In the summer of 1952, an ungracious storm brewed in the Finnish capital of Helsinki while the psychological tension of the Cold War sizzled like static in the air. Trying to shake off the chills of this alien, Nordic weather were Olympians from 19 countries striving to look past their differences, among them a handful of Indian athletes.
This year was an epoch-making one for South Asian women in sport. We had Nilima Ghose, barely 17 and running track, Mary D’Souza Sequeira running the 100 and 200 metres at the age of 21 and another 17-year-old Dolly Nazir from Bombay in the swimming team.
In the company of these young women was someone who can only be described as a child prodigy: Arati Saha Gupta continues to be the youngest representative from India.
She was only 11 years, 10 months and 305 days old when she made her Games debut at the 1952 Summer Olympics.
The middle child of a middle-class family, with a father in the Army, Arati grew up mostly with her grandmother in North Kolkata. Accompanying her uncle for their daily ablutions to Champatala Ghat as a four-year-old was how she first took to the water. Learning to swim can be a moment of pride for children as they begin to wonder at the capabilities of the human body. Free floating on her back in the swirling water among the milling bodies of bathing dozens, Arati couldn’t have imagined that she would one day be plunging into the brackish water of the English Channel, far away from the palm trees and sylvan sunrises of her beloved Ganga river.
Between 1945 and 1951, Arati won 22 state-level tournaments in West Bengal. At the 1951 West Bengal state meet, she broke Dolly Nazir’s All India record in the 100 metre breaststroke. Although she did not win anything at the Olympics, she was a force to be reckoned with and her father Panchugopal Saha was convinced that Arati was destined for greatness. But her family were not alone in recognising this and the magnetism of Arati’s fervour attracted many supporters and benefactors. In 1958, Brojen Das from Bangladesh became the first South Asian man to cross the English Channel and this anointed the heavens for Arati like a guiding star for the next target she could aspire to.
When she wrote him a breathless letter to congratulate him on his triumph, Brojen Das who had heard of this agile young swimmer, wrote back assuring her that this was not beyond the pale of her abilities. In a spectacular stroke of luck, another swimmer she’d met at the Olympics, Greta Anderson from Copenhagen, remembered the astonishingly lithe Indian girl and recommended her name for the 1959 Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race.
Someone else who had been quietly watching her from the wings was Dr. Arun Gupta, an executive secretary at the Hathkola Swimming Club where Arati first learned to swim competitively. He sensed her extraordinary aptitude and decided to go out on a limb, lobbying ministers and crowdfunding until he raised the money to send her abroad.
Yet another well wisher, Dr. Bimal Chandra, mentored Arati when she got to the U.K. by training her to navigate the sea currents she wasn’t used to from all the earlier practice she had swimming in freshwater ponds and rivers. Dr. Chandra ended up becoming the first Indian to cross the Channel from the French side in 1959.
Like Dr. Chandra, Arati also dived in from Cape Gris Nez, France on the 27th of August of the same year. However, within five miles of the English coast, she was struck by a current from the opposite direction and could only swim two more miles before she was forced to give up.
At less than 16 degrees Celsius, the open sea was temperate enough but its vastness and indomitability seeped into Arati’s bones along with pangs of fear and self-doubt. At the formative age of 19, Arati must have felt out of her depth but she forged a valiant second attempt almost a month later and after swimming for an exhausting period of 16 hours and 20 minutes, she hoisted the Indian flag on the shores of Sandgate, England.
The notion of exercise has rarely been integral to the latticework of a woman’s day-to-day life in our neck of the woods.
Subservient to a Bend It Like Beckham saga for ages, playing competitive sport still remains a novel concept for many families. Circumscribed by the overwhelming patriarchy of our culture, feminine bodies are wont to wrestle with social norms of what’s appropriate at a certain age, particularly after they are married and child-bearing.
I remember how often my mother, who’s an excellent swimmer, worried about the way her body looked in the nylon swimsuit. It had to be full-length and modest even if it restricted her mobility. Her lingering preoccupation with body image and her insistence to only get into the pool during ‘time slots reserved for ladies’ made me wonder about the agency that Indian women have been left with after generations of systemic repression. Unlike my mother, many South Asians never picked up swimming, in spite of the fact that our countries are flanked by oceans and brimming with lakes and rivers.
Research by in 2020 discovered that 93% of Asian adults and 78% of Asian children don’t swim in the U.K. According to WHO, people succumbed to drowning in the South-East Asia Region. Recent data from New Zealand, Australia and the U.S.A have reported similar findings. This goes to show that learning how to swim isn’t just a recreational activity — in many cases, it could very well save someone’s life.
Pioneers like Arati Saha have surmounted the entrenched marginalisation of South Asian women in sport. Surely but steadily, the missing wave of Indian swimmers is resurfacing with the of India encouraging more families to send their girls to training, with the promise of sports quotas and access to top colleges. A dynamic competitive system and more engaged coaching can go a long way in helping a new generation of girls to swim upstream, against all odds.
If you liked reading this, here's more from Homegrown: