The swimming pool with a seven-hour wait to get in
- 20 July 2014
- From the section Magazine
As Delhi swelters in temperatures of more than 40C, residents are going to extreme lengths to keep cool - but getting access to the public swimming pool takes dedication, perseverance and an 04:00 wake up call.
It's hot in Delhi. So hot, my bathroom is a permanent sauna. So hot, that a giant scented candle I left on the terrace has dissolved into goo. So hot that water, even from the cold tap, comes out steaming.
Sadly, there are few public places you can go for relief from the searing heat, so when a friend suggested we join the government-run sports complex, featuring an Olympic-sized swimming pool, I jumped at the chance.
A three-month membership costs less than a meal at one of Delhi's swanky restaurants but getting that membership is an Olympic feat in itself. To succeed, you must have the stamina to beat hundreds of rivals on the one day each month that membership is thrown open to the public.
So on the last Monday of June, my husband and I left home just before 05:00 under a crescent moon. We drove through Delhi's normally loud, teeming streets but when we approached the high, locked gates of the sports complex, we found hundreds of people had already beaten us to it.
There was no queue - there rarely is in India. Instead, an angry crowd thronged the gate, yelling at the security guards on the other side.
At issue was a list, drawn up unofficially by the crowd. People had been adding their names to it since 22:00 the night before. So great is the competition for membership, people wanted to be sure they'd gain entry in the order their names appeared on the list. But the guards were refusing to honour it.
Exploiting the divisions, latecomers were passionately questioning the list's legitimacy.
"There's no procedure," people shouted. "They do it differently every time - sometimes they follow the list, sometimes they don't," one man complained.
About an hour into this fracas, an older gentleman with a moustache and beard appeared, addressing the crowd through the gates.
Of course, with all the noise, no one heard what he said, but he was apparently the retired colonel in charge of the membership process.
Shortly afterwards, the guards did use the disputed list, but only to admit 100 people through the gates instead of the usual 400, without any explanation.
People screamed. Some tried to push their way through the gate. Others tried to squeeze through the gaps in the bars.
The crowd turned on an older lady who arrived to relieve her driver who'd been holding her place in the queue. She protested, saying: "How can I queue for hours when I have trouble standing?" but she was shown little mercy.
Finally, fearing a riot, the authorities decided to let everyone file into the basketball court, promising applications to all.
At this point, you might be wondering why such chaos just to join a swimming pool? There are many reasons. India is an overpopulated country - Delhi alone is a city of 25 million according to the latest UN figures.
Combative queuing is a national sport here given the scarcity of schools, homes, toilets and hospital beds.
There is also what one professor memorably described to me as the "economics of scarcity".
In other words, create artificial shortages, and then make access to them unfair and opaque, and those in charge benefit as do those with connections.
You can be sure that every one of Delhi's elite citizens already has a permanent membership to the sports complex. India's creme de la creme collect privilege like others collect air miles. They only rarely use the pool, as one woman in the queue whose father has access admitted.
So how did we fare? After seven hours, a staff tea break, several vicious shouting matches and a stand-off with an official who tried to boot us from the queue we got, not an actual membership, that would be far too easy. We got an application form.
And it's only right to admit that we did queue jump, but only because we were behind about 100 people who arrived after us.
'You've adopted Indian habits. You wouldn't jump the queue in your country," one man shouted.
"Well, if that's the case, you should congratulate us," my husband said, standing his ground.
At around midday, bleary-eyed and drenched in sweat, I was finally clutching a badly-photocopied application form, stamped and signed by the retired colonel - our ticket to a membership and the cool waters of the swimming pool.
We got off lucky. I heard of broken bones and times when the police had to be called in.
A few days later, coveted membership cards in hand, we giddily packed our things and drove to the pool, ecstatic at the idea of a cooling swim.
On arrival, we were told, the pool is closed everyday from 10am to 3pm, probably for those elite, permanent members who never bother to come.
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