The girls and women who represent India in the Olympics often come from the country’s vast silent majority
Every four years in predictable rotation, the Olympic Games become another pearl-clutching moment for India’s chattering classes.
As every day passes, the nation of 1.3 billion continues to fall far down the medal standings. At the time of writing, it’s ranked 64th in Tokyo, behind the four-way tie of Kyrgyzstan, Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Armenia, whose combined population is less than that of Rajasthan.
Zoom into those athletes who do win, and it’s apparent that genuinely world-class India is far removed from the images that are usually projected by its triumphalist majoritarians.
This is the boxing champion Lovlina Borghoain from Golaghat in Assam, whose rural home is reached by a road that was only begun to be paved after she was guaranteed a medal.
It is Saikhom Mirabai Chanu of Imphal in Manipur, whose weightlifting heroics have made her celebrated as “India’s daughter” by the same constituencies that usually treat her people with suspicion for being allegedly insufficiently patriotic.
Most compelling is the relentlessly resilient women’s hockey team that pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the sport’s history, by holding off overwhelmingly favoured Australia to make it into the semi-finals.
Here is the true face of India at its best: Former child labourer Neha Goyal, Nikki Pradhan, whose hometown in Jharkhand is controlled by Maoist militias, 21-year-old Lalremsiami of Mizoram, who didn’t speak Hindi or English at all when first selected. Their captain Rani Rampal’s father pulled handcarts to feed his family.
All these are invisible Indians from the vast silent majority that serves the whims and fancies of the urban affluent (who comprise at best one-fifth of the country’s population). Once the Olympic Games are over, they will go back to being “the servant class.”
In his Mint column this week, Manu Joseph (his 2010 Serious Men is one of the best novels of the 21st century) struck bullseye by pointing out “the very existence of Indian athletes of global calibre is not because of India, but in spite of India.”
Joseph says “to be young in India and be talented in any sport other than cricket is among the great human misfortunes. The whole nation seems designed to treat every Indian as a poor person.
Any comfort, even air-conditioning, is wrongly perceived by administrators as a luxury. If you have ever been on a school or college team, and participated in government-run competitions, you will know how gloomy the sports scene is.”
Those responsible for this extra-ordinarily shabby state of affairs constantly make excuses for their incompetence and mismanagement.
As Joseph says: “The talented poor do not know that they deserve better; that it is very easy for their nation to organize meets that start on time, provide bottled water for every athlete, offer hotel accommodation instead of lodging contestants in unused railway compartments, offer shelters so that athletes don’t wait for their events in the hot sun, ensure that girls are not harassed, and no one has to endure the petty politics of sports administrators who use sporting federations as spring-boards to low-rung politics.”
“Indian nationalism is chiefly about the rich recruiting the poor to do the difficult job of making India proud,” concludes Joseph. This leads to a grotesque situation, where “one of the most unfit societies in the world, with a majority who cannot sprint 50 metres [is] filled with strong opinions about athletes who have reached the global stage despite the mediocrity of their politicians and administrators.”
That precise scenario has been playing out at length on social media all through these Olympics. One set of exchanges played out on Twitter, where the outstanding cricket all-rounder Shikha Pandey (she is the first Air Force officer to play for India) has been posting infectiously enthusiastic messages of support to the Olympians.
On July 31, she posted a meme that means “I’ve got my eyes on you” with the message: “Indian #olympics women athletes to patriarchy right now … and forever.”
Amongst some messages of support came the predictable hate: “Stupid westernised bullshit thought process ... Get well soon in your head ... We are children of Aadhi Shakthi ... Don’t mix sports with your Feminazi crap ...”
I am a huge fan of Pandey -- who belongs to my home state of Goa -- and her entire Indian women’s cricket team, which plays with the verve and elan that was long ago sapped from the game of their male counterparts.
When I asked her what it takes for Indian women to play sports at the highest level, Pandey responded: “The single most thing that is difficult about being a sportswoman from and in India is overcoming the social taboos and the cultural baggage that come along.”
She said: “Patriarchy is such a vast subject, and its roots are so deep into our system and society. A simple example is -- a boy growing up is always expected to play with a bat, a football, or a car, and a girl is gifted a doll. We don’t even realize it’s wrong at every basic level. We need to have a society where the kids can just be and choose what and who they want to become.”
Pandey told me that she felt lucky to come from a state with high literacy, but even then, “there were still those odd remarks of why a girl needed to play or pursue sport [but] my family was very good at ignoring them.”
Like everyone else in the country, Pandey is inspired by the women’s field hockey team: “Every member of that team has a story worth being told.”
She says: “I have always been proud to be donning the India jersey, and consider it to be an absolute privilege to be representing my country. Every time I step onto the field, I want to contribute towards a win and do well, yes, but I also look to inspire those little five-year-olds who watch us play, because that is what matters the most.”
Those little girls will make the difference for the future of Indian sport.
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.