Weaving the story of modern India through the lives of women runners is a unique endeavor, which Sohini Chattopadhyay in her book The Day I became a Runner – A Women’s History of India Through the Lens of Sportpulls off with panache.

Why women runners and not other women sportspersons? Chattopadhyay says: “.. running is also a lens for me to examine what it is like to be a woman in India, to put oneself out there, brushing up against the world, so to speak.”

Chattopadhyay’s message is loud and clear -- the accomplishments of these eight women runners must not be judged just through their success on the track but how their achievements helped move the needle of women’s empowerment in India.

At a time when a life of domesticity was the only option for most women in India, the achievements of Mary D’Souza (India’s first Olympian) and Kamaljit Sandhu (the first Indian woman to win a medal at an international meet) are nothing short of revolutionary.

After bagging the Gold medal in the 400 metres in the 1970 Asian Games at Bangkok, Kamaljit Sandhu’s career didn’t quite pan out the way she expected and Chattopadhyay captures evocatively her sense of disappointment. After she took up coaching it was her suggestion to a Union Minister in charge of the 1982 Delhi Asiad that spurred the government to focus on women athletes to win more medals at international events.

Sprint queen

PT Usha in the 1980s captured the imagination of the Indian public when she came within a hundredth of a second of winning an Olympic medal at the 1984 LA Games.

Chattopadhyay traces her ascent from small town Payyoli in Kerala to the victory podiums, the role played by her legendary coach OM Nambiar and the support her husband gave later in life when she staged a comeback in 1990s against all odds.

Chattopadhyay senses the dissonance between the image she had cultivated of Usha and how she was in reality when she met her. This dissonance should not have mattered but for Chattopadhyay it did. She ends the chapter about how she went for a run on the Kozhikode beach and how little attention the people there paid to a woman running. That was Usha’s real legacy – she “normalized” the idea of a woman running in a public space.

Gender battles

Santhi Soundarajan, Pinki Pramanik, Dutee Chand and Lalita Babar, all came from economically and socially underprivileged backgrounds.

Santhi Soundarajan was subjected to a horrific “gender test” after winning the 800-metres Silver medal at the Doha Asian Games, stripped off her medal and sent back to India. Chattopadhyay says, “… the Indian government dumped her as a defective toy”.

Santhi’s struggles over her gender identity, the impact it had on her family, and how she still maintained her dignity and pride, even a “cheerful resignation” and became a successful coach is brought out with empathy.

Pinki Pramanik’s success on the track and tragic battles off it, the cruelty she suffered in the hands of the police and her successful legal battle against a rape charge reads like a bitter indictment of our society.

Chattopadhyay lays bare the media’s prurient interest and a voyeuristic society’s gaze on Pramanik’s case. Her greatest triumph, Chattopadhyay says, is how she “held on to her sense of self” … “and decided to own that identity, whatever it took.”

Dutee Chand’s case was another where the issue of gender identity and sports collided, but unlike Santhi Soundarajan, Chand was supported by the Indian government in her battle against World Athletics over her “hyperandrogenism”.

Sunrise project

Lalita Babar’s journey from the drought-hit Vidharba region of Maharashtra to running in the finals of the 3000-meters steeplechase in the Rio Olympics and finishing tenth despite carrying an injury is a story of stoicism and grit. Babar’s legacy, says Chattopadhyay, is to allow girls from her drought-hit district to dream of a life beyond.

Chattopadhyay devotes an entire chapter on a unique and remarkable experiment called the ‘Sunrise Project’ where young girls from the poorest regions of Marathwada are trained to become professional athletes.

Athletes naturally attract admiration, but journalists who see them at close quarters can sometimes come away disappointed as the dissonance between the media and real life images can be quite sharp. For Chattopadhyay, Ila Mitra was perhaps the most she empathised with. Mitra missed out on representing India in the 1940 Tokyo Olympics as it got shelved due to the war.

But Chattopadhyay dwells more on Mitra’s post-athletics life. As a Communist Party activist she fought for peasant rights in erstwhile East Pakistan, endured unspeakable police brutality and forged a successful political career in independent India by becoming a three-time Communist MLA in the West Bengal Assembly - an astonishingly uplifting tale.

Chattopadhyay also tips her hat to the coaches -- “accidental feminists” – without whom these women would not have made it big.

In a society riven by gender inequalities, these women runners made it possible for girls from the most underprivileged backgrounds to dream big. That is perhaps a bigger achievement than the medals tally.  

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About the book

Title: The Day I Became a Runner: A Women’s History of India Through the Lens of Sport

Author: Sohini Chattopadhyay

Publisher: Fourth Estate

Price: ₹599

Pages: 364