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HindustanTimes Sat,23 Aug 2014
Twenty million people, just a handful of pools
Ayaz Memon
May 06, 2012
First Published: 01:30 IST(6/5/2012)
Last Updated: 01:32 IST(6/5/2012)

May's dog days take me back to the time when finding a swimming pool in the city, especially in south Mumbai, was a gruelling exercise in itself. In contrast, almost every new housing project in the city, if you read the ads, boasts a pool, even though most of these are probably not very large or deep.

Three or four decades ago, south Mumbai could not have had more than a dozen buildings with swimming pools. Offhand, I can think of only one: Darshan Apartments on Mount Pleasant Road. Most kids I grew up with looked to find friends living there - without much luck, I might add.

South Mumbai did have public swimming pools, but too few to service the island city's population of about three million people. Of the ones I knew about, the Mahatma Gandhi Olympic pool at Shivaji Park was the biggest. Then there was the pool at the YMCA in Agripada, recently re-opened after a marvellous makeover by conservationists, and the Kamgar pool at Elphinstone Road.

These pools were for the hoi polloi, and would therefore see a huge rush,   especially during summer vacations. So you had to live by the square foot in the water too, with little room to maneuver. Fortunately, I learnt to swim in Pune, where you could at least do a lap without getting into a mangle of other people's limbs.

The early story of swimming pools in Mumbai appears to be mired in class and sectarian divisions. Clubs such as the Bombay Gymkhana, the Cricket Club of India, Willingdon Club and National Sports Complex of India, all of which had swimming pools, were snooty conclaves (they still are) and only for the privileged. Others catered to specific communities. So Europeans had the Breach Candy Swimming Bath Trust at Warden Road, Hindus had the Pransukhlal Mehta Mafatlal Hindu Swimming Bath and Boat Club in Chowpatty and Parsis had the Golwala Bath at Backbay. Beyond the municipal pools, to get people not belonging to different communities or classes to swim together seemed almost impossible.

According to a story that appeared in Canada's Windsor Star newspaper on March 28, 1964, which I chanced upon while trawling the internet, all this changed when a sustained campaign by fiery trade unionist George Fernandes and others led to the Breach Candy club admitting non-whites once a week.

In 1964, as anger continued to simmer, members of the club decided that they had been unfair and lifted the ban. An Indian finally swam in the Breach Candy pool 90 years after the club came into existence. But that did not alleviate the problem altogether as some insensitive practices remained.

India, in case any of you have forgotten, got Independence in 1947, but some   'Indians and dogs not allowed' signs remained, leaving a very bitter taste in the mouths of most people, including well-thinking Europeans. The Breach Candy Club today, of course, does not have that offensive signboard and admits Indians as members.

But the Windsor Star report also held up a mirror to our society and its prejudices: It talked about Indian racism, of how a white American was not allowed into the Mafatlal Hindu bath even though he swore he had converted to Hinduism. The Star went on to say that "Parsis and Muslims had their own housing projects. Even the Catholics are not immune from discriminatory practices."

Considering how some housing societies discriminate against people of specific communities, not much seems to have changed. On the contrary, many communities today are aggressively maintaining their exclusivity.

But to get back to the sweltering summer, despite everything, swimming in Mumbai is still not as easy as it should be. While there is water all around, most of the coastline is full of raw untreated sewage, so you enter the sea at your own risk. Several new clubs have come up, but are open only to members. Sadly, there are only seven municipal pools across the island city and suburbs - wholly inadequate for a population of nearly 20 million.

That still leaves one with the option of moving into a building with a pool. While this comes at a price that might make a huge splash, it could also take the fun out of swimming.

When he is not following sport, Ayaz Memon writes about the city and its different worlds.


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