Air, as polluted as it was there, was still essential for human life. Two to three minutes without oxygen, in the average person, will render them unconscious. Five to ten minutes will result in brain damage.
I watched a man drown today, from a cafe on the cliff side of the Ganges River. I was drinking tea, recovering from sickness the night before, when I heard someone shout, “he’s drowning”. I sat up and saw a boat with a man standing in it holding a rope. A life jacket floated in the water next to an arm reaching towards the sky. The shoreline was full of young Indian boys twenty feet away. The arm slipped into the opaque green water. There were swirls of currents, like vorticies, that broke up the swift ripples that moved downstream. It took me at least 25 seconds to realize that these Indian men didn’t know how to swim. I looked around trying to figure out how to get down to the river. The young European woman, who had been sitting next to me, threw down her things and ran through the café, appearing half way down the rocky cliff. A European man came running towards her from the other side. They met at the water’s edge, where the crowd of onlookers parted for them. They made a heroic plan with hand gestures and facial expressions crammed into seconds before they dove into the turbulent water.
One and a half minutes had passed since the brown arm disappeared under the surface. The two swimmers swam out to where he was last seen, begging the onlookers for guidance. They were met with collective frozenness and helplessness. The current tugged the swimmers down stream. Their heads bobbed and darted around and towards one another. They didn’t dive under the swirling currents. The man in the boat steered away from them. Three minutes had passed.
The boys on the shore began to shout and point down river. The swimmers frantically grabbed at the water propelling them downstream towards hope. Five minutes slipped into breathlessness. The curling landscape and thick trees obscured the swimmer’s tiny heads from my view. Six minutes, seven, eight, nine, ten. Drowning doesn’t look like what you might think it would look like. It’s quiet, graceful, quick.
Fifteen minutes passed and you would never know anything just happened. A new group of people were on the shore preparing to go into the water. People in the café ordered food. I sat frozen with tears running down my cheeks. The soggy European woman returned to her seat next to me, looking somewhere between distraught, angry, in disbelief, and frozen. I thanked her for trying.