This is one of those rare interviews where the interviewee answers my questions without maintaining eye contact. Dressed in black shorts and a red jersey, with the words Jeev Rakshak printed in white on the back, 26 year-old Abhishek Baban Kamble’s gaze spans as far as upto the horizon, and zooms in as close as the sand grains at our feet.
All the time, efficiently keeping a tab on the hectic activity around — children scampering around their sand castles, women sitting on their dupattas as they bite into a corn corb and call out to their bratty kids and groups of heat-stricken Mumbaiites, who have come for a cool swim and some masti.
The sharp screech of his whistle interrupts my questions midway — he has spotted two teenagers wading into the deep, salty waters, greedy for a big wave.
“The public in Mumbai is full of life, but sometimes, they don’t listen to instructions. They feel we are killing their fun, which is not true. We are here for their safety,” says the senior lifeguard, as he lifts a seven year-old boy by his yellow T-shirt, helping him tackle a giant wave.
His stride is strong and steady, and his feet make deep impressions in the wet sand. At a distance, he spots a group of teenagers swimming towards bigger waves. He asks me to wait, and before I can answer, he has already swum halfway towards the group, bringing them back into the safe, waist-length waters. “The summer and monsoon months are the most crucial for us. It is when the number of people at the beach increases,” says Kamble.
In 2006, his father, who mans a photocopy machine at Kamgar Stadium, Dadar, referred this Sion-Koliwada resident for the post of a lifeguard. “He wanted me to join the navy, but I failed my 12th standard exams, and was not interested in studies. My father is a Hitler. Maine maar bhi khaya hai (I have been beaten up too),” he grins, adding that he only took up the job out of sheer fear of his father’s temper. “My mother told me to do the job for two months and then tell him it wasn’t working out. When I got the job, I didn’t even know how to swim,” says Kamble, who now earns Rs 16,000 a month.
Presently on morning duty, Kamble reaches the beach by 7 am six days a week, and takes a brisk walk from Juhu Koliwada to Seven Bungalows, a stretch of 4.5 km. “I keep an eye out for any untoward incidents that may have taken place at night. Sometimes, the sea has brought in big fish and even vessels like the MV Wisdom, that ran around here last year. If I spot a dead body, I alert the chowky,” says Kamble, whose exercise regime involves a three-km jog, 20-minute stretching exercises and four sets, each of 500 counts, of skipping rope. “My food diet is macchi and chapatti that my mother makes,” he says, flashing a smile.
Recalling his first rescue at the beach during his first year on the job, he says, “My senior told me to keep watch, as he went for his tea break. I noticed a movement in the sea, at a distance of 50-60 metres. I saw a hand rising up and disappearing under the waves. I removed my shoes, whistle and cap, grabbed a ring, and jumped in. “I threw the ring at the victim, propped him up from the back and gently asked him to cycle his feet towards the shore. We are trained to talk to and calm the panic-stricken victims,” says Kamble. It worked. When the teenager was brought to safety, he hugged Kamble in a gesture of relief and gratitude.
In team rescue operations, three to four lifeguards perform a practised four-step coordination. “One makes a call to the fire station, one alerts the nearby police chowky, the third one swims into the sea while the fourth one carries the rescue equipment — rescue tube, rope to tug something heavy, buoy and ring. There is no time to think, and every action is crucial,” says Kamble, who has done duty at Girgaum, Dadar and Juhu beach in the past 10 years.
After a decade on the job, Kamble says it is the little gestures, like the ‘thank you’ that people express, that keep him going. “There was a time when I didn’t know how to swim, and now I am rescuing victims. It gives me great satisfaction at the end of the day,” he says, adding that he also recognises moments when they cannot save a victim. “All I do is pray to the samundar devi, and ask her to guide me. I am only doing my duty.” Suddenly, he looks serious.
Being a lifeguard may not be easy, but it has given Kamble confidence. When work hours are over, he unwinds with a swim at Kamgar Stadium, over a football game with his friends or by listening to music. “Today my father is proud of my work. He is even planning to get me married,” he whispers,