Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sand Mafias and Sunday Swims

Delhi's best swimming spots lie at its fringes, in the Asola-Bhati sanctuary along the Faridabad border. Decades of quarrying hollowed out vast jagged craters in the red soil of kikar forests, where nilgai and hyena roam. When concern for the environment led to a ban on quarrying in the 90s, this 35 sq. km. enclave was declared a protected area, and the cavities began to fill with rain water.

The finest of these water bodies, Bhardwaj Lake, lies about 4 km. from the nearest human settlement, so the water is unpolluted by human or industrial waste. Judging by the dimensions of other quarries in the south of Delhi, its depth is considerable, so the silt settles far below the swimmer, who has the exquisite pleasure of stroking through clear, fresh water under open skies, without having to drive too far from home. In the summer, the one hour walk to and from Bhardwaj Lake does seem something of a chore, and by September this year, I had abandoned it for ICTM 2, named after the College of Traffic Management, from which you can get to the water in a 20 minute trot.

The urban detritus of partying students litters the shore of ICTM 2, smashed beer bottles and shredded styrofoam cups, empty packets of chips and namkeen, cigarette stubs and plastic cutlery; inexplicably, even men's undergarments and fragments of sarees. But when you dive out into the water, it is cool, dark and clear, and in a minute, you are with your breath and your stroke, with the lowing of cattle on the far cliff and the wheeling of a kite high above the scrub. Even the silver glimmer of a jet that was held by the earth at Palam just minutes ago adds to the sense of being isolated, privileged.

One morning, when the sky was bright with post-monsoon freshness, we had just gathered our wet swimming things, and begun to cross the rocks to the path that climbs out of the lake. Yielding a stout lathi, a sinewy young man of about 20 bounded down the hill towards us, a wispy teenager in his wake. He didn't stop until he was within touching distance of me, and raised his lathi to block our path. "Chai-paani ko kharcha", he demanded.

"What for?" I asked.

"Anything could happen to you..." the old threat-promise that a gangster will protect you from himself.

"And who gave you the responsibility to protect us?", I asked.

"Bhadana."

The word meant nothing to me, so he explained, "Bhadana, MLA. You want to talk to him?" He reached for his cell phone.

"Sure," I shrugged. Our would-be protector dialled a number, and held the phone to his ear. "Can't get through... the network...."

The reference to a higher authority, the lack of a connection - the threat seemed to fade. We passed by him, even as he demanded his protection money, and threatened to meet us again.

The very next time I came to ICTM 2, the same young man was running down the rocky trail, running with an enviable animality and infectious joy. I smiled at him, and he responded, with an uncertain smile that couldn't quite summon up a grimace. Later, as Sharad and I were about to enter the water, he appeared by the rocks, and regarded me somewhat uncertainly. "Swim?" I asked him. "No." he shook his head.

We stroked away, and did a fast lap to the far bank and back. "You don't get tired?" he regarded me. "Your breath doesn't swell?" He was intrigued by this grey-haired old man. Intrigued, and challenged. "Let me find something", he muttered, and went off to beachcomb. By the time I surfaced on the far side, he was in the water, wearing discarded underwear from the ICTM 2 picnic spot. His young energy almost made up for his lack of technique, and he dog-paddled across to me, his breath rasping with the effort, his eyes alight with the joy of accomplishment. I waited for him to reach me, and kept him quiet company for a few seconds. "Very good. Not too tired?"
 "I never tire!"

I waited half a minute, then, "Let's head back." A strange companionship.

A few weeks later, the swimming season now coming to a close, I visited ICTM 2 with a band of hard-core athletes. One of my company was struggling to put on his wet-suit, the other setting his GPS-enabled watch to his triathlon target distance of 2 km., while I postponed  swapping my last warm layer for the cold water. A skinny man of about 30 drifted down to us, unshaven and unkempt, but very much at home.
"Going to swim?".
"Yes."
"You can't."
I wasn't sure whether that meant we shouldn't, or may not, so, "Oh, we swim here every week."
"You must be coming very early, but I don't allow any one to swim here. In fact, you're not even allowed to come here, if you read the board."
"Never saw the board", I said, now getting ready to wade in.

Half an hour later, my companions were doing their last lap, but I had conceded to the cold of the water, and was pulling on my fleece jacket. "You give me a hundred rupees each." Quite matter of fact.

"You live in Anangpur?" I asked him.
"Yes, but I work here. Looking after Bhadana's sand."
"Sand?"
"Yes, there's sand everywhere - didn't you know?"
I hadn't really noticed, but I guess...
"Yes, he employs me. One day, he will make this into a landscape to rival Gurgaon, or Delhi, with bright lights everywhere."
"Unlikely. The Central Government has declared this a nature reserve, and that's not going to change in a hurry."
"You're probably right. Anyway, the JCBs run through the night, and in the morning, we don't let people come in. But you swim really well, Uncleji."
By now, my friends were climbing out of the water, and I turned to help them gather their gear. The guard of sand piles faded up the hill. "Nice meeting you - see you soon."

I missed my swim the next weekend, attending to business in my mountain village, but as my friends crossed the road at the Traffic College, they encountered a slightly hysterical young woman in over-sized dark glasses and pink fleece jacket. "Don't go that way, we were mugged." Two friends followed, another girl, and their male companion. "We've called the police, and 'The Colonel'. The guy had a knife."

"I don't know who the Colonel is", my friend Mohit recounted the incident. "But Sanju's a big guy, and Sonny's 6'2", so we decided to keep going. To be safe, though, we headed all the way out to Bhardwaj Lake, where we've never seen any local activity."

All the same, we decided to scour the Google maps for another water body in which to log our swims. Economic benefit and political power make for strong vested interests, and when they co-opt the under-employed, you have the makings of systematic violence, which is hardly worth challenging for a weekend outing.








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