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A women’s history of India through the lens of sport

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A women’s history of India through the lens of sport

Sports Journalist and Film Critic Sohini Chattopadhyay has been touring the nation to discuss her latest book The Day I Became a Runner. The Friday Wall joined the discussion when she was in Hyderabad to interact with the members of the Hyderabad Runners Club.

Dressed in an attractive ensemble, which much resembled the Indian Dhoti, with a shirt of handloom, paired with sports shoes in bright green, Sohini inspired enthusiasm for the sport of running through her insightful presentation, and patiently answered questions from the audience. 

It was the f irst time she was addressing a group of runners, she said. She remarked that Hyderabad was a good place to talk about women runners and women in sport as Hyderabad is known for sports women like Sania Mirza, Mithali Raj, P.V.Sindu and Saina Nehwal. 

Through the center of the book’s cover, runs a line that says “A women’s history of India through the lens of sport”. Sohini explains that her book explores the idea of citizenship of women through sport, with a reference to Haruki Murakami’s book What I talk about, when I talk about running. The book that she spent 8 years researching and writing is about gender, sport and citizenship. 

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Answering the rhetoric, why citizenship, she says that in India, when a horrifying incident occurs involving a woman, 3 questions are always asked — “What was she doing? What was she wearing? Where was she going?” “Why do I look at the history of Indian women through the lens of sport, with my 3-tiered argument, is because sports gives women the legitimacy to cross the lakshmanrekha of citizenship. In women’s citizenship, there is the private sphere of home, and the public sphere. Nobody questions their status within the home, they are revered as wives and mothers at home. It’s only when we step out, their status as equal citizens is questioned. 

Sohini chimed during the Q & A session with the audience that she thoroughly enjoyed the process of working on the book, spending her time in news archives in the library. The audience saw a glimpse of her in-depth, comprehensive and academic insight on the subject in hand. The Day I Became a Runner tells the stories of 10 different women runners, starting from Mary D’ Souza in 1940 — one of the first women runners to be sent to 1952 Helsinki Olympics, followed by Shanti Soundaryarajan in 2006 — who won more than 12 medals for India, and was called out for her gender with sex testing, and ending with Lalita Babar in 2014 — a road-to-track runner, who started running looking for water in her drought-stricken village in Satara District, and herself — a hobby runner, who is shaped by the neo-liberal marathon ecosystem. 

In the first section of her book, she explores the era of the early pioneers like Mary D’Souza, Kamaljit Sandhu and P.T.Usha. She recalls that wins like Kamaljit Sandhu who defeated the Olympics medalist of the time, came as a cheerful spot of news at a depressing time of naxalism, the emergency, license raj, 1971 war of Bangladesh, Air India strike; “I remember only 2 women were seen in the newspapers — Indira Gandhi, and Kamaljit Sandhu, and women in the ads of health tonics and home appliances.” 

Diving into the subject of sex testing in sport, Sohini explains that it is a complex, sophisticated process. “My argument is that when you don’t have a ceiling on naturally occurring height, why do you have a ceiling on naturally occurring testosterone?”, Sohini states. As she narrates the story of Hermann Ratjen, who was born and raised as a girl, and later developed underdeveloped anatomical body parts, she says “I don’t see him as a cheat, He was relieved to be caught as it was the end of a certain identity he was forced to live with.”

As she explains with an academic insight why she describes the marathon ecosystem as the neo-liberal ecosystem, she says that marxist idealists have been known to describe marathons as avenues for showing off gleaming bodies in gleaming cities, as typically big financial companies are sponsors of marathons in big cities like New York, Tokyo and Singapore. 

“Sports and nationalism are inextricably linked — the high noon of nationalism is the turn of the 20th C, and it is also the time when organised sport comes into being in a major way”, Sohini says providing the historical timeline of the First edition of Modern Olympics (1896), International Tennis Association setup (1870), First Cricket Test Match between England and Australia (1870). “As momentum is gathering for World War, we see nations lining up against one another on the sports field”, she remarks. 

Cinema is a twin of sport and nationalism, she says, describing her book using Tom Hanks’ film Forrest Gump(1994) as a metaphor as a story of a nation through the life of an individual, where she is the individual narrating the stories of these 9 women through her book. 

“I decided to look at running because it’s a minimal sport, you don’t need equipment or the kind of training, it is almost natural — I would be able to look at a broader cross-section of women unlike elite sports like badminton and tennis”, Sohini elaborated. 

Sohini Chattopadhyay is a journalist, with an interest in sports, film, health, science and politics. She has won several awards for her reportage, one of which is 2014 International Red Cross and Press Institute of India prize for humanitarian reporting.

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