Tara was ten years old that year. But it had changed nothing.
“Tara! We’re getting late! Hurry up, or you’re going to hear it from me!”, papa thundered in his military voice, waiting impatiently at the door, smoking his second cigarette.
“C’mon darling, it won’t be so bad. I know you’re my brave little daughter. You can do anything you put your mind to. There’s nothing to be afraid, and this is an essential life skill, kiddo..”, her mom tried to gently reason with her.
“Then how come you never learned, mummy?”
“Tara!! If you aren’t here in the next five minutes, I will leave you and go, and you will not be allowed to watch your TV tonight! Did you understand??”
With clammy and cold palms and a heart beating like a little bird, Tara put on her dress over her swimsuit. She silently zipped the bag carrying her change of clothes and tried to summon the courage that had fled her the minute papa had told her they were going for swimming lessons that day. She couldn’t find it though, her courage.
According to papa, he had been trying to teach her to swim since she was old enough to be allowed into the swimming pool. At least, there was the safety of the float then. She sighed inwardly.
“I can’t understand how a Naval officer’s daughter can’t figure out how to swim! All the other kids who started with you, have reached advanced levels and here is my daughter…”
Tara didn’t need to look at her father’s face to see his displeasure.
“I’m sorry papa, I’ll try again today”, came out a meek response from her, as he parked their second hand Fiat in the designated parking area. They had reached the club sooner than expected. Tara prayed fervently that the swimming pool was closed. There had been one such day in the past when the pool had been closed for maintenance and Tara hadn’t felt such joy and relief in ages! But that had probably been one of those one-in-a-million incidents, because the pool had remained ominously open ever since.
Ten years later, Tara stood staring at the clear turquoise blue chlorinated water. Nothing had changed.
Except that papa was not there anymore to berate her about her weakness and her fear of the water. She looked at the different swimmers in the pool, like she did everyday. Most of them swam like fish. And all of them looked comfortable being in the water. How she wished she could close her mind to all thoughts of being judged. How she wished she could look at the water and revel in its beauty instead of seeing a giant blue monster than would gulp her in a beat and leave her gasping for breath. Nothing could change the fact, that she had been visiting the swimming pool for over a decade now, and she still couldn’t swim.
“So what’s it going to be today? In or Out?”, a feminine voice whispered so close to her that she nearly jumped in fright.
“Excuse me?”, Tara turned around, bristling, thinking she had almost toppled over by the intrusion of this person and that she would give her a piece of her mind. That she wasn’t afraid of at all. Giving people a piece of her mind.
But before she could utter the next words, she saw the petite frame of a girl dive into the pool with the grace of a dolphin.
When she surfaced a few seconds later, she looked at Tara and grinned. The afternoon sun shone brightly behind the girl, so Tara couldn’t see her features clearly. But she knew who the girl was. She was a frequent in the swimming pool and one of the best swimmers Tara had known.
The girl, Vani, as others called her, swam in a few powerful strokes towards Tara, lifted herself up on the edge of the pool and sat down with her legs dangling in the water.
“I’ve been noticing you the last couple of weeks. You never go in. Why?”
“That’s none of your business.” Tara turned, about to go and change after another failed attempt at trying to enter the water and face her fears.
“I’m a really good teacher, if you want to learn how to swim!”, Vani almost shouted.
“You’re not an instructor. Look, I don’t have time for jokes or time to chat. Thanks for the offer.”
“C’mon, give it one chance. Give me just a day. If you feel uncomfortable at the end of one session, I’ll let you be. What’s your name?”
“Tara”, she blurted out, and then, surprisingly, said, “Ok”.
What had she done? Why did she say OK? What was wrong with her? This swimmer Vani, was probably going to make a fool of her.
“Splendid! See you tomorrow afternoon then!”
Tara wished Vani had forgotten all about her when she entered the swimming pool the next afternoon. But she knew, wishes never came true. So there was Vani, waiting for her.
“The first thing I want you to do, is simply dip your toes in the water.”
“You’re serious? I’m an adult. I don’t need to dip my toes in the water.”
“Just trust me on this!”, Vani laughed.
Tara sat down, and from that height, the water looked less ominous. Hmm, why hadn’t she thought of doing this ever? Oh, right, because papa had said dipping toes in the pool was for the oldies. She was here to learn how to swim, and the first thing you do is jump into the water - with or without a float.
The second day, Vani asked Tara to sit on the ladder that led into the swimming pool and let half of her legs inside the pool. They didn’t do anything else, just chatted, while Vani splashed water around and on Tara.
The third day, Tara hadn’t found any difficulty in climbing all the way down the steps and into the shallow end of the swimming pool, once she knew Vani could stand in the water. And Vani was shorter than Tara. She wondered again, why hadn’t anyone told her this was possible? Papa made her jump right into the deep end of the pool and had commanded her to start swimming.
“Everyone learns to swim when they’re drowning! It's called survival instinct. You fight or you suffer!” He had bellowed at her.
But even the instructors had advised to jump into the pool without floats, especially for the adults. How did Vani know this would make Tara comfortable?
A week later, Tara was paddling into the deep end with the help of a float. Vani had become a friend now, not an instructor.
She still didn’t know how to swim, but the water didn’t give her nightmares anymore. She smiled to herself as she paddled and realised, she might be finally above to redeem herself. For that day, when papa had to jump in to save her, and she had lost him to the crushing jaws of a giant wave, just because she couldn’t swim.