There’s a marvellous new book of plays out: Ottam aur Anya Natak – Ottam and Other Plays – by Sapan Saran, published by Vaam Prakashan. Each of the three plays in the book has a woman at its centre.
While theatre is rife with portrayals of women as victims or heroines, long-suffering, silent and strong, Saran is not interested in that trope – her protagonists simply aspire to live life on their own terms and determinedly nurture that spirit in a world that is always trying to show them their place.
Ottam, the third play in Saran’s book, engages with a topic close to my heart – running. “Ottam” is the Tamil word for running. The protagonist Akai lives to run. One may say that running is her life. In a beautiful little scene, Saran captures the utter joy of running: Akai’s father is trying to teach her to play the parai, a percussion instrument that belongs to the Paraiyar caste.
Akai, bored with the slowness of the tempo, starts messing around. She tells her father she’d much prefer to run. He challenges her, “Run through the river as I beat my drum”. She takes up the challenge and flies off. Anxious for his daughter at first, he gets caught up in her running and soon his drumbeats follow, triumphantly.
For me, this scene evoked memories of running as a young girl – my body launching into space and picking up pace till it found a rhythm with my breath; the wind rushing through my hair and against my face; the way it felt to hit second wind and keep pumping, pumping, pumping, beyond the barriers of my body. All runners experience this feeling of expansion, where you lose yourself and become much bigger than yourself. I have always felt utterly beautiful and free when I run.
In my life, running coincided with learning Bharatanatyam. My dance teacher did not like my short hair and boyish ways. I just didn’t have the right adakkam – a Tamil word for a woman’s ability to to contain herself. What happens when society demands adakkam from you, but ottam claims you?
What happens if you are a woman runner with a body that does not fit received ideas of femininity? An androgynous body perhaps, a body too close to perceived masculinity in its strength and expression. In a society taught to think in binaries, only slowly awakening to the fluidities of gender, such a body does not fit. What happens then?
When I was young, I hated standing in airport queues. Twelve years of studying in the US meant an annual roundtrip flight, two security checks each way – 24 flights, 48 checks. I’d stand in the women’s line, holding my breath, hoping to get through without incident.
Invariably, I was asked to go to the men’s line. I’d stand my ground, but had to say that I was a woman – it was humiliating. My women friends are shocked when they hear this; at most, they agree, I could be androgynous. The bottom line, however, is that I am “not feminine enough”.
There are many such “not feminine enough” women in the world of sports, who do not conform to expected presentations of femininity or, despite their skirts and visible breasts, are too muscular, too strong, too fast… just too much.
The stories of women runners who’ve had to negotiate this are legion. I think of Flo-Jo (Florence Griffith-Joyner), the fastest woman sprinter ever, a vision in her short skirts and long painted nails and rippling muscles, flying past a field of champion runners. I think of the Williams sisters of tennis. And of how they always picked on Serena – too black, too unapologetic; Venus was more acceptably feminine. Powerful female athletes without adakkam disturb, even affront, society. And society finds ways to contain them.
One of the weapons by which this is done is gender testing. In her research for the play, Saran discovered how the method of gender verification developed over time. From all women being tested to nude parades for physical inspection of women athletes to the current scenario where only those who arouse suspicion are selected for gender testing.
It is hardly surprising that “suspicious” athletes tend to be those who are “not feminine enough”. Here’s how it works: the athlete’s testosterone levels are checked. If it is “too high” (the norm is invariably the white woman) she is deemed ineligible to compete in women’s races and stripped off her medals. She is thrown out of competitive sport, with no place to go.
At the Mumbai book launch, Saran said, “Dutee Chand had to undergo a gender test, and failed it. Yet, she won the case of hyperandrogynism (higher than normal levels of testosterone). She challenged the court and asked: what is the scientific proof that there is a direct relationship between naturally occurring testosterone and performance? They weren’t able to produce any scientific proof about it.”
A 2017 study, critiqued on grounds of method and bias, found that women with higher levels of testosterone do better in short distance races (up to 800m). But so what? Since these are naturally occurring testosterone levels, why should they disqualify an athlete?
A 2014 study of 693 elite male and female athletes had already found that “16.5 per cent of men had low testosterone levels, whereas 13.7 per cent of women had high levels with complete overlap between the sexes”.
I have experienced the joy and freedom of running, but I also enjoy the privileges of caste, class, education, access and an encouraging family. What does competing at the highest level mean to people who are not cushioned in social privilege?
An Indian Express spotlight on the 256 medal winners – individual and team events; India won 107 medals – of the September-October 2023 Asian Games sheds some light.
Women contributed 43% of the medals India won. A third of all medallists (men and women) came from rural areas. Homes headed by daily wagers accounted for 40 of 256 medals, that is, 15%; 244 athletes anonymously shared their household income – 50 (or 20%) came from families that earned less than Rs 50,000 a year when they began their chosen sport. Only 33 athletes had parents with a stable income.
In media interviews, athletes talk about their struggle, the support of their families, and a change in their social status when they are selected, when they win medals and acclaim. Successful sportspersons can dream of government jobs and financial security.
Imagine, then, what it means to be debarred from competition because you are “not feminine enough”.
Imagine the layers of injustice when a Santhi Soundarajan or a Dutee Chand are disqualified from competitive running on the basis of gender testing. Some, like Dutee, are able to fight back, but society yields nothing easily.
Saran understands that the runner’s feeling of freedom comes from an inner spring – society can neither give it nor take it away. As long as the runner keeps running, her spirit cannot be broken. Ottam takes this metaphor and runs with it.
Through the story of Akai, the play revels in women’s freedom and desire, confronts the violent machinations of patriarchal society, and rests power in the spirit of the individual woman.
When Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance runner, winner of two Olympic gold medals and three World Championships, was gender-tested, stripped of her honours and disqualified from running, she responded with: “I am woman, I am fast”. Ottam celebrates this woman, fast, magnificent, and free.
Sameera Iyengar is a Mumbai-based theatre person and creative producer, who also loves sports.
This article was first published in National Herald, on Sunday, 14 January 2024.