August 28, 2016 10:03:02 am
Scratch out the old ones, we need to write new fairy tales.
How about this one? Once upon a time, a little girl wanted to fly, spin and somersault through the air. She was no princess, nor did she have a fairy godmother. Instead of wings, she had a pair of flat feet.
But she was brave and knew not how to give up. She fell, and picked herself up again. She had her Ma and Baba, who believed in her. And a coach, a fairy godfather if you will, who had once doubted: what can a girl do? But he saw her persistence and recognised it for what it was: power.
Or this: in a land where a mysterious disease stalks girls in the womb, a young girl stands in an akhada, covered with clay and dust, and itching for a fight. She is learning how to win.
These are stories I want to tell my daughter and yours, who are shaped by a world that often tells them that their life is to be lived out in pink. Like princesses, fair and lovely, delicate and retiring, away from the sun which might turn them a shade of bronze. Pehelwan Sakshi Malik knows that shade well, she has wrested it from defeat with all the might of her beautiful, muscled body.
That’s just one of the ways Rio Olympics has handed us, like a flaming torch, a new story of Indian women, giving our daughters (and sons) the power to reimagine themselves. Not just the victories of Sakshi and Sindhu, but also the incredible journey of Lalita Babar and Rani Rampal.
These are stories calling out to be mythologised by writers and comic artists, filmmakers and illustrators so that they can be passed down to another generation, like a sturdy, self-replicating gene.
The strength and cunning of Sakshi Malik, the ferocious smashes of PV Sindhu on way to a silver, the raw force of Dipa Karmakar’s Produnova are Olympian achievements in sport, all right. For the rest of us, they are also sparks of possibility — showing us, this is how to be a woman.
That is not to smother their feats in sarkari self-congratulation about India’s “daughters”, or argue that Rohtak’s female foetuses need to live because they might turn out to be medal-winners. But such is the lack of value placed on girls and women in this country, so insidious the calculus that weighs them against dowries given and received, so well-meaning the wisdom that coaches them to suspect their own desires, that Sakshi-Sindhu-Dipa become a match lit in the darkness. As Sharda Ugra wrote in a magnificent piece last week, they have shown what it is to “fight like girls”, and become more than the sum of their achievements.
Without exception, each has come this far because her parents have backed her to the hilt, against prejudice and adversity — even if sports federations have not. It might be possible to rebel, but is it possible to succeed without family support in India?
True, the lack of playgrounds and parks stymies Indian sports. But even in those meagre public spaces, look around — girls are scarce. If they have not been thwarted by lack of nutrition and care, they are up against poverty, lack of opportunity and rigid cultural beliefs that fix the place of women — indoors and invisible. To play a sport is to make yourself visible, to announce the indisputable presence of your body. That, in itself, is a radical act for Indian women.
Arguably, even the most powerful of Indian women, trailblazing politicians like J Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati, have to pull off a careful balance of imperiousness and convention in public life. They are also inscrutable and aloof, symbols of female power as mystery.
In contrast, there is something unguarded and elemental about a sportsperson’s claim to victory. There is nothing held back in Dipa’s fierce, even ungainly, run to the vault — she has remained a gymnast unbothered by criticism of her lack of grace. There is anger as well as skill in Sindhu’s game. And pure joy in Sakshi’s whoop of victory.
One of my favourite anecdotes about Sindhu, a quiet hardworking girl, is of her transformation into a winning machine. That it took coach P Gopichand’s orders for her to stand in the middle of the court and scream, till she found the rage within.
That girl on the court is every Indian girl. We just need to let her find her fury.
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