Swimming in India

I am in Goa, at a week-end meeting of the British Business Group in India (my firm has just opened an office in Mumbai). I had wanted to start the morning with a swim in the Arabian Sea, which is blood warm, but I was warned about the high levels of raw sewage, and the vicious rip tide – in the space of two days an expat I got talking to witnessed 2 drowned men and 2 drowned boys washed up on the beach. So instead I swam in the hotel pool, a luxuriously wide spread of warm water surrounded by tall palms. It was early and the pool was empty – or so I thought until I discovered a large frog performing a muscular underwater breaststroke. Imagining the chlorine water would kill it I thought about trying to drive it out but it was too fast for me, and after a while I settled into a rhythm and forgot about the frog. I am no Jain.

Half way through my 45 minutes I remembered another Indian swim which took place 5 years before, in the Oberoi Hotel’s outdoor pool raised high above Bombay’s Marine Drive. It was a Saturday night and I had arrived that afternoon from Delhi, an advance party for a visit by David Cameron and George Osborne, then respectively the UK’s opposition Leader and Shadow Chancellor. I was tired, but happy with the itinerary I had put together with the help of the British High Commissions in Delhi and Mumbai. The main party did not arrive until Monday morning and as I rode the lift to the pool terrace, my swimming trunks still damp from my morning swim in Delhi, I relished the prospect of a free Sunday.

Outside it was dark; a warm wind carried the sounds of traffic down on Marine Drive. I stood looking out across the city, its dark towers looming around me, absorbing the sensation of standing semi-naked on the sea-edge of a sprawling city of over 20 million people (Mumbai’s population density is over 20,000 per square kilometre, more than 4 x London’s). I weighed the cost of my hotel room against the average wage of the nearby slum dwellers, and I looked down into the illuminated water, peacock blue in the night. How deliciously cool it looked; something a tiny fraction of Mumbaikars would ever experience. I dived in.

After a few minutes the wind picked up, and suddenly it was hurling large, monsoon drops of rain into my face and a storm had turned the water a milky jade. I swam my lengths; one way into the wind and slapping waves, one way with the wind at my back, and in my loneliness I fancied myself shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean, swimming for my life.

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