College Square was a modest park in the heart of the city, with a large pool in the middle. It was close to the university and seven minutes to walk from our home. Every morning, our father, determined that his sons should be adept in water, marched us there to receive swimming instruction from an experienced coach. Soon we were floating and then swimming. Initially afraid of water, I began to enjoy it.
The coach would time us. It wasn’t good enough to swim from end to end in the pool. One had to do it in a progressively shorter time. For a couple of days, it was fun to go faster and faster and try to beat my brother and other swimmers. Then I lost interest. My focus was on Biman. Biman was an ace swimmer. What was most striking about him was not his speed, but his style. The way he swam was a work of art. He swam smoothly, elegantly, almost flashily. Nobody swam like him.
Biman reminded me of Johny Weissmuller. Johny was a champion swimmer who won an Olympic gold medal and set fifty world records in the thirties. Hollywood hired him to play Tarzan in a dozen films. When he had to swim in several sequences, the coach told him, I read, he might have been good enough for Olympics but was not good enough for Hollywood. His swimming style wasn’t ‘showy’ enough. He had to revise his swimming style. I felt Biman could be in a film of derring-do and I wanted to swim like him.
I never accomplished that, but I developed a half-way decent style. I also learned to swim a modest distance – modest compared to guys who crossed the English Channel. More important, I developed a lifelong love of water.
In a few years, I was in college. Then the College Square park became an attraction of a different kind. Around the pool was a walkway. One could go around and have a decent walk in a crowded town. Several men and women went to the park and walked around the water. Many singly, some in groups. It was a veritable meeting ground of several older folk, for whom free options for recreation were scarce.
It became a convenient place to go with friends and chat while we walked. We didn’t usually have the money to go to the coffee house or restaurants nearby. The park provided a good alternative. If we were lucky, we would even find a free bench to sit and talk.
Soon I found a way to make the acquaintance of a few female students in the college. The park became a lifesaver for the numerous occasions when I wanted to engage some bewitching coed in a friendly palaver but did not have a coin in my pocket. What could be simpler and more innocent than to suggest a gentle walk beside a stretch of water, especially in a public park where one could not execute disreputable designs? If one was lucky, there could even be an unoccupied bench in a quiet corner.
With that tragi-comic story, a loss for Bengal but a win for women, I had persuaded a winsome coed to accompany me to the park and we were, thank Heavens, comfortably settled on a quiet corner bench. As we started talking, an older man sauntered in and took a seat at the other end of our bench. My friend was telling me of her plan to visit Delhi during the summer vacation, when the old man butted in and said that it would be supremely unwise as the capital would be quite intolerable in summer. She replied her cousin’s home was airconditioned, but the man said cheekily Delhi’s streets weren’t.
My friend ignored the remark and continued talking. A few minutes later, she told of her ambition to become a doctor and was about to explain her choice of pediatrics, when the old man turned again and commented that women are better advised to be nurses than doctors. Incensed, my friends demanded heatedly why that was so, since there were many first-rate female doctors. The man said that, numbers notwithstanding, women were sentimental and unstable and unsuited to the medical profession. This infuriated my companion, who responded that men like him were unreasonable misogynists who stood in the way of progress. After that, the discussion descended swiftly into a tirade.
Needless to say, I didn’t have much of a chance to say anything to my classmate, let alone have a pleasant conversation or extract the promise of a second date. The College Square park had its attractions all right, but admittedly also some significant traps.