I don’t know if it was wishful thinking, (given that the New Year was around the corner), or just curiosity, as someone who had never run in her life (and fantasised about the day I would) that made me pick up Sohini Chattopadhyay’s book, The Day I Became a Runner. Perhaps, as a woman, having never been encouraged nor expected to play sport outside of torturous physical education classes, I wanted to understand what made women athletes of our country pick up sport decades ago when it would likely have been a choice that met with much more resistance. What kind of a relationship did they share with running? How did it define them, their future, and that of the country as the subtitle of the book suggests? In a series of eleven chapters, profiling nine different athletes, interspersed with her own family’s history, the author presents an eminently readable and emotionally charged account of a nation just learning to view women as sportspersons.

The right to exist

The first chapter which incidentally was my favourite in the book caught me completely off guard. Chattopadhyay speaks of the grief of her grandmother’s death that propelled her into running. “Grief without ritual can be bewildering,” she writes. “Ritual helps you hope. The bother of abiding by it is also a form of suffering it can ease the guilt.” In all the feel-good sports movies I had watched, pursuing sports was often a way to prove one’s worth, to achieve discipline, glory or fame. But the idea of running as a “mourning ritual” was evocative in a very different way something that instantly connected me with the humanity of the author. I could understand what she meant I could put myself in her shoes, literally.

Chattopadhyay’s writing style is a beautiful mix of personal anecdotes and thoughts interlaced with the interviews and histories of the athletes that she profiled, which is both refreshing and unnerving. It feels like a conversation with a friend, and I found myself nodding in agreement often, or wanting to present an opposing view only to remember it was just me talking to myself.

From the first autobiographical account, she moves deftly in and out of stories of women who tried to run and the obstacles they faced, much like herself when she first started running. One of the most prominent themes in the book is the claim to space by women that sports demand, how hard-fought it remains, and the legitimacy that playing for the nation gives women to rightfully demand an occupation of this space. While the public/private divide being mapped neatly onto the male/female segregation has long been a topic of scholarly interest in India, I confess that education, rather than sport had always been, in my mind, a justification for its transgression.

This book, however, changed my mind. From the stories of PT Usha, whose name has become an adjective in itself, to Lalita Babar, whose legacy was enshrined in the road that she carved, figuratively and otherwise, for other girls from her village to follow, the lives Chattopadhyay covers are truly a history of a nation evolving its ideas of freedom, its conceptions of what women can achieve, and the dreams they are allowed to have.

Much of this, of course, rests on solid support systems and a (fair) bit of good luck. As the book reminds us in chapter after chapter, through the narratives of Mary D’Souza, Kamaljit Sandhu, Duttee Chand and Santhi Soundarajan among others, the stories of these women athletes are as much their own histories as those of supportive family members and inspiring coaches who made it their “personal mission” to encourage them coupled of course, with serendipitous encounters that changed the course of their lives.

In a much-needed reality check (lest I got too hopeful reading), Chattopadhyay tells us that men like Usha’s [coach] Nambiar sir, Bharat Chavan, or Nagpuri Ramesh, were only a few good apples, who had “somehow escaped the endemic patriarchy of the continent.” I wondered how many more stories there would be, of women who had the talent and grit, but did not have the men they needed to be able to chase their dreams.

Being alone is not always a bad thing, though. The very reason that running was the sport of choice for many of these women had to do with it being a solitary sport, inexpensive and accessible, no matter where you are. It needs “no special equipment, no rules, no partner, or training” to begin. You just start. You run. And if you keep running, things have a way of working themselves out.

The ‘real woman’

But it is just as easy for everything to fall apart. As they did in the case of Santhi Soundarajan, who became a victim of state apathy, discarded like a “defective toy” by the very people who had cheered her when she brought them glory. In one of the most moving sections of the book, Soundarajan’s story is detailed as a terrifying account of how her fall from grace, after failing a “gender test”, and the combination of bureaucratic procedures and medical “opinions” that were used to justify a series of atrocities committed against her which can hardly be read divorced from her caste position.

A large section of Chattopadhyay’s book deals with the ways in which sports rests on a fundamental, “biological” distinction between the two sexes in which any scope for accommodating the fluidity of human biology threatens to upend the very basis of sport itself. Through the stories of Soundarajan, Pinki Pramanik and Duttee Chand, we learn about the minutiae of ignominies female athletes’ bodies are subjected to, the feast of media vultures preying on selling these stories as cheap titillation, and the mental, physical, psychological toll these experiences take on their victims.

Chattopadhyay minces no words here and invites the reader to close the presumed distance between those cases and themselves, by laying out in detail the erratic, irrational basis of many arbitrary distinctions and standards applied to athletes to prove themselves “women”. How would you feel, tomorrow, if someone came and told you that you weren’t woman enough, because you weighed a few extra kilos, your hair was not the right shade of black, or your face had three more pimples than permitted? The book reflects on the gendered nature of the tests that are coerced only on women’s bodies, with men never being “less” or “more” men a poignant reminder of how the personal will always be political for women.

Its politics, in fact, was one of the more surprising aspects of the book, most starkly visible in the choice to place last the chapter on Ila Mitra, and the discussions that followed on the current right-wing populism sweeping the subcontinent. While Chattopadhyay’s own stance is amply evident, I found the hopeful presumptions of the ideological alignments of the women she interviewed slightly misplaced, if not naïve. One of the weaker aspects of the writing to me perhaps was the author’s tendency to fill gaps in material with ruminations on what she thought her interviewees might believe. In most instances, such thoughts and personal anecdotes sprinkled throughout were thought-provoking or delightful additions, but in a few cases, they felt like a forceful projection, adhering to a set chapter format that was unnecessary.

If anything, I would have loved to learn more of Chattopadhyay’s own life story as an epilogue, and how her relationship with sport changed in light of the interviews she carried out. Does she still run? Does she see herself anew? To me, personally, this was a book that ignited curiosity, wonder, awe, and amazement. And a tinge of regret at having missed till now, what running or any sport really can do to change your relationship with yourself, mind and body. I wish I had read it much sooner, and idolised, or even known these women for longer. But what it gave me most was hope. That I too, can become a runner.

Taanya Kapoor is a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, Department of International Development, where her thesis revolves around the contradictions of “Modern Daughterhood”and persisting son preference among the middle and upper middle classes in India since the 1990s. She is currently also part of a comparative research project analysing urban transformation and gender discrimination in India and Johannesburg.

The Day I Became a Runner: A Women’s History of India through the Lens of Sport, Sohini Chattopadhyay, HarperCollins India.