The inspiring story of Hima Das led us to Koni, Bengali writer Moti Nandy's heartwarming tale of a young girl who fights social prejudices and material challenges to emerge as a champion swimmer
Competitors for the ladies’ 100-metre freestyle event, please come to your starting blocks.’ The annual competition at Jupiter Swimming Club was always a lavish affair. The four gates in the middle of Kamaldighi had been closed off and a tin partition erected around Jupiter’s section of the tank. Wooden galleries rose up around three-fourths of the tank. Behind the starting blocks were three rows of chairs for distinguished guests, beyond which were more galleries. On one side of the blocks was a table, where the announcer was speaking into a microphone, while five-odd time-recorders stood by. Dhiren Ghosh, with a badge on his chest and a few brochures in his hand, was busy looking after the important guests. Haricharan was the chief referee for the competition.
Kamaldighi was jam-packed today. A part of the gallery had given way under the weight of the crowd, depositing a few spectators on the ground, one of whom had fractured his arm. People lined the banks of the pool beyond the railings. In the melee, two boys had been knocked into the water. It was just as well that both of them could swim. Many spectators had climbed up to the diving board. Beyond Jupiter’s portion of the tank, that is, where the tin partition ended, began Apollo’s jurisdiction. Around 2000 people crowded the railings here. They would see the competition from that distance.
It was the last day of the competition, beginning at two-thirty in the afternoon. After three events for boys and young girls came the announcement: ‘Competitors for the ladies’ 100-metre freestyle event, please...will competitors come to their positions? This is the second call ...’
A solitary figure had so long been swimming desultorily near the edge of Apollo’s part of the tank. The Apollo starting platform was about 50 metres away from Jupiter’s. Sitting there quietly was a man with thick glasses and salt-and-pepper hair. No one had noticed him. Kamaldighi was overrun by people today, but everyone’s eyes were on Jupiter’s side of the tank.
As soon as the announcement concluded, Kshitish stood up.
‘Koni!’ he called out in his soft, calm voice. Koni emerged from the water and took her position behind the starting block. As one, all the spectators around the railing looked her way.
Swimmers were lining up at the Jupiter platform. Amiya was laughing in conversation with an elderly woman guest. She appeared cool and calm. Bela had splashed about in the water a bit; she was now drying herself with a towel. The other six girls seemed slightly nervous. They tried to smile at one another, but soon gave up.
Coming up excitedly to Dhiren Ghosh, Haricharan whispered into his ear. Dhiren turned around and scanned the Apollo platform. Amiya followed his gaze. She had no trouble recognizing the black-costume-clad figure standing behind block number five. Next to Koni stood Kshitish, watch in hand. Suddenly, it seemed, all of Kamaldighi was aware that something electrifying was about to happen. Eyes were being gradually trained on Apollo.
Haricharan said something to Amiya, but she shrugged it off instantly. From the Apollo Club balcony, Bishtu Dhar’s voice floated down: ‘You have to show them, Koni.’
‘On the board,’ the starter cried, his air rifle pointing straight up to the sky. Eight girls ascended the starting blocks at Jupiter. Koni climbed up on Apollo’s block number five. A buzz ran through the entire length and breadth of Kamaldighi.
They bent their knees, gripped the edge of the starting blocks with their toes, shoulders slung low. Their arms were thrust out behind them, like birds about to take flight.
‘Get ... set ...’
Apart from Amiya and Koni, all the girls plunged into the water. The air rifle hadn’t yet fired its shot. A round of boos and jeers rent the air around Kamaldighi. Amiya looked at Koni out of the corner of her eye and immediately sobered up.
The rifle had been reloaded.
‘On the board.’
The girls returned to their positions on the starting blocks.
‘Get ... set ...’
The air rifle cracked.
Simultaneously, nine girls hit the water. At the same time, a quiet roar cascaded through Kamaldighi. The spectators stood up, as if they were watching a football match. Their eyes moved from left to right as they tracked two advancing swimmers 50 metres apart.
Upto 30 metres, Koni and Amiya kept pace. The rest were seven to eight metres behind. Then Amiya began creeping ahead little by little.
‘Koee-neeeeeeee.’ Somebody screamed out from amidst the Apollo crowd. ‘Koee-neeeeeeee.’
‘Go, Amiya, go,’ came the shout from Jupiter.
Kshitish stood as still as a statue, following Koni unblinkingly. There was no expression on his face.
Amiya had advanced by two arm-lengths. Bela was maintaining an even eight-metre distance from her. No one was sparing even a glance for the others.
Amiya was the first to touch the 50-metre board. As she turned and passed Koni, Amiya glanced back at her briefly. For a moment, Koni seemed taken aback. In the next instant, she had touched the board and turned around with the speed of a torpedo.
Like a feverish man, Kamaldighi was gripped by delirium.
‘ls that a boy or a girl?’
‘It’s a girl, it’s a girl-a member of our club, Koni.’
‘She can’t do it. She’s a whole length behind. Why on earth did Kshid-da have to turn her into a laughing stock?’
