The Get-Set-Go-Daughters

Chatura Rao
Grist Media
A runner trains on the beach. Photo by Chatura Rao

In October 2009, I took my 7-year old daughter to her first interschool track-and-field meet. It was at Priyadarshini Parkin South Mumbai, an orange-brown racetrack by the Arabian Sea. We didn’t know then that it is called a synthetic track, nor that it is one of the best in Mumbai, where actor Farhan Akhtar would train for his role as an athlete in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.

Preet, small and skinny, was intimidated by the athletes – almost all bigger than her – in their shorts and vests, tracksuits, and spiked running shoes.

“Where will my 50-meter race begin and where will it end?” she asked, scanning the track with her short-sighted eyes. I was not sure. So, when they announced for Girls Under-8 to “report”, she stood (among 70 other girls) where they told her to and, on Go, ran the Heats, finishing at the rear of her group.

Lingering beside the track in the blistering heat that afternoon, “I didn’t know from where upto where to run,” she said, desperately, “Can I have another try?”

I said no, you get just one shot at it. But don’t be a sore loser. It’s only your first race.

I want to take a picture. Smile for a picture? But she shook her head and began to cry instead.

I’ve kept the photograph of a sweaty child clutching a water bottle and crying. Five years ago you did not photograph everything, definitely not a race lost. But I thought the experience of running her first race, on a track by the open sea, was special.

Shortly after, I found coach Bala Govind at the Andheri Sports Complex, a Municipality-run sports stadium a kilometer away from our home. But the veteran, once coach to Adille Sumariwalla (India athlete and now president of the Athletics Federation of India), was on his way to quitting his job.

Save in the rains, this 400m track stadium is hired out as a shooting venue for popular, televized talent competitions and shows. Huge wooden and metal structures are erected on it, ruining the topsoil with nails, plastic refuse, electric wiring and broken glass.

Bala Govind and his senior athletes protested, even litigated, but failed to beat the network of municipal officials and politicians that had banded together to profit from this bit of prime land located close to Mumbai’s TV production companies. (Another part of the Sports Complex is a permanent on-hire wedding venue). Bala Govind, embittered, was leaving it behind to start again in smaller, less commercial Nasik, where land on which to train his runners would be more easily available.

Bala Govind’s assistant coach was 27-year-old Firoz Ustad, an athlete and cricketer. He took over the coaching of Bala Sir’s athletes, moving training to Juhu beach. Poised 100m ahead of his runners, in the dawn quiet of 5.30am, he’d raise his right arm in the air, stopwatch ready in his left palm, pause, then let the arm drop. The runners would charge up the stretch again and again to best their own timing. From him, Preet learnt where a race begins, how to run, how to finish it.

Over the years, endurance or mileage running, drills and weight training have been added to the schedule. A rainy day last week, two ten- year-olds in our group, a boy and a girl, facing each other did a minute and half of spot jogging, raising their knees as high as they could, heads thrust forward. As Firoz Sir, Preet and other runners urged them to keep up the pace, never flag, their eyes blazed and sweat rivered off their bodies. Its smell filled the half open, asbestos-roofed shed in which they were doing their drills. I’ve come to see that a girl in sports is as competitive as a boy, as hard on her body, as unafraid of a challenge.

The heat and dust of track-and-field is addictive. Preet and I went under, a few months after her first track event. Since 2010, she’s run races at countless local and regional athletic meets. Her father has hauled a carton of one-liter water bottles a kilometer from store to field. At every event, I’ve carried a knapsack containing a crepe bandage, Iodex, spiked shoes, glucose, water bottles, Relispray, dry fruit, safety pins to tack on her chest numbers, and a cap for my head. A sportsgirl’s parent has to have a strong back and hardy legs, and must never faint in the sun.

The parent of a sportsperson must also carry in him a strong heart. Vaibhavi Pai Vernekar, an Under-14 sprinter from Thane district, has been one of Maharashtra’s sprinting champions since 2011. This summer, she did not qualify for the team. Milind Pai, her father, ex-Maharashtra athlete, hurt, rage and worry transfiguring an otherwise strong face, told me that Dadoji Konddev Stadium (their local training ground), was closed for the monsoon for two months and before that, had been appropriated for police recruitment and Thane Municipal Corporation recruitment events. Vaibhavi and other medal-winning athletes had been forced to train on the concrete stairs of the stadium.

