I was named after a swimming pool.
Quite peculiar considering my parents never took to water.
(Life of Pi, Charles Martel, chapter 3)
A water world:
Although water is everywhere in Indians’ lives and although water is a sign of purity par excellence, swimming is not so common. Worshippers plunge themselves into sacred lakes or rivers, but they hardly ever swim and prefer to wade in shallow water.
Such a lack of swimming skills can be fatal in areas where boats are used everyday to go from a place to another. On board lifejackets sometimes go missing and the number of lifeguards is unsufficient. In 2009, journalist and novelist Preety Shenoy showed on her blog how upset she was after the Thekkady boat tragedy; a tourist boat had sunk in a lake in Kerala, causing the deaths of about 40 people out of 80 passengers.
« However what really strikes me as I write this post, is that so many of them could have saved themselves had they known how to swim. The shore isn’t ‘unreachable’. For a person who knows swimming , it is really not hard to swim to safety. «
Swimming, a western tradition:
In many parts of India, swimming has never been a recreational practice.
People who live in urban areas and more precisely people from the lower or middle class, have very few opportunities to swim unless they pay the price. Even when you live by the sea, going swimming may not be a usual activity, in particular because beaches are not always fitted for swimmers.
Akshay Kumar – a Bollywood actor, he’s so keekee! Well, that’s not the point! – stated in an interview to Nri Pulse: ”Most Indians don’t know how to swim, though not due to any fault of their own because they are not given the opportunity to learn.”
Contrary to Europeen countries, swimming is not part of the national school curriculum. For a long time, sport was not a priority in education and in families, money was used for something else than learning to swim.
In addition, let’s not forget that most of people are culturally and religiously timid and it would be extremely indecent to wear a swimsuit on a public beach. (Have you ever noticed Indian people who take photos with their mobiles when they see gori girls basking in their bikinis in Goa? ) My Hindi teacher explained that the English word « beach » itself, was used by the Indians but had quite a pejorative connotation, implying something like « a place where people hang around naked » So, when people go to the seaside, they have grilled fish, candy floss, or go splashing about keeping their clothes on, the hubbies holding firmly their wives’ hands.
In Rupinder Gill’s novel On the Outside Looking Indian, the author humourously explains: Indians don’t swim. They don’t have cottages, they don’t go on cruises, and they are rarely seen basking in the sun at the beach. Indian girls especially don’t swim, because only a fool would think that learning a lifesaving skill is more important than keeping your body hidden forever. No doubt the Indian women’s swimming team practises in full snowsuits with matching glittery bracelets. This was a life skill I had just assumed I would never have; it was time to change that thinking.
(This article continues after the photo…)
Swimming in the Kingdom of Cricket:
For all these reasons, swimming has not really been considered as an important kind of sport in India. India is not a very sporty country yet (just take a look at their Olympic teams for example), despite their performances in cricket, field hockey, tennis or archery (I have left regional sports aside deliberately).
However, Swimmers exist even if they have sometimes difficulties to stand out:
Marathon swimmer Kutral Ramesh, despite being in the Guiness Book of Records for crossing five channels in a year at the age of twelve (including the English Channel and Andaman Channel) had to stop his career because he could not find any sponsorships.
The sports awareness and the infrastructure are quite bad in our country. Going further, the prize money has to increase, else it is not sustainable. In Australia or US, an average sports guy makes much better than an engineer at Google. But take the case of India. An average sports man can’t make a living. He hardly earns anything with sports, the swimmer said to Coffee with Sundar.com.
Even seventeen-year-old champion Virdawal Khade had difficulties finding financial support until he was qualified for the Olympics!
The web’s protest:
As a comfortable French municipal-pool goer, I decided to ask their opinion to Indians or India’s inhabitants on Forums about India (EDIT: I have withdrawn their link because they talked to me as if I was sh**, so I won’t promote their forum! My tolerance is limited!). My thread was really successful and the debate animated; that is what happens when a question does not have one answer but several.
According to most of them, saying that « Indians can’t swim » is wrong; and « one mustn’t generalize ».
Of course! It is like saying that the French can’t play cricket and yet… Click!
Some of the India Mikers took the example of these picturesque scenes of young boys diving and swimming in lakes, rivers or wells, washing their water buffaloes, the kind of scenes you can see when you walk around the countryside or when you simply watch a documentary about India on television.
However, a few posts further, a Delhi inhabitant remarked that children often dived or splashed about but did not always swim. So, could they really swim if they were in a pool?
Another-one stated that even women swam, in their saris or salwar kameez, but as they were concerned about hiding from strangers’ eyes, people were not able to see them. An Indian boy took the example of his countryside granny who swam like a fish.
Of course, I understand these remarks, like in every other country, people who live by the water tend to learn how to swim by themselves, following their instinct or helped by their relatives. Especially when it is a question of live or death.
On her blog, Preeti Shenoy illustrates this point by telling how she learned to swim when she was a girl and went to Kerala on holidays: « I too learnt to swim in this very river. The current was stong. Summer vacations were always spent at Kerala. My dad would take me and my brother along with numerous cousins. We were the ‘city dwellers’, the ‘softies’. They were all excellent swimmers as they had lived there. » Then she concludes her article by saying that if the Indian government doesn’t do too much, Indians themselves, those who are reading her blog, should act and teach their children how to swim.
Finally, as far as the boat capsizing issue is concerned, my dear forumers from India Mike considered that being able to swim is often of no use as the currents are too powerful. One of them explains in gory details all the different ways of dying in water; hypothermia, bullshark attacks, exhaustion, long distance from the shore and so on… (This article continues after the photos…)
But of course, things change fast in India.
In addition to the swimming-pools in luxury hotels where people from the upper class can practise swimming, more and more private pools are built in wealthy areas. Well-off Indian people travel abroad and enjoy basking and bathing on beaches.
They have realised the importance of sports for their health and figure and swimming is now considered as good as training in Fitness Clubs or jogging on Marina Beach. Consequently, more and more Indian families send their children to learn how to swim in Summer Camps because they think it is fun and useful.
As regards education, Indian states have started to organize swimming programmes in government schools, like in Madurai where four pools are at the students’ disposal for swimming coaching.
Obviously, the consequence of the spreading of public and private pools in the country is the question of security. Thus, safety norms about the number of lifeguards required and the depths of the pools are regularly discussed in the media.
Rural areas are improving too. Even if a certain number of youngsters learn how to swim in the waterbodies near their villages, associations and local authorities think that is not enough at all. Different solutions have been found such as teaching parents rescusitation techniques in case of drowning. Other simple ideas have been suggested such as putting bells on children when the Monsoon rains start to be threatening.
At last, the importance of swimming has begun to appear in international events: Sport Schools bet on challenging sports. For instance, GoSports, based in Bangalore, discovered and supported champion Virdawal Khade who has been the youngest Indian to qualify for the Olympics.
In 2008, India sent a team of four swimmers for the first time to the Olympic Games. And this year, in London, four Indian young men will represent swimming India again and I hope they will do it, supported by the whole Indian people living in England!
*Someone commented this article by saying that my figures were wrong and that I had just taken stats on Google instead of searching “real” stats and that Africa had the highest number of drownings… Ok, thank you for encouraging me! But I agree to say that these figures may not be 100% reliable, so, let’s be prudent!
Click on the pictures to see which website they are from.
The French translation is online!