Orko was seven years old when he felt it the first time.
They had gone swimming, Orko and his mother, when he felt it the first time.
The day Orko learned to swim is etched upon his mind. His mother was already in the pool. Someone – he doesn’t remember who – tossed him into the shallow end. Orko remembers the shock from the cold water. The surface of the swimming pool gave way to his flailing body. He gasped, sputtered, and finally, conceded defeat. The water gurgled in his ears. As his toes made contact with the floor of the swimming pool, there was a deafening silence. He felt as if the rest of the universe had receded into oblivion, leaving him to his own devices. He remembers trying to shout for help, thinking, when the water rushed into his lungs, that he was going to die. He had no concept of time at that age, but it felt like he’d been under for a few minutes. Now, when he thinks about it, he realises that it could not possibly have lasted longer than a few seconds. His mother’s hands in his armpits. An eyeful of blue sky. Treading water, between bouts of abject terror.
“Calm down,” said his mother.
Orko stopped thrashing about, and suddenly, he found himself sinking again. Within a few minutes, though, he chanced upon a cadence that has remained with him to this day.
And so began Orko’s love affair with the pool. He would swim alongside his mother, pretending he was a baby whale, and his mother, the queen of the whales. He would follow her as she swam up and down the length of the pool. Then, he would peel off and swim on his own; for he was now the adult, and his two babies found these strait-jacketed laps boring. So they swam together, by themselves. Underwater. Across the lanes. Diagonally. In no particular direction at all. They would continue to swim, Orko and his pod, till Orko’s eyes were bloodshot from the chlorine, and his fingertips shrivelled up like forgotten grapes. In the end, his mother would drag him from the pool, and into the dressing room. He loved the dressing room, with its panels of polished wood, topped by a line of frosted glass that glistened with condensation. His mother would take him to the shower, a towel in her hair, another around her torso. After he showered, she would whisk him away to a cubicle, wipe him dry, and let him dress himself. Then he would run along, to the swing set in the playground. His mother would come out after a while, the fading light painting a tiara on her wet hair, her large jute bag slung over her shoulder. He liked it when she wore pants, because he wore pants too. They usually ate ice-cream. Orko liked strawberry; his mother, butterscotch. Then, they would walk down the driveway, a stream of cars coming at them, windows rolled up. Some blasted their startled horns; some just drove by, leaving them in their wake, as if they were invisible.
Everything changed that day; the day he felt it the first time. As usual, his mother had woken from her post-prandial nap at three. They had taken a rickshaw to the tram stop, then the 29 to Tollygunge. That day, the conductor had declined to issue a ticket for Orko, telling his mother that babies didn’t need tickets. Orko remembers saying that he was not, as a matter of fact, a baby – he was occupying a whole seat, and he knew how to swim. They got off the tram and walked into the club, like they always did. Just as they were about to go into the dressing room, Orko felt a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m afraid he can’t go in there,” said a voice. It was a woman’s voice; stern, like his Bengali teacher’s.
“But he always comes in with me,” said his mother. “He’s only seven!”
“I don’t know about that – I can’t let him into the ladies dressing room. He needs to go down there,” said the woman, pointing down the hallway. “Around the corner.”
Orko’s mother let out a cluck of resignation. Orko wanted her to come to his defence. Instead, she fished out his swimming trunks from her bag. She walked him to the door of the gentlemen’s changing rooms, and motioned for him to go in.
“I’ll be in the pool,” she said. “Don’t jump into the deep end if you can’t see me.”
“You’re a big boy now. It’ll be all right. You’ll see,” she said, with a smile, her fingers combing his unruly hair to one side.
Orko was about to push the door open, when it swung outwards, startling him. A man came out, wearing only his swimming trunks, a gold chain around his neck, and a gold watch on his right wrist. Orko made his way past the man. There was another door, down a short flight of stairs. Orko opened the door, expecting to find the showers on the left, and a neat row of cubicles on the right.
There were no cubicles. He found himself in a large hall, lined with benches. There were men, and boys, of all shapes and sizes. Some were taking their clothes off. Some were putting their clothes on. Two boys were laughing about something as they dried themselves. A young man slapped another on the back. Two men were completely naked. One of the naked men had hair everywhere. On his chest. On his neck. On his knuckles. On his ears. In his crotch. His penis looked shockingly large. Orko wondered how it fit in his pants. The hairy man walked about nonchalantly, in no particular hurry to dress himself. The noise was deafening. Orko wanted to run away. He remembered his mother’s words. He was a big boy now. He looked over his shoulder before stripping off his t-shirt and his shorts. In his underwear, he wrapped a towel around himself, gripping the edges in his armpits. One of the boys sniggered at him, took off his own underwear and stood completely naked, as if to show him how it was done.
Orko gave up. He hurriedly put his clothes back on. His t-shirt was inside out. He ran from the dressing room. He did not belong there. He did not want to grow up and have hair all over his body, in his armpits, and in his crotch. He didn’t want a penis that wouldn’t fit into his underpants. He didn’t want to be slapped on the back. He didn’t want to walk bare-chested from the swimming pool, water dripping from his hairy knuckles. The very thought disgusted him. He no longer wanted to swim.
He ran to the pool, and waited near the foot bath for his mother. When she arrived, in her navy swimming costume and her yellow swimming cap, Orko rushed to her, in tears. Orko’s mother picked him up, his head nestling in her breast as he sobbed uncontrollably.
“What happened, baby? Did someone hurt you?” she asked. Her voice sounded like it did the time when he had come home all bloodied from a fall. All Orko saw was navy blue. He could smell her now, and he finally felt the sobs die down.
“Ma, can’t I be a girl?” he asked. He knew his mother wouldn’t turn him down. It wasn’t like he was asking for fizzy drinks, or a toy gun. He knew his mother would never give him those. This was much simpler. All he had to do was grow his hair long, and buy new clothes. Maybe for Pujo. He could wait till Pujo.
His felt a murmur in his mother’s breast. It reminded him of the time he had woken up from a horrible nightmare, unable to move, his heart pounding away, ready to explode.
“Why on earth do you want to be a girl?” she asked finally. “You’re going to grow up, and be an important man, like your father. You’re going to rule the world.”
“But I don’t want to rule the world,” said Orko. “I want to be like you.”
They didn’t swim that day. His mother bought him ice cream, and they walked hand in hand to the gate, strawberry and butterscotch.