In early April this year, Preet qualified to represent our district, Mumbai Suburb, at the 100m sprint for Girls Under-14. She was to compete at the 12th National Inter District Junior Athletics Meet in Haridwar, where nearly 10,000 young athletes from 909 districts would gather. At the end of April we left for Haridwar, changing trains at New Delhi.

Athletes going to track-and-field meets usually stay as close to the sporting venue as is affordable, or in lodges by the railway station, which have budget rooms and food available at odd hours. Besides, you can leave town quickly if you don’t qualify for subsequent rounds of the competition.It is expensive to stay without reason.

The Inter District Meet was a half-hour shared tempo ride from our lodge near Haridwar railway station. Open-sided tents had been erected at three sides of the BHEL grass track stadium. These provided a little protection from the 41 degree heat.

Most runners, jumpers and throwers waited to report for their events under the tall, fine-leaved trees outside the stadium. They unfolded, and sat or lay down on used flex banners (what political parties print their candidates’mugshots on very commonly now) to await the call to report. Some walked about licking ice lollies.

Each athlete had been given a booklet of coupons entitling them to packets of food and sealed cups of water. This food was available on the far side of our campsite. There was one garbage can for vast amounts of litter. A thicket of trees to the left of the stadium was a free-to-use, open air loo. Close to the main gate were the stalls that come up outside every interstate track and field meet, of merchants selling sports vests, shorts, running shoes and spikes – export surplus goods that are sold at a discount to athletes, who practically live in these clothes all the year round.

Officials of the Athletics Federation of India announced events and instructions on blaring speakers in Hindi and English repeatedly. One complained that many athletes could not understand his instructions in either language – they had come from as far as Nagaland and Rameshwaram.

We spent three blistering days there. What saved us from hunger and heatstroke was a mushrooming of sugarcane and sweet lime pushcarts manned by a few good people from nearby villages, selling juice for ten rupees a glass.

Preet cleared rounds of Heats and Semi-Finals, and qualified for the Finals. The girl with the best timing had clocked 12.4 seconds, 0.5 seconds ahead of the second fastest runner. It was a timing that no girl who is actually under 14 years can clock, said the officials there, proceeding to disqualify her from the event. There were no medical tests to confirm or deny anyone’s birth certificate-deemed age.

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Children in sports training are unlike others. These can take the pain of swollen ankles, twisted knees, aching backs and shoulders at the end of days that begin at 5am with two hours of training, a mad rush to school, a gym workout straight after school, tuitions and then to bed by 10pm, for barely six hours of rest before another gruelling day. Why do it when you’re just 12 and 13 years old? Such a crucial time for a young girl: puberty and the start of the menstrual cycle, a jump in academic demands too.

“It’s for the medal,” Meghna Devanga’s mother says calmly.“She’s addicted to winning.”

I recognise the look about Pravina Devanga. She’s the lady who’s lugged the knapsack for her daughter, Meghna, a 17-year-old shotput thrower, who holds the national record in her age category. She’s created four national records and has won 12 national Golds. Last year Meghna represented India five times at international meets, winning Golds twice.

To meet Meghna, I take a local train from Andheri northwards to Vasai, in the neighbouring district of Thane. My rickshaw windsits way through busy Vasai station, then out into the countryside. At the end of a quiet, green lane is Vidyavikasini High School and Junior College where, I learn, Meghna began athletic training when she was 9 years old.

Her coach TA Thomas is a lean, fifty-ish man with an easy smile. He is her school PT teacher, an ex-marathon runner for Maharashtra State who has groomed Meghna into an international thrower. He says she has an inborn talent to throw and that she was easy to train. Meghna says little, except to list the dizzying number of athletic events and places she’s competed at (Amritsar, Pune, Ranchi, Lucknow, Itawa, Bhopal, Malaysia, Ukraine, Brazil, China), and the record-breaking distances she’s spanned with an iron ball.

