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Exquisite Stories of Women in Sports: “The Day I Became a Runner: A Women's History of India through the Lens of Sport” by Sohini Chattopadhyay: Book Review

Read the book review of 'The Day I Became a Runner' by Sohini Chattopadhyay, exploring the inspiring stories of Indian women athletes and their impact on society.
on May 21, 2024
Exquisite Stories of Women in Sports: “The Day I Became a Runner: A Women's History of India through the Lens of Sport”  by Sohini Chattopadhyay: Book Review | Frontlist

In “The Day I Became a Runner: A Women's History of India through the Lens of Sport” award-winning journalist Sohini Chattopadhyay explores a unique perspective on Indian history. By chronicling the lives of eight remarkable women athletes, she sheds light on the broader social and cultural transformations in India, all through the seemingly simple act of running.

The premise of Chattopadhyay’s book is strikingly original: running, as a solitary activity in public spaces, challenges patriarchal norms more directly than team sports like cricket or badminton. This bold thesis sets the stage for an engaging narrative that spans the entire history of independent India.

Chattopadhyay brings to life the stories of women like Ila Mitra, who could have been India's first female Olympian in 1940, and Mary D'Souza, who represented India in both running and hockey in the 1950s. The author delves into the lives of Kamaljit Sandhu, the first Indian woman to win a gold medal at the Asian Games in 1970, and P.T. Usha, the sprint queen who almost won an Olympic medal in 1984. Each of these athletes faced immense societal and personal challenges, yet their determination helped pave the way for future generations of women.

The book’s strength lies in its ability to present these athletes not just as sportswomen but as symbols of women's empowerment. Chattopadhyay emphasizes that their accomplishments go beyond their medals and records; these women broke barriers and changed societal perceptions about what women could achieve. For instance, Kamaljit Sandhu’s suggestion to a government minister led to increased support for female athletes in India, highlighting her impact off the track.

P.T. Usha’s story is particularly inspiring. Known as the “Payyoli Express,” Usha’s near-miss at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics captured the imagination of an entire nation. Chattopadhyay skillfully recounts Usha’s journey from a small town in Kerala to international fame, emphasizing the support she received from her coach and later, her husband. The author’s personal reflections on meeting Usha add a poignant layer to the narrative, underscoring Usha’s legacy of normalizing the sight of women running in public spaces in India.

The book also tackles sensitive issues of gender and identity through the stories of Santhi Soundarajan and Dutee Chand. Santhi’s experience with gender testing and the subsequent stripping of her medal at the Doha Asian Games is handled with empathy, highlighting the harsh realities faced by athletes. Dutee Chand’s successful legal battle against World Athletics over her hyperandrogenism showcases a rare victory for gender inclusivity in sports.

Lalita Babar’s journey from the drought-hit region of Maharashtra to the 2016 Rio Olympics is another tale of resilience. Chattopadhyay details Babar’s rise against all odds, illustrating how her success has inspired girls from her district to aspire for more.

The author’s writing is both insightful and engaging. She brings out the personal struggles and triumphs of these women, making their stories relatable and inspiring. The chapter on the Sunrise Project, which trains young girls from impoverished regions to become professional athletes, is particularly heartwarming and showcases the potential for sports to drive social change.

In conclusion, “The Day I Became a Runner” is a compelling read that offers an alternative history of India through the lens of its women athletes. Chattopadhyay’s detailed research and heartfelt storytelling make this book a must-read for anyone interested in sports, history, or gender studies. By focusing on these trailblazing women, Chattopadhyay not only celebrates their achievements but also inspires readers to break their own barriers and chase their dreams.

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