Sixty metres. Amiya was still ahead.
Sixty-five metres. Koni was advancing.
Seventy metres. Koni and Amiya were shoulder-to-shoulder. Amiya was opening her mouth wide convulsively to draw in huge gulps of air. Her kicks were going haywire. Her arms were moving perfunctorily, as if they no longer had the strength to dip into the depths and drag themselves all the way to the waist. Amiya was burning low.
‘Come on, Amiya, come on, Bengal champion.’
‘Fight, Koni, fight.’
Suddenly, a great shout rose up to the sky above Kamaldighi like a rocket. Koni had left Amiya behind. Fuelled by the agony accumulated through daily torment, her slim body seemed to explode in the water. Her arms moved rhythmically, her legs kept pace; on either side, waves rolled away in a clean ‘V’. The water she kicked up relentlessly followed in her wake.
Smooth, effortless, yet lethal, Koni pulled ahead. As soon as she had touched the finishing board, she turned agitated, anxious eyes to the space next to her. Amiya hadn’t reached yet. ‘Wheeeeee,’ Koni screamed sharply, turning on her back to kick the board and plunging back into the water in delight.
‘Three lengths, she beat her by a cool three lengths.’
‘Koeeeee-nnneeeee. Koeeeee-nnneeeee.’ Three boys in the crowd were singing at the tops of their voices. Koni waved at them.
‘What a show. Jupiter threw them out—they got their revenge.
‘Haven’t had so much fun in ages!’
Suddenly, all talk, all excitement ceased, and then rebounded at double the volume. Claps and wolf whistles greeted an unbelievable scene. On the Apollo starting platform, the hitherto stone-like, unemotional Kshitish was jumping about, screaming, ‘Haricharan, let’s see you now!’
He continued, ‘So you think you can fashion swimmers by lying about the Olympics? You need intelligence, you need diligence, you need devotion ... idiots, idiots all!’
A flustered Bhelo came up to the platform and tried to calm down Kshitish. ‘What’s this, Kshid-da, have you lost your mind, creating such a scene in front of so many people! Come on, let’s go into the club. Bishtu Dhar has actually fainted from excitement ... Koni, come out of the water.’
Bishtu Dhar was lying on a bench in the club verandah. As he tried to sit up on seeing Kshitish, two people ran to his aid.
‘I’ve sent for 10 kilos of rasagulla,’ Bishtu Dhar said weakly. ‘I’m calling a band. We’ll take Koni out on a parade around North Calcutta.’
‘Don’t even dream of doing that. You’ll lose at least 500 votes instantly.’
Bishtu Dhar stared uncomprehendingly at Kshitish. ‘But I’m genuinely happy,’ he murmured, half to himself.
Kshitish summoned Koni. ‘Why did you mess up the turning?’ he asked gravely.
‘I got thoroughly flustered on seeing Amiya-di make the turn and get away. I didn’t even remember the tumble-turn.’
‘I think you lost faith in yourself. If only you’d remembered, your timing would have been even better.’
‘What was my timing, Kshid-da?’
Kshitish dug out the watch from his breast pocket and frowned embarrassedly. ‘I forgot! There was so much excitement as you were finishing ... but I’m sure you broke the Bengal record. Damn, I wish I’d kept the time!’
‘Kshid-da, I have to go to Prajapati now. Boudi will be furious if I’m late.’
‘Yes, yes, better not hang around here,’ Kshitish became anxious. But seeing Koni hesitate, he asked her, ‘What’s the matter?’
‘Can I tell you in private?’
As Kshitish bent his head, she whispered, ‘Haven’t they sent for the rasagulla?’
‘Of course! They must have sent Bhelo. In which case you might as well forget about the rasagulla.’
‘Who says so!’ Bishtu Dhar roared. ‘If I can’t take her around town with a band, then at least the rasagulla will do the rounds of town to visit Prajapati.’
‘That will certainly placate your Boudi.’
On returning home that night, Lilabati fired her first salvo at Kshitish: ‘Why did you have to jump up and down in front of so many people at this ripe old age? I died of shame. Making a spectacle of yourself—even the shopgirls saw!’
Scratching his head defensively, Kshitish looked over at Koni. ‘How does your Boudi know?’
Koni whispered, ‘Boudi went to watch. I had to tell her, or else I wouldn’t have got the time off.’
Then she smiled. ‘Boudi’s taken my measurements, she’ll tailor me a frock,’ she said. ‘She has promised me a silk saree if I set a national record.’
Walking Koni back home that night, Kshitish asked,
‘What were you thinking, Koni, while you were swimming?’
Koni was quiet for a long while. Then she spoke as if in a dream. ‘You know, Kshid-da, when I practise, I always think I see a face swimming with me under the water. I get so scared.’
‘Whose face does it look like?’
‘Dada’s. He was there with me today as well.’
Excerpted from Koni: The Story Of A Champion (translated by Sumana Mukherjee) with permission from Hachette India.)
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