“Have you ever bothered about being more ‘like a girl’?” I ask her, awkwardly and half in jest, as she leans heavily across the table of the school Staffroom her coach has led us into.“Her father insisted she wear a sari to a family wedding once,” her mother mentions from the seat across us. “Her uncle asks when she will ever be like a girl. When we take her to shop for nice clothes, meaning traditional Indian ones, she opts for new jeans and a T-shirt.”

To be ‘like a girl’ is passé for Meghna, who dreams of taking the victory stand at the Olympic Games as India’s national anthem is played for her. “I’m fine as I am,” she shrugs.

She is in fact, fine to behold when she walks into the shotput circle. Right hand weighing the four kilo ball, she bends down. As she rises, she directs the power of her entire lower body into a smooth turning, thrusting motion, propelling the iron put through the airwith gravity-defying ease.

I am reminded of Iris Marion Young’s definitive essay, Throwing Like a Girl, where Young writes, “Women tend not to put their whole bodies into engagement in a physical task with the same ease and naturalness as men. For example, in attempting to lift something, women more often than men fail to plant themselves firmly and make their thighs bear the greatest proportion of the weight. Instead we tend to concentrate our effort on those parts of the body most immediately connected to the task – the arms and shoulders – rarely bringing the power of the legs to the task at all.”

Young claims that not only is there a typical style of throwing like a girl, but there is a more or less typical style of running, climbing, swingingand hitting like a girl. The whole body is not put into fluid and directed motion. The woman’s motion tends not to reach, extend, lean, stretch, and follow through in the direction of her intention.

Meghna, like all throwers (of javelin, discus and shotput), jumpers (long and high) and runners, defies the norm. They occupy a less constricted space. They imagine their own bodies as not frail.

Journalist and co-author of Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, Sameera Khan, observes that for a girl in sports, questions like, ‘am I too dark’, ‘flat-chested’ or ‘do I seem too aggressive to boys’, would probably occur less. She occupies her body, honing strength and skill continually. So her identity is tied up with how she achieves her goals through it, rather than how it might appear to others. “These girls are also more matter-of-fact about puberty and the changes it brings,” says Sameera.

Preet, at a recent Eid party, wearing a churidar-kurta, within the first half hour of being there relaxed her long legs into a comfortable sprawl. I had to stop myself from nudging her to ‘sit like a girl’. I had to remind myself that for her, the journey from child to womanhood is via the bypass, to the freeway.

Not all girl athletes are so lucky. At the Inter District meet, I mistook 13-year-old girls from Haryana for boys. Wiry, with crew cut hair, they wore tight, silent expressions. They ran, jumped and threw at the events, but off the field, were grave and shorn of all playfulness. Perhaps they belong to a setting that allowsthemto perform on the sports field alongside boys, but only when closely monitored – by others and eventually, themselves. Perform, but not play.

There are also curbs on how fast a girl may run, before being subjected to gender testing.On June 27 this year, champion sprinter Dutee Chand, a 19-year-old tribal girl from Orissa who holds the Indian 200m sprinting record,was debarred from participating in the Commonwealth Games at Glasgow by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) on the basis of a gender test which deemed that her androgen level was higher than the norm.

“Preliminary investigations indicate that the athlete is not fit for participation in a female event due to female hyperandrogenism,” SAI said in a press release. “The athlete will still be able to compete in the female category in future if she takes proper medical help and lowers her androgen level to the specified range.”

On September 12, it was a huge victory for the Asian Games gold medallist athlete Pinki Pramanik who had been accused of raping another woman. The Calcutta High Court quashed all charges against her. The incident, in 2012, had triggered a debate about whether Pinki had won her medals under unfair conditions. Pinki was arrested, forced to undergo sex verification tests six times without court orders and jailed for 25 days.

Gender testing of elite sportswomen the world over is dogged with controversy. In a 2013 story on Santhi Soundarajan, a runner who was disqualified for ‘failing’ sex-verification tests, Caravan quotedKatrina Karkazis of the Center for Biomedical Ethics, Stanford University, who asked if it was fair to treat abnormally high testosterone differently from other biological traits that may give elite athletes a similar advantage. Caravan went on to quote a US newspaper that said such advantage was “no more than other traits like the cavernous lung capacity of British rower Pete Reed, who can take in nearly twice as much oxygen as Lance Armstrong, and the hyper-flexible joints of American swimmer Michael Phelps.”

