwith the clockwork regularity of a good front-crawl stroke. Ihave vivid memories of this dignified old man stripping down tonakedness next to me, his body slowly emerging as he neatlydisposed of each item of clothing, decency being salvaged at thevery end by a slight turning away and a magnificent pair ofimported athletic bathing trunks. He stood straight and he wasready. It had an epic simplicity. Swimming instruction, which intime became swimming practice, was gruelling, but there wasthe deep pleasure of doing a stroke with increasing ease andspeed, over and over, till hypnosis practically, the water turningfrom molten lead to liquid light.
It was on my own, a guilty pleasure, that I returned to thesea, beckoned by the mighty waves that crashed down andreached for me in humble tidal ripples, gentle lassos thatcaught their willing Indian boy.
My gift to Mamaji one birthday, I must have been thirteenor so, was two full lengths of credible butterfly. I finished sospent I could hardly wave to him.
Beyond the activity of swimming, there was the talk of it. Itwas the talk that Father loved. The more vigorously he resistedactually swimming, the more he fancied it. Swim lore was hisvacation talk from the workaday talk of running a zoo. Waterwithout a hippopotamus was so much more manageable thanwater with one.
Mamaji studied in Paris for two years, thanks to the colonialadministration. He had the time of his life. This was in theearly 1930s, when the French were still trying to makePondicherry as Gallic as the British were trying to make therest of India Britannic. I don't recall exactly what Mamajistudied. Something commercial, I suppose. He was a greatstoryteller, but forget about his studies or the Eiffel Tower orthe Louvre or the cafés of the Champs-Elysées. All his storieshad to do with swimming pools and swimming competitions.
For example, there was the Piscine Deligny, the city's oldestpool, dating back to 1796, an open-air barge moored to theQuai d'Orsay and the venue for the swimming events of the1900 Olympics. But none of the times were recognized by theInternational Swimming Federation because the pool was sixmetres too long. The water in the pool came straight from theSeine, unfiltered and unheated. "It was cold and dirty," saidMamaji. "The water, having crossed all of Paris, came in foulenough. Then people at the pool made it utterly disgusting." Inconspiratorial whispers, with shocking details to back up hisclaim, he assured us that the French had very low standardsof personal hygiene. "Deligny was bad enough. Bain Royal,another latrine on the Seine, was worse. At least at Delignythey scooped out the dead fish." Nevertheless, an Olympic poolis an Olympic pool, touched by immortal glory. Though it wasa cesspool, Mamaji spoke of Deligny with a fond smile.
One was better off at the Piscines Chateau-Landon, Rouvetor du boulevard de la Gare. They were indoor pools withroofs, on land and open year-round. Their water was suppliedby the condensation from steam engines from nearby factoriesand so was cleaner and warmer. But these pools were still abit dingy and tended to be crowded. "There was so much goband spit floating in the water, I thought I was swimmingthrough jellyfish," chuckled Mamaji.
The Piscines Hébert, Ledru-Rollin and Butte-aux-Cailles werebright, modern, spacious pools fed by artesian wells. They setthe standard for excellence in municipal swimming pools. Therewas the Piscine des Tourelles, of course, the city's other greatOlympic pool, inaugurated during the second Paris games, of1924. And there were still others, many of them.
But no swimming pool in Mamaji's eyes matched the gloryof the Piscine Molitor. It was the crowning aquatic glory ofParis, indeed, of the entire civilized world.
"It was a pool the gods would have delighted to swim in.
Molitor had the best competitive swimming club in Paris. Therewere two pools, an indoor and an outdoor. Both were as bigas small oceans. The indoor pool always had two lanesreserved for swimmers who wanted to do lengths. The waterwas so clean and clear you could have used it to make yourmorning coffee. Wooden changing cabins, blue and white,surrounded the pool on two floors. You could look down andsee everyone and everything. The porters who marked yourcabin door with chalk to show that it was occupied werelimping old men, friendly in an ill-tempered way. No amount ofshouting and tomfoolery ever ruffled them. The showers gushedhot, soothing water. There was a steam room and an exerciseroom. The outside pool became a skating rink in winter. Therewas a bar, a cafeteria, a large sunning deck, even two smallbeaches with real sand. Every bit of tile, brass and woodgleamed. It was – it was…"It was the only pool that made Mamaji fall silent, hismemory making too many lengths to mention.
Mamaji remembered, Father dreamed.
That is how I got my name when I entered this world, alast, welcome addition to my family, three years after Ravi:
Piscine Molitor Patel.
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