For five of the six years I’ve lived in Delhi I’ve had a pre-paid phone connection, in the same way a musician friend refused to buy curtains for years. We were going to leave soon, we told ourselves, so why commit? We were perennially leaving, perennially staying, like Nora Ephron’s wallflower at the orgy.

This year as I mentally pack and unpack it finally hit me — what I miss in Delhi, what I took for granted living in smaller cities like Bangalore and Pune. Yes, yes I miss community (don’t tell anyone). But lack of communal feeling is not what will unwoman you in the capital, fill your hours with ennui. It’s finally struck me. I miss the promenade. I miss staring and being stared at. I miss being part of a world where I regularly recognise the players. Here is the woman who –. There is the man who –. Isn’t that the boy who –? For too long, in the small part of Delhi I know, I’ve felt not a stranger in a strange land, but merely conscious among a self-conscious people.

This summer, I suspect I may have found the promenade again – at the pool. To paraphrase Vivian Gornick, in the pool nobody watches, everyone performs. Partly this is the metta-inducing effect of watching your breath, four separate limbs and unruly appendages all at the same time. A tiny part of you might be awed at the briefness of that uncle’s swimming trunks but the rest of you is counting laps. That’s you.

Me, I’m in the pool working to not let the front crawl turn me into a pretzel, but I am (yo, Vivian) also watching. Watching you pretty girl, who when asked, “Sorry, did I kick you?”, replied, “I don’t know if you kicked me but… okay.” Watching you, sweet daddy with Aryaman and Advait (at any point in a Delhi pool there are two Aryamans, one Aarush and half an Advait) shouting patiently, “Paani hamara dost hai, usse ladai mat karo.” You, girlish trio driving the coach into steady exasperation by giggling. You, coach who has a side business in tatkal tickets. I love you all.

Home and dry, the pool still provides fodder for speculation. Why are there bikinis in the evening and not in the morning? Did that couple really go out and buy matching wetsuits? Oh girl-with-the-wasp-waist-and-corkscrew-kick, one day you’ll learn to swim straight, but now I can’t take my eyes off you.

Longing for the promenade is not to be confused with wanting to socialise. I don’t want to make friends or talk to these people. Then where would the pleasure of embroidering speculation go? My favourite pool is a sweet little place, but the pools I haven’t been to also take on a mythical aspect. The pool that hasn’t been “returned” after the CWG and remains in auto-heated limbo. The modest neighbourhood club pools that, unafraid of corrosive envy, refuses dips to non-members. Talkatora, where you need to first qualify by swimming a lap under the eye of a coach and filling out four pages of forms, has underwater observation windows! The name Talkatora; awesome. Like a Korean creature feature. What would it be like to promenade there?

I don’t talk to these people, I said. I lied. I’d seen the 60-something woman a few times in the changing room. The same fed-up expression each time. I guessed there were tardy grandchildren rejoicing away in the showers.

I broke the rules by asking, “Pain to wait, isn’t it?” She beamed and agreed. “Why don’t you swim too?” I continued. She laughed and we had the familiar conversation about where to buy swim clothes and oh, the terrible pangs of being seen in them. She was resigned to waiting, like Penelope by the sea. (Quite the opposite attitude to the moustached tuition teacher in the Telugu movie Anankondu Oku Roju saying to the cheerful heroine: “You dance, I glance.”)

When I was first learning to swim, a radio astrophysicist friend sent me his characteristically brilliant essay on swimming. He quoted first Bihari Lal (“Tantri naad kavita ras, saras raag rati rang/ Andube dube, tire, je dube sab ang”), and then Kabir (“Jin dhoonda tin paaiya, gehre paani paith/ Main bapura duban dara, raha kinare baith”). If I had remembered those two poets in that clammy changing room I’d have quoted the reluctant lady straight into the pool. In this white-hot social desert, glances are all well and good, but we must take our dances where we find them.

(published in Timeout Delhi)

Image: FLORIDA—”Aquacade,” 1953.Philippe Halsman / Magnum Photos