The International Olympic Committee’s Rules on Female Hyperandrogenismassert, “In the event that the athlete has been declared ineligible to compete in the female category, the athlete may be eligible to compete as a male athlete, if the athlete qualifies for the male event of the sport.” If Usain Bolt’s traits be revealed to be just outside the range of a human male, will he be disqualified from the men’s event, and it be suggested to him to compete with cheetahs?

Given such uncertainty of circumstance for girl athletes, both Meghna’s mother and coach worry for her future. “I was always a great cricket fan, so I’ve supported her keen involvement in sports,” her mother says. “But it is crucial for her, as a girl, to be financially independent. She needs the promise of a job, based on her sporting performance.”

“Vidyavikasini High School has sponsored her travel and stay for athletic meets so far, but she will graduate from school and turn pro next year,” TA Thomas explains. “If she had a sponsor, she could train with a free mind. Already she needs access to better food…” But she must be eating well enough?” I interrupt, puzzled by what can’t be a real lack in Meghna’s middle-class household.

They explain that at a typical national sports camp, the government spends approximately Rs 700 on an athlete’s daily diet. “Seven eggs, a liter of fresh milk, paneer, chicken, juice, dry fruit, fruit, even bars of chocolate,” Meghna says. Camps are held before major events only. The rest of the year, an unsponsored athlete must raise, then, approximately Rs 20,000 per month to be able to eat well enough to train.

“Meghna needs a proper gymnasium (so far we’ve cobbled together some weights for her) and the assurance of livelihood in the future. A sports sponsorship is crucial. But even newspapers in Mumbai city refuse to publicize her achievements. We’ve applied for a Mahindra Sports scholarship,” Thomas adds hopefully.

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Abraham Maslow’s famous 1943 study, ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, lists a hierarchy of needs that motivate behavior. Basic physiological needs are air, food, sleep, and stimulation. Moving up the hierarchy, there is the need for safety, for love and belonging, self-esteem needs, and eventually ‘self-actualization’ which is about realizing personal potential, and growth.

Most athletes in India grapple with fulfilling the lower tier needs of the hierarchy. The assurance of a livelihood is key to his or her athletic journey. So many hours committed to sports training means sacrificing access to a job that depends on academic degrees. Young male athletes who I’ve met from low-income backgrounds inevitably prepare for police, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Army recruitment fitness tests.

For younger athletes from low income or rural families, the need is even more basic. While senior coaches like Bala Govind speak about the coach-athlete-parent ‘triangle’ as essential to the athlete’s success, Suresh Kakad, government coach at Krida Prabodhini (KP), the Maharashtra government’s sports body, alters the phrase: “It is coach-athlete and facilities that the athlete has access to, that motivate her.”

Once a national 100m runner, long jumper and hurdler, Suresh Kakad (42) has been training young boys and girls from districts like Pune, Latur, Satara and Sangli, for 14 years. His students stay at the sports hostel of the Balewadi stadium, Pune. KP has a presence in 11 districts in Maharashtra.

Young athletes (8 to 14-year-olds) access the Maharashtra government’s sports program in two ways. Either they win a State medal, or pass nine tests of skill and fitness. Parents of rural girls, Kakad explains, try to get their girls into KP equally for access to food as for sports coaching. They hope their daughters might be offered corporate or government jobs in the years to come, if their sporting achievements bring them into the limelight. Until then, they can eat, stay and be schooled at the government sports hostel.

I met a troop of these girls at the State Selections event in Pune, in June. Braided hair and easy smiles, clad in dark blue and red T-shirts, they watched the visiting athletes with curious interest and were surprised that I hadn’t ever heard of Krida Prabodhini, the scholarship that provides for their needs and gives them an identity.

“When rural girls are selected,” Kakad explains, “we check if they have any actual interest in the sport. Often we have to counsel them: you are talented, else you’d be back in your village home like any ordinary girl! We show them the carrot: if you work hard you will win name, fame and get a job. Look at PT Usha, India’s Golden Girl. She too was a rural athlete!”

