The year was 1997, when the whole world was emptying its eyes and noses in kerchiefs and tissues, choked up with emotion, watching two fictional characters bidding their farewells in James Cameron's epic chick-flick 'Titanic'. The world couldn't get enough of the tale of the doomed ocean liner and the sob story of the star crossed lovers so much so that the box office witnessed its first ever billion dollar return on investment. Not to be outdone by the fast talking, gum chewing and 'like' word obsessed teenage crowd, I too contributed my mite towards the cause with no less than 3 paid visits to the auditorium. 'It was to observe the craft', I cheated myself, sounding just as ridiculous as someone making the 'reading Playboy for its articles' argument. Now that the statute of limitations have passed on the terms of embarrassment, I can wholeheartedly agree that I watched the movie as much for the love story as for its stunning technical achievements (watching the stern of the ship rise above the surface of the water to reveal its gigantic propellers on a 70mm screen was alone worth the price of the admission). Familiarity may breed contempt, as per the adage, but it also uncovers a lot of hidden facets in the subject in question that one can turn to his advantage. The realization didn't come to me during the first two viewings, as Rose was delicately balancing herself on some drift wood in the middle of the freezing ocean on a dark wintry night, and Jack was trying to hold on to her waging a losing battle on hypothermia, and talking to her through her distress. And when I was watching the same sequence the third time around, a couple of thoughts distracted me from the action on the screen. First, why in the world couldn't Jack find another piece of furniture floating around and climb on it, instead of soaking in the freezing water and trying to die a photogenic hero's death. It was more a rhetorical thought, I knew, for there would be no movie(s) if characters acted wisely, responsibly and logically, as in real life. But it was the second thought that troubled me the most. WWID?
What Would I Do, given the same situation - a scuttling ocean liner, a damsel in distress, who also happens to be very comely, very single, and importantly, very much attracted to me (I tried substituting the damsel with my own female form, but the thought lacked the necessary sense of danger and excitement. So if it was a hypothetical situation anyway, why dump the domestic elements into a fantasy fraught with fright?). Back to WWID. Take the route of self-preservation or die a noble heroic death, both of which needed something that I was most ignorant of and least bit adept at - knowledge of swimming. Born and raised in the concrete jungles, I had neither the opportunity nor the facilities to master the skill, that some call it even art, and now when I needed it the most, all I could do was pray and hope that the mermaid myth was true after all. It is amazing how most of us are least bit prepared for this eventuality, and even more astounding that a tiny body of water that is only a foot deeper than our heights can potentially end our lives. If I were to be a Jack someday, I better do something than wildly flail my arms, gulp mouthfuls of water and sink faster than that leviathan. The movie, the third time around, sounded a warning and served as the right wake up call. I couldn't waste any more time. I enrolled myself in a nearby aquatic center and tried to take the bull by its horns. Rose, here I come. Little did I realize that in swimming, like in golf, the biggest and the strongest opponent that you have in the field is YOU.
The first day at the pool was, expectedly, very exciting. I guess it had something to with the natural affinity that the human body, loaded with water, has to any bigger body of water. Our instructor first separated us into two groups - those that sank like a stone immediately upon contact with water and ones that took a couple of seconds more for the same desired effect - and led us stones to a springboard to teach us a bit or two about overcoming the scare of H2O first. The pool was only about 4 feet at its deepest end where most of us wouldn't sink even if we wanted to. He asked us to get to the end of the board, use the spring and drop gently into the pool that was just a few feet down. At this point I want to remind that though 'danger' is not my middle name, I am not risk averse either, considering the occasional running of the red light driving through thoroughfares. But the mere thought of jumping from about 4 feet high into the pool down below made me go extremely weak in knees, letting a few butterflies out of their gastro-intestinal nets, however much the instructor goaded on from the sidelines. That was when I realized that I couldn't do some things in my life however much I wanted to - caress a leather ball through the covers like Sourav Ganguly, sing like the heavens beckoned like S.P.Balasubramanyam, or jump off any surface, however tall/short, into water. In short, I had fear of water, well, fear of drowning, to be precise. The possibility of the sinking scared me straight than the plausibility of such occurrence, even in such a highly controlled environment. If you are afraid of something, you have to do exactly the same, goes a motivational self-hypnotic technique. Fear of heights? Ride a roller coaster. Fear of public speaking? Take the dais more often, even if you fail a couple of times. Similarly, fear of water? Deep dive into a pool from a mile high platform. It was only then I realized the futility (in fact, lack of practicality) in the 'doing the opposite' approach to get over a phobia. Easier said.
