One of my most thrilling childhood memories is of jumping into a village pond in a place called Gadiara. We lived in Calcutta then, and although the city brims with ponds and tanks and lakes, I had never so much as dangled my feet in any of them. Because who would let a girl go swimming in such a public place? Or perhaps it was upper middle class sanction: I never saw anyone but boys swimming in Poddopukur or Dhakuria Lake, but they were probably poor. In any case, Gadiara, though only a few hours’ drive, seemed aeons away from Calcutta. The government rest house sat sleepily at the junction of the Hooghly and the Rupnarayan, and there was nothing to do except wait for sunset. Some enthusiasts, like my father, went shopping for fresh prawns for lunch, while another of the adults, an “uncle” I didn’t know well, initiated this marvellous dive for the kids. Oddly enough, I don’t remember anyone swimming in the river. I suppose the pond was shallower and safer: Diving Uncle created much excitement by digging out two live molluscs from the squelchy pond bed.
I was eight then. I’ve never swum in a river or pond since, though I have enviously watched from the sidelines as mixed groups of children splashed about, in the rushing Bringhi at Daksum, Kashmir, in the clear-as-glass waters of the Periyar at Kodanad, Kerala, and in the boulder-strewn Betwa at Orchha, MP.
All this came back to me when I read a piece from the Guardian archive, about British women gaining the right to swim in natural water bodies in the UK. “Few realise the hard work that their mothers and grandmothers have had to get the taboo removed from fresh-water swimming for women,” wrote Margaret Nevinson on 24 July, 1930.
It may seem, at first glance, a very frivolous thing to fight for. “The right to swim” doesn’t quite have the sonorous ring of “the right to vote”, or “the right to work”. But like we’ve finally begun to understand that loitering is essential to an equal right to the street, it seems to me that the freedom to swim where we like is part of our right to the universe.
“I remember how bitter it was in our childhood to be told,” Nevinson wrote, “when we saw our brothers going joyously out to swim in any river or pond handy: ‘Little ladies may only bathe in the sea; God made the canals and rivers for boys. You are very rude girls to want to go.’” In one egregious case from the summer of 1881, “a poor woman of Coal Court, Drury Lane, was seen bathing in the lake, arrested at once by a scandalised policeman, and dragged before a magistrate, while 200 male persons were left happily swimming.” As late as 1929, a woman was fined for swimming in the Serpentine.
One reason freshwater swimming was an all-boys’ thing seems to have been the assumption that women in bathing suits would cause a “public sensation”: the “public”, of course, being imagined as entirely male. Thus, efforts to get some Heath ponds in North London opened for women were met with mockery from the men on the committee: “The crowds would be so great on the banks that people would be crushed to death, and the tramways and North London Railway would run special excursions to see such a sight.” It is a spectacular irony that in January 2015, British newspapers reported that half a million women — more than three times as many women as men — stopped swimming between 2005 and 2014, and research suggested that body image issues were responsible. The world for women really has come full circle.
Interestingly, a dip in the sea wasn’t off-limits for British women, even in the 19th century. In India, village women regularly bathe and wash in ponds and streams. But barring Goa and perhaps a few other secluded beaches, women still don’t swim in the ocean. How many times have I walked the length of a beach, watching bare-bodied men and boys in the water while the women and girls sit on the sand in torturous self-denial, or paddle fully-clothed. Even if some gather the courage to dive in, there are other problems. On beaches in Kerala and Maharashtra, I have managed to arrive wearing swimwear under my regular clothes and sneak a swim before any men notice — only to then find there’s nowhere to change out of my dripping things.
Loitering is essential to an equal right to the street, and the freedom to swim where we like is part of our right to the universe.
So on a recent trip to Tel Aviv, I was thrilled to find free showerheads on practically every city beach. And the best part? These hand-cranked showers are right on the sand, with just a cement platform to stand on. No doors, no walls, no floors to keep clean — and no prying eyes to keep away. Since everyone’s fully visible as they shower, no one takes too long, no one carries soap and shampoo and such paraphernalia, and no one tries to ogle — you could stare right back if they did. Admittedly you can’t strip at these open showers, but you can get the sea water out of your hair (and the caking salt off your arms) before drying off in a deckchair and then putting on your clothes.
Of course, the very idea that you can hang about on the beach in your swimsuit assumes the absence of oglers. But surely if we started a movement — if all the women on every Indian beach decided to take to the water, there’d be too many of us to ogle? And let’s build some open showers and paid toilets while we’re at it. Female public, any takers?