My secret desire at every Meet has been to run into (no pun intended) the legendary PT Usha.

In the ladies’ washroom of the Maharani College stadium in Kochi, at an inter-state in September 2013, my eyes happen to catch those of a 15-year-old girl in the mirrors by the wash basin. We smile and I notice, printed on the back of her T-shirt, the words Usha School of Athletics. I askif I could meet her coach. In broken English she replies that “Usha-chechi” (big sister in Malayalam) has not come with them. I find out later that she is in Gujarat, getting medical help for a chronic knee injury.

I follow the girl, Shabana, out to where her team sits. Six girls aged between 13 and 18 smile when I introduce myself as a great fan of their coach. They are shy but eager to speak. I am pointing a Handycam as we chat, so they giggle and nudge each other to answer the questions I ask in English. Their eyes are alight with something I’ve rarely seen in girls this age. A feeling which I identify, with some difficulty, as joy... free play. They admit that they’ve all won medals in their races, and are now waiting for Jessy Joseph, the most senior athlete in their group, to run her race.

Jessy stretches like a cat on a yoga mat next to them. She gives me a brief nod, preferring to concentrate on her task. She goes for a jog and does her warm up exercises. Her curly hair is oiled and combed flat into a disciplined ponytail, and her eyes are close-set and intense.

When under-18 girls are called to report for the 800m race, the small frown intensifies between her eyes, becomes etched into her visage as she takes her assigned place on the track. I begin to record her on my camera, knowing instinctively that she’s one to watch out for. Long easy strides carry her around the synthetic track. She takes an easy lead over her competitors and with the Gold, sets a new Meet record.

In June 2014, Jessy won an individual Silver and a relay Gold medal (along with Dutee Chand), at the Asian Junior Athletics Championships in Taipei City.

Back home in Mumbai, I show the race to Preet and senior runners of her group. They silently watch Jessy’s technique, her every muscle, every instinct directed to the win. In her long stride lies the direction of their dreams.

Back in Haridwar, at 2pm on the final day, Preet lies flat in the dust just off the field, trying to recover strength for the final race. She will compete with seven others from a cross section of districts across the country. “This race will be neck-to-neck,” Firoz has said. “Fight!” Her knee is stiff from our train journeys here. She managed to run the Heats and Semis without it buckling on her. But now she’s both tired and worried.

A well-built 16-year-old boy athlete approaches us. He points to Preet’s starting block (the steel bar which gives an athlete a stable start to a race), lying next to me on the concrete stadium stair. He asks in Tamil if he could borrow it for a race. Having spent my childhood in Chennai, I understand his words. Because of her bad knee, she is not using the block, so I say okay, take it.

When her race is announced, Preet warms up and goes to the starting line. To her surprise, another girl, a competitor from the Tamil Nadu team, is fixing that very block in her lane, and practising starts off of it. Preet rushes back to her coach and tells him.

“You can’t use it anyway,” he replies shortly. “Go do your best.”

Preet does her best. She comes fifth, with a timing of 13.8 seconds, losing to the Tamil Nadu girl who’d used her block. Like in all sports stories, whether about girls or boys, life lessons get learnt.

The Tamil Nadu boy returns later with Preet’s block. He is smiling gratefully. Through my disappointment I force a smile.

He asks how Preet has fared. We shake our heads, and as he excitedly tells a teammate that this stranger in faraway Uttarakhand actually understands their language, I pick up the dusty knapsack. I take my tall, tired daughter’s hand and lead her away from the stadium, empty now of all but the medal winners.

There is a word called ‘physis’ I like to keep in my head. It comes from the Greek word for change and growth...for becoming. Perhaps it is why I set an alarm for 4.50am, rinse sleep from my eyes, shake awake my sleepy girl and try to motivate her in whispers, even as she lies in her dark, warm bed, to rise and run again today.

Chatura Rao writes fiction for children and adults. 'Amie and the Chawl of Colour', 'Meanwhile Upriver', 'Growing Up in Pandupur',  'Nabiya', and short stories too, are published by Puffin, Scholastic, Penguin, Young Zubaan and Tulika Books. Her world, like Mumbai city, is always 'under construction'…being adjusted and altered a little each day.