The call of the sea
Bula Chowdhury has crossed seven seas across five continents. She talks about what drives her into the sea.
I should have been a fish. I dream of the seas beckoning me even in my sleep.
IN HER ELEMENT: Bula Chowdhury. PHOTO: K. GANESAN
IN 1999, just a couple of days before crossing the English Channel for the second time (the first time was in 1989) she lost a friend, a Moroccan who had trained with her. While she tried to swim the Channel, she died of fatigue. "It was the darkest moment in my life. I thought I could never take to the water again after her death. But somehow I became more resolute."
In 2000, while swimming across the Straits of Gibraltar from Tarifa in Spain to Puntaciris in Morocco, a distance she covered in three hours 35 minutes bettering the world record by 15 minutes, a school of dolphins accompanied her.
All these experiences will go into long-distance swimmer Bula Chowdhury's book to be published by a Kolkata-based company. When is the book coming out? "Soon. Everything is ready. I have to add the latest chapter."
The latest chapter is about her recent swim from Three Anchor Bay to Robben Island (Robson Bay) near Cape Town in South Africa. She clocked 30 km in three hours and 26 minutes. "I chose this spot because I wanted to pay my respects to Nelson Mandela who was imprisoned on Robben Island," she says.
The stretch is also feared for its sharks. "Only last December a woman was killed by a shark in Robson Bay. But the biggest impediment was the ice-cold water, which causes hypothermia," she recalls.
This feat also makes her the only woman in the world, Bula says, who has swum across seven seas of the five continents. She is waiting for the authentication of the claim before her name figures in the record books.
But Bula is too happy to worry about record books. "From my childhood, I dreamt of crossing the saat samudra, tero nodi (seven seas and 13 rivers, as Bengalis say about great distances beyond the borders). Today, that dream has come true."
Learning to swim
The dream, in fact, began at a very young age. Living on the banks of the Ganga in Srirampur, her introduction to the water was natural. " My father taught me swimming when I was two. Observing my love of the water, my parents took me at the age of five to a club that trained swimmers."
The coach, Ila Paul, a swimmer of repute, immediately took her under her wings. Bula never looked back. Soon she figured in the sports pages regularly, junior championship and gold medal in 1979, national championship in 1982 all under her swimming cap, literally.
PHOTO: R. RAGU
After winning medals and breaking records, Bula got a "bit bored". She wanted to do something new. She also liked adventure sports. So she set her eyes on the distant seas. Under the tutelage of her husband, Sanjib Chakraborty, a former national champion, Bula, now the mother of a son, started training to cross the English Channel.
It was tough; money was a problem. Fortunately, her employers at Jamshedpur sponsored her training and trip.
"To train, you have to stay at Dover on the mouth of the Channel for six to eight weeks. You have to book the pilot boat at least six months ahead but if the weather turns, for which the Channel is notorious, you lose the date and the money." But Bula never gave up and achieved her dream crossing the English Channel in 1989 in 10 hours 46 minutes. In 1990, she got the Arjuna Award.
For a short while, she returned to short-distance swimming. As if to prove her detractors wrong, she won six Gold medals in the 1991 South Asian Federation (SAF) Games. But from then on, it was as if seas were beckoning her to try her skill and determination. And she has swum across all Toroneous Gulf from Nikiti, Sithonia to Cassandra, a stretch between the middle tail of Greece and the left bank; 41 km-long Catalina Channel along the coast of North America, the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka, the Cook Strait in New Zealand, known for its rough seas, to name a few.
Dangers lurked many times because, "Once you're in the water, anything can happen. However much you plan, everything may not go the way you had planned." At Nikiti, salt water filtered through her sea glasses and she was almost half blind but she carried on.
What is her next goal? "I am 35 now. Physically I may not cope with the daily grind of intense training, eight to 13 hours a day, necessary for long- distance swimming. Besides, I have family responsibilities. My son is in Std. XI now and I need to devote time to him. Moreover, I've done all I had dreamed of. Records are of no more importance to me," she says frankly.
But that doesn't mean she will be away from the scene to which she has given so much time and energy. She is an observer with the Sports Authority of India. She also hopes to establish a swimming academy along with her husband to provide more scope for swimmers from the districts.
Secret of success
What is the secret of her success? Discipline, devotion and determination. "When young swimmers ask for my advice I tell them, you can't afford to miss even a day's practice. There is no alternative to hard work."
She follows this dictum. She has her own gym at home. Besides, to increase concentration, she does yoga and reiki regularly. Before a big event she also trains in places like Puri where the sea is usually rough.
"I should have been a fish. I dream of the seas beckoning me even in my sleep," Bula confides. Perhaps somewhere in her veins runs the restless spirit of the eternal seafarer.
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