The other thing that happened around the time I started swimming was my enrolment with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or the RSS.
Once again, it was all about location, location, location. The local shakha, or training centre, was at Shivaji Park itself, and Baba was a great believer in the benefits that would accrue to a young boy, in terms of disciplined living, physical fitness and right thinking, from being part of the junior cadres of the RSS. Also, it was just something many young boys in the neighbourhood did—a very Shivaji Park thing.
For a long time after I’d been enrolled, I hid out on the sidelines, concealed by a convenient hedge. I was annoyed that my parents had pushed a happy loner like me into forced activities with other children, without so much as a by-your-leave, and I wanted no part of it. My usual companions on the bench were an elderly Anglo-Indian couple and their boxer, Jeeves. One day, Aunty Prudence got so concerned about me hanging around by myself that she insisted on accompanying me home. When Aai came to the door (I think Aunty Prudence was most relieved to find that I hadn’t been lying, that I really did have a home and a mother who cared about me), she told her what I had really been doing each evening. Of course, after that, there was no escape from the shakha. The nice outcome—there’s always one, if you only care to look—of this whole episode was that I made two—rather, three—wonderful friends.
It became my job to walk Jeeves every evening, and so I did, very happily, for the rest of his life. When I read today all the subversive, communal propaganda the media attributes to RSS shakhas, I am frankly baffled. My memories of what happened at our shakha between 6 and 7 p.m. each weekday evening are completely different—we marched about in our khaki shorts, did some yoga, worked out in a traditional outdoor gymnasium with no fancy equipment, sang songs and chanted Sanskrit verses that we did not understand the meanings of, played games and had a bunch of fun with our fellows.
Occasionally, we’d be taken on treks or overnight camping trips in the hills around Bombay, which we eagerly looked forward to and enjoyed very much. The whole thing was overseen by a team of mostly-well-meaning—if not always inspirational—adults, who truly believed they were helping raise good ‘civilian soldiers’— boys respectful of authority, well-behaved in the presence of adults and well-aware of the importance of physical fitness— who would put their efforts into nation-building when they grew up. A desi Scouts movement, if you will. As for the parents who registered their kids, most saw the shakha as just another way to keep their offspring in good shape and out of trouble.
My dad had been part of the RSS himself and was a proud Hindu. I didn’t see what there was to be proud about, but on the other hand, I didn’t see that there was much to complain about either. It just was. I don’t know what my shakha leaders felt about being Hindu—they didn’t really air their views on it to us, as far as I remember. Even if they had, I would not have paid attention—it would have made them sound too much like my dad.
This excerpt from Made in India: A Memoir by Milind Soman with Roopa Pai has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.