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I’d rather read a book, but I love sporty girls

Being the antithesis of ‘sporty’ at a time that celebrates women in sport. A feminist take on the clumsy, geeky girl

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint (Jayachandran/Mint)

At 21, my friend and I jumped over the wall of a college (where we had just finished an entrance exam). My friend Chitra landed lightly in her long skirt. I didn’t make it. I hung briefly by my right arm from a spike. The young doctor raged, “Why are girls jumping over walls?" My boyfriend made Jesus and Spike Lee jokes. My mother was speechless. Even when I was an infant, she had relied on my inertia (as opposed to my centre of gravity) to keep me safe. Unlike Harold Bloom’s complaint about J.K. Rowling’s prose (that the characters never walked, they only stretched their legs), I had never needed to stretch my legs.

So you will understand why the sensation that surged through me one evening a couple of years ago puzzled me. I was playing in the park with my nephew and his friends. I dived for the frisbee and landed hard. I lay with my face in the grass, convinced I had cracked my ribs. It was the evening before a much planned and expensive trip abroad. I should have been terrified. Instead, I was laughing and tingling. Because I had flown through the air and had the frisbee in my hand.

I rarely crave a very different life from my current one, you know, running a café in Goa, trying my hand at organic farming in Andhra Pradesh or teaching in China. But in weak, macho moments like the one above, I polish and shine the delusion of becoming one of those lithe, sure-footed women, climbing the Himalayas for fun and running miles through Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park. As a friend often says, “I’d rather be lying flat in bed reading a book. Preferably with chips."

All around me are people who played sports, colleagues who played football and basketball, a husband who woke up at dawn for a year in Oxford to go rowing, a mother-in-law who used to do equestrian stunts, went state in one sport, went national in another. But only in brief moments like the ones above do I wonder what it is like to be casual at 60 about having “gone state" or having ridden two horses at the same time.

Here is the minor complication. I run a feminist site which, from its inception three years ago, has been in the happy, deep end of sports. We have enthusiastically tracked the Fifa Women’s World Cup in Canada, the ICC Women’s World Cup, the Rio Olympics, the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge (WKC), women who won medals at the Paralympics, and even those who play frisbee internationally. Like everyone else, I have enjoyed the thrilling careers of P.V. Sindhu, Sakshi Malik, Dipa Karmakar and Deepa Malik, Saina Nehwal and Aditi Ashok, and so many others. At the office, I am happy to retell stories of following Indian women boxers across the country as a reporter back when most of my sports-loving colleagues were like Mary Who? I have, in short, roamed around pretending sportiness.

Should I have been secretly ashamed? Instead, what I have been is insufferable. As an adult, I’ve gone through bursts of intense enthusiasm. Two friends and I are talking about finding a boxing teacher. I have been into push-up challenges, running, smirking while swinging kettlebells. And I’m always, always, always into swimming. I talk about that one amazing swim (200km north of the Arctic in a mildly heated pool on the open deck of a ship), list most-hated pools (the National Sports Club of India, Mumbai), watch swimming videos and often covet new goggles. I read swimming memoirs and have spent this last summer trying to do handstands in the pool. I have bullied, coaxed and conned non-swimming friends and family to the pool.

I am the girl who used to be dropped from march-past on the first day of practice because amazingly, I couldn’t march. As the hockey-playing besties of my teens know, I have hooked one foot around the other and tripped on more than one occasion. Swimming is what changed everything in my sedentary, adult life. Before I learnt to swim, I never knew what it was like to witness incremental learning with my body. That you may not know how to do something today but may be able to do the next month. My muscles, like Aamir Khan in that other movie, had no memory. Then there was the day I swam the breadth of a pool for the first time and surfaced. Jubilation!

Michael Phelps may not have so much fun with his double-jointed, size 14 feet on land but he doesn’t care, and neither do I. You can’t trip in the water. I am not even a particularly good swimmer. I am slow. My form is barely tolerable. But then I am not very good at badminton or running or push-ups. And when I find that teacher, I am unlikely to be good at boxing either. As a child, I was incapable of dealing with being bad at sports. As an adult, I know I am a cheerful, shameless dabbler.

Perhaps I won’t be able to say these things in public for long. After all, this is the year in which Indians have become enthusiastic and patriotic about women in sports. As it is, I’ve been feeling a bit confused about what to make of those growly noises and caveman postures that have migrated from the WWE to everything including Premier Badminton League promo ads. Why does game face=snarly face? In life, playing badminton is less like pro-wrestling and more like that nice scene in the terrible period film Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey where Deepika Padukone played with a wooden racket. I can make that genteel tak-tak-tak-tak sound to convince you.

When I was a teenager, my mother suggested that it might be nice to learn a sport like badminton or “tennikoit" because (paraphrasing) someday you might find yourself on holiday with a group in Ooty. I had just gone from a school with no playground to a school where lots of people played sports seriously. My friend, a hijabi Malayali girl, was one of the sports captains that year. Even my class’ mandatory outsider—the boy who filled notebooks with dark, scary art—tried to teach me basketball. Being fit, fitting in, it was all there in my mother’s offhand advice. But I felt no urge to do anything right then.

But now my swimming is her “tennikoit". I plan holidays around swimming. I have swimming buddies. It’s taught me a way to be in the world that doesn’t involve cleverness. Being an enthusiastic, bad swimmer means continuously turning your back on gravity and gravitas.

My friend P told me this non-sporty girl story. She recently met a friend for the first time in 30 years. “She said I’d been a big influence on her. I was baffled. We were fond of each other back in school but not intimate. But she said she never forgot this one incident on the basketball court. I was sitting on the stadium steps and watching. I loved watching basketball. Perhaps I could have learnt to play. But right then no one asked me to join. I was the new girl, and fat also. Among those playing was a classmate I was avoiding. She was sporty, bossy, mean. But this girl, S, said, come and play. And I said, no I’m okay watching. S said, no come, you will get bored sitting alone. I said I never get bored. I am watching people and thinking about their lives. My friend S said to me 30 years later, that it was the first time it had struck her that it’s fun to be on your own and that your thoughts were valuable."

When German philosopher Adorno once compared the amateur jazz enthusiast with the sports fan, it was unfavourably. He himself was a fan of neither. He was totally down on the fellow who wasn’t the football player and was instead “the swaggering fellow who dominates the stands".

Adorno would have been fed up with my former colleague D and I drooling over the Phogat sisters. When D came back from a cricket match, we had a 30-minute discussion about the stupendous range of female physiques that made up the Indian team. She knows about the time I accidentally walked into the Karnataka sub-juniors badminton tournament. Candy-coloured shoes, masses of gazelle-like girls with curly ponytails, tears, giggles, and the hushed courts. I’ve never wanted to shoot video more.

At work, we’ve gasped over the daily routine of Deepa Malik. If D was around this week, I would have complained to her about Serena Williams getting engaged to a Reddit co-founder (oh Serena! I’ve barely gotten over Drake). To her, I’ve gushed about my yoga teacher’s perfectly defined back muscles like I’ve gushed about Williams doing her winner’s speech in French at Roland Garros in 2013, and then in Italian in Rome. Women like us, we love the stadium stands. We have the non-loneliness of the barely-any-distance runner. We can’t do snarly-face without laughing, we like our amateurism, we love the swagger of being a fan. We need the sporty girls and the sporty girls need us.

Because as the English teacher in the best Telugu movie ever said, “You dance, I glance."

Nisha Susan is founder-editor of The Ladies Finger

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