Within a few years of starting to swim at the Hatkhola Swimming Club, Arati Saha had become a swimming star. People would come to watch her swim, and wonder how a little one could swim so fast and so perfectly.

Her days fell into a perfect routine – wake up early for swimming practice, get back home and get ready for school. Then she would return home, go to swim again, return home, finish studies, chat with her cousins or watch her aunts prepare dinner. They would eat dinner and go to bed. By bedtime, Arati would be so tired that she would fall asleep in no time. But in a few years, she had improved by leaps and bounds. It was time to test her “real” talent. It was time for competitions.

At Hatkhola Club, there were internal competitions to train the children for contests outside. Freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly – Arati was at ease in every form. It was as if she were dancing in the pool – a perfect symphony of breathing along with arm and leg movements.

In 1946, when she was still five years old, she won a gold medal in 110-yard freestyle at the Shailendra Memorial Swimming Competition in Calcutta. That was the beginning of her swimming career. Over the next few years, Arati went on a winning streak, travelling to various parts of the country and within West Bengal to participate in swimming competitions. During these trips, officials from the Hatkhola Club would accompany their team. Arati enjoyed travelling – there were so many things to watch through the train windows! She hoped to travel far – very far.

In 1849, educationist John Drinkwater Bethune had set up the Bethune School (the Calcutta Female School). It was a watershed event in the history of women’s education in India. He had the support of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar among other leading educationists. The Bethune College was set up in 1879. This was the first college for women in India. Thanks to educationists like Bethune and social reformers like Vidyasagar, women in the late 19th century were very different from their mothers. Now, women started to step out of their homes to reach schools and colleges. But sporting activities or physical education were still not encouraged.

The situation changed for the better in the 1920s. Women like Kalpana Dutta and Pritilata Waddedar were involved in the Chittagong Armoury Raid in 1930. They used to play badminton in their Chittagong school and were involved in various sports at Bethune College. Many like them participated in the nationalist movement along with men.

An association for women’s combat training, called the Deepali Sangha, was formed in 1923 in Dhaka by Leela Roy (nee Nag). Leela Roy was the first female student of Dhaka University. Those who enrolled in Deepali Sangha also played badminton, tennis, and so on.

Missionary schools contributed a lot to women’s physical education as they considered it an integral part of overall education. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was very active in Bengal around 1912–13 and drill was taught to all teachers of missionary boarding schools, and that included women. The Gokhale Memorial School and Bethune School were two of the earliest schools to teach women physical education. Kathi (stick) play was popular among girls.

But swimming wasn’t particularly common among women. Some of the early women swimmers in Bengal were Amiya Debi and Sabitri Rani Khandelwala. But the biggest star before Arati was perhaps Ila Sen, who won many medals between 1935 and 1942. Ila became the junior state champion in swimming in the Bengal province in 1937 and 1938. Not only was she good in swimming, she also excelled in basketball, badminton, athletics and tennis. Sen would have represented India at the Helsinki Olympic Games in 1940, but the Olympics were cancelled that year due to World War II. In 1942, after her intermediate examination, Ila joined Bethune College and was hugely influenced by the Communist Party. She joined the Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and travelled across the state for relief work for a devastating famine that hit Bengal in 1943.

It had been a long-drawn struggle for women before Arati Saha to come out of their homes and pursue their interests and ambitions.

Excerpted with permission from The Incredible Life of Arati Saha: The Swimmer Who Wouldn’t Give Up, Swati Sengupta, Talking Cub.