Walking gingerly along the perimeter of the pool, I finally managed to find a spot that was only a little more than knee-deep and took my first steps towards a formal education in the art of graceful swimming ('A small step for the beginners, a giant leap for the Kanchibhotla kind'). As luck would have it, our instructor was a hard boiled variety, one who had seen too many Hollywood movies (specially the ones with the strict drill instructors imparting discipline in the wayward cadets during the basic training in military) and somehow came to the conclusion that scaring the hell out of the beginners straight away was the best way to rid their fears. Unfortunately, life isn't a montage sequence, where people turn out to be experts, starting off as stupids, at the end of one inspirational song. 'If you want to learn swimming, prepare to drown' growled the instructor as he walked up and down looking straight into our eyes. I resisted the temptation to break it to him that all I wanted was to learn swimming and not join the Navy SEALs. The first few days of our training involved taking a deep breath and getting under the surface of the water, and staying there for however long we could hold our breaths. If one could see past the pain and the panic of the cadets at the moment, it offered a pretty funny sight. A total of 10-15 heads dropped down at around the same instant, and just like that, they kept popping up randomly all over , like in that whack-a-mole game. Turned out, my lung capacity was worse than a 2 year old's. The moment I ducked under the surface, the thought of some unknown hand dunking me in and keeping my head down rushed in from all quarters in a flash, and it was almost always my mind that gave away first/fast than my breath. And our Hollywood drill sergeant wasn't letting anyone cut this exercise short and rush to the other side of the pool, where real swimming, the moving arms and the kicking feet kind, was going on. Day after day, it was the same dreary exercise - breathe in, duck, breathe out, get out. Any lesson can only be as good as its teacher. Needless to say, I gave up after the first few days, vowing never to return again (which also suited me well, phobia-cally speaking) grading the instructor with a spiteful 'F'. Rose would had to wait for a few more years.
It is amusing to note how much movies contributed to the shaping of my survival skills. If it was 'Titanic', back in the day, that spurned me to brave the cold waters of an indoor pool, it was another Hollywood production 'Open Water' that scared me straight into confronting my old nemesis - water - all over again. The premise of the movie was quite simple (and worse, very plausible as it was a true story to boot). A couple gets accidentally left behind in an open sea by their scuba team, and the movie is about their harrowing experience bobbing like buoys in the seas trying to survive in the infested waters. Rescuing Rose was a luxury that I could afford to forgo. But when it came to saving my own skin, swimming (well, learning it first) became an absolute necessity all over again. And the kind of global/domestic travel that almost every other job in the present day work place warrants and mandates, finding oneself stranded in the middle of waters didn't require too much of suspension of disbelief. What if your plane crashes in the middle of an ocean, and you are sole life-jacket wearing survivor left alive (only because you were attentive enough during the safety precautions demonstration by the cabin crew, and the rest were plainly ignoring the hapless demonstrators, treating them like a little more than mild irritants)? What if the bus you were in drove off a bridge and plunged into a raging river down below because the driver dozed off in the middle of the night, and here too, you were the sole survivor (only because you were wise enough to grease the palms of the driver and get yourself a seat next to the emergency exit)?...and so on and so forth with a variety of vehicles and similar such scary scenarios where you can find yourself in the middle of an open water, holding on to your dear life, with little more than your shirt on the back, and a prayer in the heart.
This time around with a new instructor in a new pool at a new place, I spelled out my goals quite clearly to the instructor. It was very simple - plain survival. I didn't care about the beautiful butterfly strokes or the bare knuckle freestyle bouts. I wanted my head above the water at all times, and more importantly, I should be able to breathe with least amount of interruptions. I had neither the will nor the skill to swim open seas or collect Olympic gold medals. If I could just manage out there until help arrived, my time and energy (and money) at the pool were more than well spent. This time the instructor was a fellow countryman who understood the mindset and the modest ambition. He asked me to get into the pool (no breathing, no holding, no prerequisites whatsoever) and lay on my stomach face full in the water, limbs stretched out. And before I came out gasping for breath, he flipped me on my back, like some pancake, and instructed me to bring the limbs together, stare at the ceiling, and start flapping the legs up and down right away ever so gently. Lo and behold! I was floating, ladies and gentlemen, and even moving a bit here and there. Granted, I would have no sense of direction floating on the back, in an open sea, but then again, how would it help knowing my exact bearings (latitude and longitude) in the middle of an ocean even if I were an expert swimmer anyway? Thanks to my revised targets, for all practical purposes, I was a swimmer and not a sinker.
The situation reminded of a childhood joke about a country bumpkin who got a chance of touring England and visiting the Queen, equipped only with enough English to know the meaning of 'come here'. When asked by a fellow yokel as what he would do if he had say 'go there', our wise sage thought for a second and replied, 'I would go to the other side and say 'come here''. Same went with my swimming.
Now all I had to do to save my Rose is lie still on my back, order her to do the same, gently kick the legs exerting/expending as little effort as possible, all the while grabbing her by her hair, and holding on to it for dear life (for the both of us). That would do for now (and then)!