A few months ago, I read Mrs. Sudha Murty’s book “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven“. As most of my friends know, I am a little crazy about her. I read her books and listen to her speeches with rapt attention to digest as much information as possible. She is my master Yoda of a sort, one story “Acid” caught my attention because it talks about a young girl whose face is disfigured by an acid attack by a former love interest. Thanks to my increased enthusiasm, I could see the event unfold before me in slow motion. I could place myself in the shoes of both the characters in the scene. I felt fear and hatred but I could not stop or change the course of events. I reread the pages over and over again but I was left with a feeling of intense helplessness. I was heartbroken, distraught and frankly traumatized by what I read. I tried to look for the victim’s case online but my great detective skills led me to a rabbit hole that wasn’t productive.
I then realized I should do something where it matters. As a sensitive person, I was too scared to google “acid attack” at first but eventually mustered the courage to do it. I realized that reality was worse than the story, there were cases where children, mothers, and kind hearted men were disfigured for life because of a few minutes of cruelty. They didn’t get appropriate justice nor empathy from society to move past their trauma. I LOST my optimism and “childlike wonder”, the world suddenly got serious, it was not fun and games anymore. As an artist, I lost my inspiration and the only thing that kept me going was “I truly wanted to help”. In the midst of darkness, I found a ray of hope through various organizations making a difference in the world. One of them was MakeLuvNotScars and I figured I should help them in a small way. How would an ordinary person like me go about accomplishing such a task? I had no idea, I just knew that I cared deeply and wanted to help. I eventually found a way to make a small contribution.
A few months ago, I managed to swim from Elephant Island to Gateway of India, a total distance of 14km in 4.5 hours to conquer my first channel. Thanks to some generous donations, we managed to raise ~$3000 to support MakeLuvNotScars an NGO in India supporting acid attack victims. I am grateful that I got this opportunity to use my skills for good and achieve a new milestone as a swimmer. I was able to organize the event thanks to veteran swimmer Santosh Patil who was kind enough to organize the swim in a short notice. We finalized the swim in January earlier this year when I was scheduled to go home for a few weeks. Santosh recommended that I needed to swim 2 hours on weekdays and 4 hours once a week. I practiced at the JCC Pittsburgh in December and even swam when I traveled to NYC for the new year. I practiced as much as I could before my flight. The swim was scheduled on Sunday in Mumbai and I reached Bangalore on Tuesday.
I traveled to Bangalore after 2.5 years and it was touching to meet my family again. I attended my cousin’s wedding before I traveled to Mumbai with my Dad. We stayed at my dad’s friend’s place. Uncle Manohar was nice enough to give us his personal driver to chauffer us around the city who helped me find a pool to practice. I had lost my confidence a bit as I couldn’t practice between travels, I found a pool on Friday and managed to train for 1.5 hours, this rejuvenated me a bit. The positivity helped me reach out to friends and family to solicit donations. I added a personalization touch by saying a donation will make me feel that they are with me while I swim on the weekend. I then made a concise Whatsapp message and asked my dad to share it with his circles. I planned to raise 1L (~$1500) and had managed to raise 20% by the end of the day. I hoped to raise a small amount and didn’t have a lot of expectations.
I woke up next morning refreshed as I had a proper night’s rest after nearly a week of traveling, late nights and jet lag. My mood was brightened when I learned that my dad had stayed up late asking his friends to donate to our campaign, we had reached close i.e. 90% of our goal a day before then swim. We increased the target to 2L(~$3000) as we had gained momentum. We then decided to go to Elephanta Caves to learn about the landmarks and look for possible challenges we might need to overcome for the swim. To be honest, now there was little more pressure to complete the swim but I wasn’t tensed about it. Now it was time to scour the land and “know the enemy” by visiting Elephanta Caves.
We went to Gateway of India and took a ferry to Elephanta Island. As I sat in the ferry, I looked at a large island looming over the horizon. Its green forests were covered in fog, it had an ethereal vibe to it. I had seen the enemy and I would be there in an hour. As we approached the island, I saw the landmarks which would be crucial during my swim. The first was the Navy outpost(1) which was a small island with India and the Navy flag flying proudly. Then, there was an array of ships(2) that just stood there, this strip of ocean which looked like lifeless trees that stood there mocking the existence of life (I’m being a little dramatic here) , the next checkpoint was
Elephanta Mora (3), yes the island I could see from Gateway was not Elephanta but Mora Jetty which was the next checkpoint. I saw an island beyond Mora which looked calm and scenic but with a hidden agenda, it kind of looked like it was on a turtle back and would float away any second. The ferry takes an S-shaped route so we got the opportunity to stare at the island for quite some time. I also saw a long ramp(4), which looked like planes could take off from there towards my right which would be the fourth checkpoint. We turned and slowly made our way towards the island which I finally confirmed to be Elephanta(5). It took about 1.5 hours to reach the island and I knew it would be a tough swim.
