The athletes Sohini Chattopadhyay profiles have all led challenging lives, but shoddy editing weakens the grace of the author’s tribute.
There is no recreational Indian woman runner who has not been heckled by some lout shouting, “Who do you think you are? P.T. Usha?” Decades after she retired, that is the mystic, weighty presence of P.T. Usha in the national imagination, even for people who never saw her run. From being the first national female sports celebrity in a country discovering colour TV for the first time in 1982, to heading the Indian Olympic Association, Usha’s story makes for a dream script of female awakening in our sport. Sadly, Indian sporting reality ensures we are far from it.
The Day I Became a Runner: A Women’s History of India through the Lens of Sport
Fourth Estate India
Usha of the track and the Usha off it forms an early chapter in Sohini Chattopadhyay’s The Day I Became a Runner: A Women’s History of India through the Lens of Sport. The book combines the biographies of a group of elite Indian women athletes, the author’s personal memoir, running randomly alongside the country’s life story as a free nation. Through this, Chattopadhyay traces “the arc of citizenship of women in the Indian republic.” Doing so through Indian sport—running, in this case—ideally involves the understanding that our sporting republic itself is not yet fully formed in either institutional robustness or individual freedoms, for both girls and boys. The treatment of protesting champion wrestlers through 2023 is proof.
But I digress. The biographies of Mary D’Souza Sequeira, (one of India’s first four women Olympians in 1952 and a hockey international) and Kamaljit Sandhu, the first Indian woman to win an Asian Games gold medal are warm and welcoming. Chattopadhyay re-introduces modern audiences to their lives and times. It must be said that D’Souza and Sandhu—English-speaking, educated, urban—are not protypes of India’s elite woman runners. They often come from small towns and villages, and the humblest of homes. The emergence of their individual “citizenry” is taking place in competition only now.
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We see it in the form-fitting vests and kit worn by our women athletes, a departure from the billowing shirts and shorts. We see it in Parul Chaudhary’s gut-busting final ten meters that won her a 5,000m gold at the Hangzhou Asian Games. We see it in sprinter Jyoti Yarraji’s fierce hands-on-hips stare-down of officials trying to eject her from the 100m hurdles final. What these women are able to take away from the sports field, how they exercise such agency in their daily lives, will mark the next stage of their citizenship evolution.
In The Day I Became…, seven athletes’ biographies are rounded off with a final three-part segment containing stories and ruminations. We discover the unimaginable life of Ila Mitra—runner, swimmer, political activist, MLA—and alongside, we find a “coda” on the presence and absence of Muslim women in our sport. Then there is Maharashtra’s fascinating Sangroli Sunrise Project, a long-distance running school formed to “reshape the community”, by, among other things, holding off child marriages and finding employment through sport.
The Sunrise project is a pragmatic reminder that India’s competitive athletes. men and women, run for their livelihood, not health and fitness, not for love of physical activity, or the internalised calm of running. Almost always, their efforts are defined by a quiet desperation to alter their circumstances. Fundamentally, they are not consumers of what Chattopadhyay refers to as the “marathon economy”, one that gave rise to road-running events across Indian cities from 2004 onwards. Until the advent of such parallel economies and entities, it was the public sector that kept Olympic sport in India alive through the creation of “sports quota” job opportunities.
For decades now, this led to sweeping upper-class and upper-caste cliches about how our athletes have “no ambition”, thus excusing sports governing bodies—the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), for instance—from doing their duty. They hardly ever put the sport and its athletes first, failing to nurture generational pathways and structures. The government job was not just a stick to beat our young talent with. It also became an excuse for sports federations to generate a “mai-baap” culture amongst our officials and coaches. That culture still exists today. The protesting wrestlers are a case in point.
The neoliberal economy, which Chattopadhyay examines in the latter segments of the book, may well have created private play spaces and events for the urban middle- and upper-classes, as is noted, but it has also led to a democratisation of training and livelihood opportunities for athletes through private leagues and the creation of sports NGOs with an athlete-centric focus.
- The book combines the biographies of a group of elite Indian women athletes, the author’s personal memoir, running randomly alongside the country’s life story as a free nation.
- India’s competitive athletes—men and women both—run for their livelihood, not health and fitness, not for love of physical activity, or the internalised calm of running.
- The neo-liberal economy, which Chattopadhyay examines, has also led to a democratisation of training and livelihood opportunities for athletes through private leagues and the creation of sports NGOs.
- For a book with such a lovely cover—and indeed, title—the backroom work on The Day I Became… flags regularly. The book is not indexed, and this is a travesty. The editing is also somewhat indifferent to fact-checking.
The Day I Became … is dedicated to Shanthi Soundarajan, Asian Games silver medallist, and the first of three women whose “identity” as women was put through the sports establishment and media meat-grinder. Through interviews and observations, Chattopadhyay details how the bans that rose out of the gender test trifecta— hypoandrogenism, inter-sex identities and differences in sex development—impacted lives. Shanthi and Pinki Pramanik’s competitive careers were destroyed. Their social backgrounds allowed for their bodily privacy and human rights to be violated by patriarchal sporting institutions like World Athletics (WA) and the AFI—using racially offensive and targeted regulations—but also by local police and health officials. In the next decade, Odisha runner Dutee Chand won her case against the WA’s scientifically unproven hypoandrogenism rules with the backing of the Indian government and athletes rights lawyers. Today, the gender police cannot get away with rights violations as easily as they did with Shanthi and Pinki.
In a curious coincidence, Mumbai theatre director and playwright Sapan Saran released a book of Hindi plays in 2023 where the powerful Ottam (“race” in both Tamil and Malayalam) was based on Shanthi’s life. With clarity and insight in scene after scene, Saran uses Hindi, snatches of Tamil and English, and poems to P.T. Usha, to reveal the truth about the citizenry of our athletes, particularly the triple burden carried by women in Indian sport.
That Shanthi’s life is still being raked up by insecure male colleagues is a reminder of the unyielding patriarchal strictures that bear down on Indian women athletes. The question of identity remains the most grievous of them, even today. It can be raised by anyone: a rival, a coach, an official. Success in sport fosters in women the urgent desire to control their rewards and earnings. For women, post-retirement transition opportunities are practically unavailable and non-existent. Let not Usha’s being IOA boss fool you.
Missing the mark
For a book with such a lovely cover—and, indeed, title—the backroom work on The Day I Became… flags regularly. The book is not indexed, and this is a travesty. The editing is also somewhat indifferent to fact-checking, particularly around sport. The athletes’ inspirational stories help bypass some lapses, but if the same error pops up four times, it is hard to ignore.
So, here goes: With mega props to her achievements, Lalita Babar is the first individual track athlete, and not the first track and field athlete after Usha to qualify for an Olympic final. Anju Bobby George made the final of the 2004 Athens Olympics in the field event of long jump, finishing fifth, setting a national record that still stands.
Besides, between 1984 and 2016, another collective of women athletes made an Olympic final. Usha’s Los Angeles 1984 4x400m quartet was not the only Indian relay team to make it to an Olympic final. In Athens 2004, India qualified for the 4x400m women’s relay final again, with a time of 3:26.89, which remains our national record. The women who took India into that final were Rajwinder Kaur, K.M. Beenamol, Chitra K. Soman and Manjeet Kaur. Do them the respect of remembering and recalling their names.
Sharda Ugra has reported on Indian sport for more than three decades and is now based in Bangalore.