The medals that Indian women never won

Mainly because the disciplines are not to be found in the Olympics, though they do exist in real life. Is that fair? It is fair & lovely, as the Indian women themselves will tell you, although they are fully aware of the difference between reality & Bollywood – or between a woman’s chores in real life & the most eyesome Olympic gyrations.

Millions of Indian women have never played badminton, for example – have never seen badminton being played, except now, on TV, and that’s because of PV Sindhu. And I won’t even talk of all the other disciplines in which you have to wear – arey Ram’ Ram’! – and spring around like – Hai Bhagwan!

Take 1976, the Malda Passenger, Third Class unreserved. The Women’s Rice Smuggling race is in progress. The panels on either side of the carriage have been torn open, leaving large and gaping holes for the rice smugglers to stash away their bags of rice. Every now and then the train stops at some minor station and the police stomp in, looking for smugglers & contraband. The chalwallis or the Rice Women have around five to fifteen seconds to collect their rice bags, get down on the station platform & run to a raided buggy – because the unraided buggies will be next in line – while people cheer! Everybody’s having their share of fun – exactly as in the Olympics – especially the police constables & the young rowdies who seem to be more interested in teasing the rice smuggling ladies – call them athletes – than catching them or watching them get caught. I could hear one such ‘athlete’ trying to ward off the advances of an over-ardent ‘fan/sports official’ by squeaking: “Leave me in peace! I’m a mother of five.” Poor girl couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen. And pretty too, though we are not supposed to notice such things about athletes – only that you couldn’t help noticing, in her case. As for the mother of five, apparently she meant it as a joke. The rowdies laughed and the police constable let her go. Gold for our “mother of five”! I nearly sang the national anthem.

Then I remember the champion in the Women’s Brick Carrying category whom I saw at a construction site in the early days of Noida. She was going up a ramp with sixteen bricks piled on the turban on top of her head – I counted! That’s eight layers of two each, laid crosswise. Naturally she needed help to put on the last two or three layers – that’s the last four to six bricks – but she managed the rest alone, in squatting. Then she got up with the teetering pile on top of her head and walked three floors up a wooden, unsecured ramp, her bare feet finding the slats with somnabulistic ease. And all this in a sari worn short & the aanchal tugged in at the waist… But we’re talking sports. That’s gold again for the queen among India’s brick carrying women.

Some find Chucking Cowdung Cakes to be a rather quaint discipline and much misunderstood in the West. It’s not as if our athletes chuck dried cowdung cakes instead of discuses, oh no, this is a discipline requiring as much aim & precision as archery or skeet shooting. The athlete is forming the wet cowdung cakes with both hands before chucking them at a wall. In this gold-winning event, our champion was chucking them at a dilapidated tower from the nawabi times opposite the Whispering Mosque in Lucknow. (Again towards the end of the ’70s, if I remember correctly, the golden age of Indian sports). She had finished the lower rows and was now chucking the wet ghuñtiyas towards a spot at roughly twice her own height. And she was placing the projectiles in a perfectly spaced row on the wall – which won the applause of the juror(s), there being only one viz. me. And she was doing it on a convex surface, remember, like a bent dart board! It was a round tower – is there any other kind? Just as cowdung cake chucking seems to be a sport specially reserved for women, at least in India.

And then we come to a discipline which requires strength as well as endurance. I was visiting my elder sister in Kolkata and this cook of theirs had come in at around nine in the morning and was cooking our lunch for the day – why so early? I wanted to know. Turned out that the young lady would be cooking for three more households in the course of the morning before going back home and cooking for her own family – before her children came back from school, the montessory & so on. Cooking for five families involved the kind of logistics & coordination which compelled her to keep three cell phones – I counted! – one of them a dud. And even then she wouldn’t let me get myself a glass of water on my own – that’s your Indian Cooking Marathon, for women. The men are allowed to take a cook or their wives along, I believe.

Finally we have the Delhi Olympics of 2036, especially the sensational “Run for Your Life!” race for young girls. This is a sprint discipline in which the contestants have to avoid being caught by possible molesters – now on the sports curriculum of a number of girls schools across the subcontinent. Thirteen year old (unnamed) winner from (place name blackened) revealed at her felicitation that a family friend – colleague of her father’s – inspired her to join the sport. Both the press & the police are looking for the family friend.

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