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Stories of Indian women athletes who dared

A new book about women sporting icons in the country shows a fresh way to analyse India’s sporting strides

Dipa Karmakar during the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland.
Dipa Karmakar during the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. (Getty Images)

You could say that the real sporting story of the last decade was that of Indian women finally getting their due. More than at any other point in independent India’s history, the names of Indian women superstars trip off the tongue: Sania Mirza, P.V. Sindhu, M.C. Mary Kom, Dutee Chand, Deepa Malik, Dipa Karmakar. They are all household names now, though some of them may feel their sporting destinies are yet to be written.

For the longest time, this wasn’t the case: We have all heard of P.T. Usha, but how many of us remember M.D. Valsamma, who won a gold medal for the 400m hurdles in the 1982 Asian Games. Valsamma and Usha were both Kerala girls who, along with their Malayali compatriot Shiny Abraham and Vandana Rao from Karnataka, made a memorable early strike at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Emerging at a time when India’s sporting infrastructure, outside the railways and the army, was prehistoric, these girls did the country proud by participating as equals, even if they fell short of podium finishes.

She Dared—Women in Indian Sports: By Abhiskek Dubey and Sanjeeb Mukherjea, Rupa, 296 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>295.
She Dared—Women in Indian Sports: By Abhiskek Dubey and Sanjeeb Mukherjea, Rupa, 296 pages, 295.

The paradigm of historical narratives on the rise of Indian sports, outside cricket, has been to tell the story of the men. A new book by sports journalists Abhishek Dubey and Sanjeeb Mukherjea, She Dared: Women In Indian Sports, attempts to tell the stories of some of India’s best-known women athletes over the past 40 years.

Though it’s skewed towards athletes from the past decade, the authors make a dedicated effort to tell the story well, and try to give their subjects’ voices primacy. Objectivity when writing about sports is all very well, but when it comes to writing about athletes who still face everyday, casual sexism—which, in some cases, like Sania Mirza’s, is compounded with communal bigotry—their point of view needs to be given precedence.

She Dared tells the stories of 15 women and the authors succeed, to a large extent, in doing the athletes justice. The book follows a chronological path—starting with P.T. Usha and ending with Dipa Karmakar. It’s especially pleasurable to read about sportspersons such as track star Ashwini Nachappa. Nachappa is probably best known for beating P.T. Usha twice in the early 1990s—and as a “glamour girl". However, she’s a shining example of an athlete also leading a fulfilling life away from sport. After Nachappa retired, she joined the Karnataka film industry and was the toast of the silver screen for a while. Later, she teamed up with two of her athlete compatriots, Mercy Kuttan and Rao, to start Clean Sports India, to discourage drug abuse in Indian sports. Perhaps even more importantly, she started the Karaumbiah’s Academy for Learning & Sports—which doubles up as both a school and a sports academy—in Gonikoppal, a small town in Coorg. It’s perhaps ironic that her academy is named after her husband, who played junior hockey for India.

One of the most shameful episodes of modern Indian sports has been the targeting of women athletes under the infamous “gender test" to prove that they are actually women. One of the chapters tells the story of two such athletes, Santhi Soundarajan and Dutee Chand. Separated by a decade, the way their ordeals played out shines a light on the traumatic sense of betrayal they faced. Both were harassed, for lack of a better word, by the Sports Authority of India and the country’s entrenched sports bureaucracy, into giving up their careers. While Soundarajan was stripped of her bronze medal in the 2006 Asian Games and effectively ostracized, in 2014, Chand fought back with the help of allies who knew how to argue her case. Their stories are quite well known at this point, but what struck me while reading the chapter is the subtext of social bias that both women fell victim to.

The book goes on to tell the stories of many other luminaries, like Sania Mirza, M.C. Mary Kom and P.V. Sindhu. What is clear is that all the athletes featured in She Dared deserve book-length biographies of their own. The chapter-wise treatment of their incredible careers sometimes feels perfunctory, and the writers’ occasional descent into digressions and florid prose doesn’t help. The book could have generally done with better editing and closer attention to language. But the book is important, for it is only by giving the same amount of coverage that male sportspersons receive that Indian sports can become less discriminatory towards their women athletes.

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