The many players in a bestseller
The success of "the new Indian woman" in sport is a story waiting to be told, but if only there was a State policy of equal opportunity ...
PHOTOS: REUTERS, K.R. DEEPAK
NO SMOOTH RIDE: The story of Sania Mirza
ONE of the memorable books of this generation, The God of Small Things, begins with an equally remarkable quote from John Berger, "Never again will a single story be told as though it is the only one." The success of "the new Indian woman" in sport is a story waiting to be told. And as much as the marketing men make it appear that the main character in this story is a fair-skinned, confident, 18-year-old daughter of a builder born in Mumbai (then Bombay) and brought up in Hyderabad, and is now among the top 40 tennis players of the world, the more vertical layers the story seems to develop.
It is one of those layers that we know well, though not as well as the Sania Mirza chapter. It is the success of a 28-year-old champion brought up in Changanassery a town near Kottayam in Kerala who is currently world number four in her chosen sport (long jump), with the chance of ending the year as the world number three (only two points separate her from Russian Oksana Udmortova).
A story of tenacity
Anju Bobby George.
Anju Bobby George's decision to further her career included a move to Bangalore for training. Her marriage to fellow athlete Bobby George now her coach, manager, and motivator helped her in this regard as well as gave her the much-needed emotional togetherness and security so necessary while jet setting in the professional athletic circuit. Add to this her completion of a bachelor's degree in economics and the stability of a job in Customs, Chennai, and one can learn a lot about the tenacity of the modern Indian women, most of whom are in a lower class location, away from the metropolis, and aiming to move up in life. They also target global success, as Anju's bronze in the World Athletics Championship in Paris in 2003 and the recent silver in the World Athletics Final in Monaco illustrate.
The sad thing, of course, is that despite a contract with a global sports accessories major, Anju does not have in place a decent support staff team of a full-time coach, a doctor and a masseur, which her competitors for the first three places have. Anju, of course, trained whole-time with world record holder Mike Powell for three months in 2003, the only instance when she has had a full-time coach in her career.
Much as Sania cannot be held responsible for the disciplinary superiority, and marketability, of tennis over long jump (though this has led to corporate patronage, managerial assistance and numerous product endorsements, she did not have a full-time coach at this year's Wimbledon), both these trend-setting sporting icons inhabit the same space just as "smaller" and equally successful sportswomen. Anjali Vedpathak Bhagwat won shooting golds in the World Cup as well as the World Cup finals, which inspired a host of fellow women shooters like Suma Shirur. And let's not forget Joshna Chinappa too who has made a splash in Asian squash circles.
Patriarchal value systems
Even if one were to not take into account Koneru Humpy's achievements chess being a sport of "pure" intellect the silver medal effort of weightlifter Karnam Malleswari at the Sydney Olympics and the many medals that Kunjurani Devi won in the world championships are certainly a part of the success story of modern Indian women sportswomen. To hell with the commodified values of the age, which have marginalised these two amazing women on account of them supposedly being outside the boundaries of physical marketability.
That patriarchal value systems are responsible for drawing these boundaries was an honest assessment made by the then national cricket captain Mamta Maben last December when her team was taking on world champions Australia. When asked why the base of Indian women's cricketers was so narrow despite the game's monopoly in the country, Maben said, "Because of the Indian man's concept of beauty, so many talented players do not take up cricket because it is a gruelling sport and you are out in the sun for at least seven to eight hours. Most Indian men want to have a bride with fair skin."
Captain Mithali Raj is the Brian Lara of women's cricket, in that her 214 against England in Taunton in 2002 is the highest individual score in an innings in a Test match. She and other members of the Indian team finished runners up to Australia in the World Cup in South Africa earlier this year. That they dared to swim against the current will hopefully inspire more women to take up the sport rather than the act of television channels bringing in female models to add colour to the studio. Incidentally, the final of the tournament was not telecast live in India, the commercial and economic heartland of world cricket, whereas it was live on terrestrial TV in Australia.
The achievements of women in team sports (which, as academic J.A. Mangan has argued in the context of male sport, is the carrier of national, local and commercial identities all over the world owing to its esprit de corps) are not restricted to cricket alone. Manipur, the nursery of Indian women's football, has more Jes Bhamras (the protagonist of Gurinder Chadha's "Bend it Like Beckham") than Southhall. O. Bem Bem Devi may not be well known in mainstream India, but the star Indian midfielder is an iconic figure in Manipur. The Indian women are ranked by FIFA, a significant achievement given the interest the women's game evokes in the United States, the reigning Olympic champions.
The girls from tribal areas
If it is the Manipur girls in football, in hockey, where India are the defending Commonwealth Games champions, it is the girls from the tribal belts in Jharkand and Orissa who play a major role in India's successes. People such as Masira Surin, Adeline Kerketta and Sumarai Tete in hockey and Bem Bem Devi in football may not earn megabucks, but they hang on to life through the sport they get employment in institutions such as the Indian Railways, airline companies and the Police.
Koneru Humpy is about success after overcoming many obstacles.
The success story of national hockey captain Helen Mary is certainly not in any way inferior to that of Sania Mirza, but she has a different tale to tell, evident from the reception she got during a recent media briefing organised by the Indian Women's Hockey Federation (IWHF) to rope in sponsors for the newly-revived Indira Gandhi Gold Cup. Sharing the platform with a Bollywood star, who has been named as the brand ambassador of IWHF, Mary was largely relegated to the background.
The institutional injustice that Indian women face can be put in perspective by the comments of Belinda Clarke, Australian women's cricket captain. "At home, women's sport does not generally get the media attention or interest. But in our culture, women have an equal opportunity," she said, when asked to compare the struggles of Indian cricketers with those of her own team.
Mithali Raj, Anju Bobby George, Sania Mirza, Sita Gossain, Bem Bem Devi, Karnam Malleswari, Kunjurani Devi et al have proven that they have the confidence, which is a derivative of utmost comfort about their physicality, for success in global competition to back up their skills.
Now, if only they had a State policy of equal opportunity behind them such as the Title Nine Educational Amendment of the U.S. and the Recommendations of the Women in Sport Working Group of the European Sports Conference!
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