Elephanta was a scenic island, it started with an optional train ride towards inside the city. My dad and I bought a few souvenirs and took some pictures in the caves. We roamed around Elephanta for a while and then we went back to Mora where the event coordinator and coach stayed. It took a while to reach his house where we got stuck in a ferry and had to transfer to another boat to finally reach Santosh’s house. Santosh is the veteran swimmer and he works for the Navy. It took a while to reach his house where we got stuck in a ferry and had to transfer to another boat to finally reach Santosh’s house. His house was filled with awards, he had traveled the world and was passionate about improving aquatics in Bombay, especially for kids who were talented but less fortunate. He had conquered the toughest channels in the world of superhuman cadre but he was so humble. He then introduced us to his kids who were 12 and 10 and told us that the awards in his house belonged to his 12-year-old son who was nominated for the Limca book of world records. We were amazed by this amazing family, they gave us dinner and asked us to sleep in their beds so I would be well rested in the morning.
I didn’t sleep well that night and woke up with a severe migraine, maybe it was performance anxiety, my dad snoring or disruption in my eating habits that lead me to wake up with a throbbing headache. I listened to music on my dad’s phone to motivate me before the event, I didn’t eat anything that morning assuming I would have some juice while I swam. We left at 7:00 from Mora to pick up our observer who would join us as an objective viewer to document my swim. He joined us on the boat by literally jumping off a ferry. We went to Elephanta and stopped at a dock and I changed into my trunks and my new awesome goggles. Grease was applied to my body and the observer mumbled that the time is 9:00 and whistled. I embraced the dark waters like an old friend and started swimming towards the boat.
Elephanta(5) Me starting the swim
As I swam, I noticed that it was easier to swim because of the saltwater, it was slightly cold at first but as I swam I got accustomed to it. I could see Elephanta(5) on the right and the boat on the left. I forced myself to swim close to the boat and kept swimming as the members on the boat watched me. I couldn’t get into the flow immediately because I had to concentrate on keeping an eye on the boat, the rules were I couldn’t touch it. I got accustomed to swimming by its side eventually and I let my mind play songs in my head (to boredom). In no time I had reached the ramp and it was time for my first feeding session. I was given some water and dairy milk, it was hard to chew because of the saltiness in my mouth with my increased heart rate and body fatigue. I had practiced drinking juice in the pool*( I also had not eaten breakfast in the morning).
Ramp(4) seemed scenic because it looked like a long ramp which I had to swim parallel to, kind of like a lane. I had been swimming for an hour and there were times when I could start listening to music in my head, my migraine had reduced significantly thanks to the “swimmers high” presumably. Now, it got a little dramatic, when I refused to have the dairy milk at Mora(3). I figured I would not digest it and it would stick in my mouth with the salt water leading to nausea. At this point, the boat was occluding Mora(3) so I had no choice but to keep to my eye the boat. I tried overtaking the boat at times but I would get exhausted. After a while, the Raj and the observer’s friend jumped in, they were planning a recreational swim and were hoping to support me. I was not used to swimming next to people then and tried to slow down to grab my personal space. One cool thing that Raj would do was hang on to the boat for a while which would look like he was surfing. I managed to swim amidst the distraction and reached checkpoint 2 the array of endless ships(2).
Passing the array of endless ships(2) was hard as I was exhausted and was very low on fuel, the boat got stuck in between but Raj was with me while I swam through seemingly endless ships. The boat was fixed in a few minutes but I was too exhausted to notice that I was being pushed back by the waves. I tried for a while in freestyle but eventually switched to breast stroke to see the naval outpost(1). I am short sighted and I could vaguely see Gateway of India but it gave me the strength I needed to persevere and I slowly swam towards the shore. It was a bitter battle against mother nature and she made me go all in … my lack of self-confidence, poor diet and probably bad luck led me to finish the swim in 4.5 hours. I slowly walked up the stairs when I reached Gateway of India(stop), it was past noon and I was exhausted but it felt great. I had offically become a channel swimmer. My dad of steel who is one of my best friends and has been my worst critic was there by my side to witness it. I am very grateful that we were able to raise 2L(~$3000) to help a good cause. I am happy, that I did something for others in need and grateful to Milaap to and social media ordinary people like me can make a contribution given the right atmosphere.
There are real problems in the world, we can choose to ignore them or do something about it. As an introvert, I find it hard to be in a room with people or do things that people take for granted (e.g. going to restaurants, being in a crowded room) but I think if we care deeply i.e have compassion, we can look beyond our inhibitions to help others in need (my 7th-grade English teacher taught me this). When I was learning how to swim, the swimming coach had given up on me but my dad took it upon himself to teach me how to swim, I eventually started swimming on my own and today after 10 years I am a channel swimmer. I think having compassion, approaching this hard problem from an objective, non-judgemental perspective(like my dad) and working on solving it in baby steps helped(practice) helped me achieve this milestone. I hope my small achievement motivates you to overcome a struggle or helps you through your journey to achieve your dreams.
My dad and I have raised 6L(~$10,000) over the past year by crowdfunding to help the needy. I hope to take my fundraising to the next stage, I am looking to build a small team that can help me during more events like this. I expect a team of 3-4 to travel with me and a few who can help coordinate on social media. I self-fund the events but we can work something out.
I am planning for a swim in Florida in September and another swim in December. I could use help in fundraising, medical support, building technology or anything that you think can help me. If you see an opportunity to collaborate, please fill up the form and I will contact you.
Credits: Dad, Santhosh Patil, Raj Patil, Manohar Uncle, Milaap Team, MLNS Team and my friends and family who supported me through my journey.