India’s Republic Day is also Australia Day. Apparently 26th January was a bad day for the English Empire. The long weekend brings an influx of Indian tourists where they walk the beach gawking at white girls in bikinis and hippies spinning poi and spiritualists meditating at sunset. Middle class Indian teenagers in western clothes overindulge on Kingfisher Strong and dark pink alcopops and the nights are punctuated by raucous laughter and raised voices.
We escape over the headland to the next beach, retreating from the midday sun to the thatched roof shade of a beach front café where we play cards and talk about life, foreign and domestic. We wonder at the hysterical excitement of the holiday makers playing in the waves. Is this a natural outlet from a repressive society? Or just a fun fair attraction for young men who cannot swim? The softly breaking waves no higher than a metre roll indulgently toward shore yet the access points to every beach are marked with dire warnings about whirlpools and drowning.
I learned to swim reluctantly. My parents were forced to reprimand the staff of my summer camp when they discovered I was refusing swimming lessons in favour of retaining my inflatable arm bands and jumping repeatedly into the arms of an adult in the pool. I still remember the burden of kickboards and lap lanes and endless repetitions under the scorching blue of sky. Now I love to swim, but only in the ocean; a phenomenon I could not quantify until adulthood. The sting of chlorine in my eyes and on my skin give swimming pools unpleasant associations and stagnant algae and grasping clammy grasses make me dubious of lakes. But diving fingers first into an approaching swell and ululating like a fish against its pull is a weightless breathless sightless heaven where my mind occupies itself contently with counting breaths and strokes.
As the shadows on the beach lengthen my eagerness outgrows my patience and I hurry ahead of my friends to lay my sarong on the sand and strip off my dress. I am five steps into the ocean before my instincts ring loud enough to slow me down. The domestic tourists on our beach were a fairly cosmopolitan bunch; families and students, men and women. Standing with the water lapping at my shins I face the shark eyed gaze of two dozen young men from some local village. Men barely more than boys who shriek like children as the swells break over their shoulders, who will emerge from the ocean in their limp grey boxers to dress in the local uniform of button-down shirts and lunghis. Young men for whom white nearly naked women are unimaginable creatures to be stared down, photographed and possibly prodded. India is not a country of personal space or boundaries. Being stared at is an everyday occurrence no matter what you wear. Bikini-clad on a beach in Kerala I became aware of a presence making ever smaller circles around me and looked up to see a young man with a lecherous grin wagging a floppy penis at me over the band of his shorts. Village boys in Rishikesh for the Shiva festival followed my pale blue eyed Irish friend and I swarming ever closer until her soft-spoken Please don’t touch me unleashed the Jersey in me and I shoved him away shouting No no no no no! But until this weekend foreign tourists had so vastly outnumbered locals on our beaches that bikinis had become acceptable public attire and I’d been comfortably stripping down to my underwear after morning yoga to dive into the sea.
I’d been heading for a gap between two of the groups but the space has narrowed as these men, all eyes on me, the only women (let alone white woman) in the water, move as if to intercept my entry. I take another step and the gap shrinks again. I turn to look back at the shore and wait as Henry arrives at the waters’ edge suddenly remembering the story I’d heard a few days earlier about a fight that had nearly erupted on this beach when a young Indian groped an Israeli tourist in the water. Her boyfriend ran into the water but each man pointed at the other and the tide of violence receded. –I think I need protection. –What? -I think I need protection. He turns his head and sees the gangs in the water, the narrowing gap between them, and nods. As he draws level and I turn back toward the water and the space, once fifty feet wide has narrowed to fifteen as twenty-four male bodies close the distance between them and me. Water breaks around my hips one of the boys at the back of the group on my left starts a messy front crawl towards our line of entry and Henry breaks off his idle chatter to ask – Shall we swim for it? I nod take two fast strides to waist depth and dive under the surface pulling hard until my heart begins to nudge my lungs for breath. I count four strokes, then eight, then ten, then twelve and finally surface twenty-five feet from the line of depth where toes can still touch the sand. They’ve turned away from me now and Henry paddles up to meet me. – That was hilarious. When you dove under they all started looking around like, “where’d she go?” We float on our backs for a while chatting but when the one with the messy freestyle realizes we have stopped swimming out he begins splashing in our direction. I put more distance between us with a lazy breaststroke while continuing the conversation and he stops but once we are still again he continues his approach until eventually I cut Henry off. – Ok, I feel unsafe so I’m going to go in. Henry looks vaguely mystified – Well I don’t think you should feel unsafe but ok. I turn back towards the line of bodies in the water which, one by one by two by four, turn to watch us approach. Mario, whose skin color allows him to pass as Indian, is wading into the swell and I slow my approach until he’s only a short hard swim from the swarm, take a deep breath and plunge my face into the water in a hard angular crawl toward him. My feet hit the sand a few feet in front of him and stride out of the water – Wait for Bruna, Mario. I pass Bruna and her inquisitive eyes on her way to the water’s edge – Be careful in there and stretch out on my sarong wondering what will dry first, my skin or my adrenaline. Henry comes to sit on the sand beside me – If you want to try going back in let me know, and while we chat I watch Bruna, a less vulnerable target with her “Indian” escort, paddle into the water. –You could always hold them under water you know. –Why would I want to assault someone if I don’t have to? But Henry’s comment makes me think about relative strength and instinctive responses to danger and I fall quiet for a while.
By sunset the local element has gone home and I swim unburdened toward the setting sun sinking into the horizon. The next morning our beach is quiet while I practice my morning yoga. I strip down to my underwear and swim out to a rock face that juts out of the water on the far side of the bay. I climb up and stretch out on the stone to catch the sun. A young Indian man swims beneath me struggling to pass the breaking waves as the currents swirl against the rock. He gives up quickly and turns back to shore. I have a sudden vision of myself seen from below; water sprite or mermaid, mythical sea creature with pale salty skin and incomprehensible ways. He is long gone when I dive off the rock into the water and swim back to the beach where I chat amicably with a gypsy boy selling necklaces of semi-precious stones. Back in my guest house, a collection of huts in the jungle behind a beach-front restaurant, a young Albanian woman with relationship troubles asks me –Are you traveling alone? And I reply with a smile –Well I came to India alone but I haven’t been alone since.