“You don’t know how to swim?”
No trip to the beach or water park is complete without this question being lobbed at me, requiring an explanation, for the millionth time, why, despite having lived near a beach practically all my life, I do not know how to swim.
But I’m not alone. Not being able to swim is something common to a lot of desis.
Swimwear has a lot to do with it. What would be considered appropriate swimwear in the West is not considered appropriate attire for cultural and religious reasons, whether for men or women. Besides, it is extremely difficult, not to mention decidedly unsafe, to swim in desi attire – think of those flowing, long tunics and yards of scarves billowing out in the water and snagging on everything.
Then there’s the matter of women romping about in the water in the presence of men. In desi culture, that is just not done. With little or no access to women-only beaches or swimming pools, it’s not surprising that very few women know how to swim, compared with men.
And in the subcontinent, where the focus has traditionally been on academics and not so much on extra-curricular activities, if the kids are going to get coached in anything, it’s probably maths or science. Maybe even music. But activities such as swimming are seen as unnecessary.
Times are changing, though, and today plenty of desi kids – both at home and abroad – have taken like fish to water. In fact, swimming has become a part of the curriculum in a lot of schools. “Women’s only” beaches and pools and modest swimwear, such as the Burqini, Veilkini and MyCozzie, mean more and more desi women can learn and enjoy swimming.
But whether or not they can swim, desis still know how to make good use of the seaside.
Take Karachi, for example. When you venture out to the Clifton or Sea View beaches there, you may spot the occasional swimmer if you’re lucky, but what you will always find are dozens of families frolicking in the water but not venturing too far out. The seaside culture there has less to do with swimming and more to do with being a place to shoot the breeze, with the added benefit of the kids being able to splash around in the water at no extra cost, because public swimming pools are either few and far between or prohibitively expensive.
But the seaside offers all that plus other easily accessible, affordable pleasures: cotton candy, freshly roasted peanuts, camel rides, balloons and the occasional snake charmer or Ferris wheel. And, of course, watching the sun set while enjoying a hot cup of chai.
So, the next time you go to Jumeirah or Saadiyat beach and see a group of fully dressed desis frolicking in the waves, yeah, they probably don’t know how to swim. But it will never stop them from making the most of the seaside.
The writer is an honest-to-goodness desi living in Dubai