Opinion | The pain and passion of Dipa Karmakar
A new book offers a gripping account of how India’s favourite gymnast made it to the Olympics
Journalists are known for their legendary ability to ask the wrong questions, and in gymnast Dipa Karmakar’s professional life, many of them have delivered on this expectation. One head-scratcher query—how did Karmakar train in Tripura considering it’s a hilly region—never fails to irritate India’s favourite gymnast and her coach Bishweshwar Nandi. It doesn’t matter that she lives in Agartala, situated on a plain and the capital of a state known for its seemingly unending supply of national champions from the 1960s-80s.
“Not sure whether they were trying to find an analogy of mine with Tarzan as I definitely did not learn gymnastics jumping from tree to tree or one mountain top to another,” Karmakar muses in the just out Dipa Karmakar: The Small Wonder, co-authored by Nandi and sports journalists Digvijay Singh Deo and Vimal Mohan, and released by FingerPrint Publishing.
The book is a gripping account of a home-grown athlete’s roller-coaster journey from the day she entered Agartala’s Vivekananda Byamagar, a fabled single-storey sporting club with an asbestos roof, 20 years ago to becoming the first Indian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics.
Karmarkar, 25, is best known for that August in 2016 when hundreds of thousands of Indians tuned in to the live telecast of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to watch a chit of a girl who had, unbelievably, made it to the vault finals—another first for this country.
A few years earlier, Ashish Kumar had won India’s first-ever medals in gymnastics (including a silver in vault) at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. But not too many people noticed the teenager who had made it to the vault finals. “Yes, I too had reached the final in Delhi 2010. But we are a culture that celebrates only winners so I am not surprised that it is not remembered,” Karmakar says in the book.
The drama of 2016’s historic sporting moment was heightened by the fact that Karmakar was planning to do a Produnova (a handspring off the vault, followed by two-and-a-half somersaults), with a high difficulty level of seven. Karmakar came fourth, outperforming many of the world’s best gymnasts, but, everyone wanted to know how she felt about missing a medal. “It was a personal triumph but not the one India wanted,” she says.
Headlines and introductions such as “Dipa Karmakar has just fallen short of a heroic performance” hurt every time she read or heard them. India, you break so many hearts with your shallow sporting spirit.
Nandi got upset every time people asked Karmakar about risking the “death vault” but that particular query didn’t faze his student. “Having done it thousands of times in practice, it was my ‘go-to’ vault and I knew, come what may, I would land on my feet… I was always in control while doing the vault and always had a smile on my face when I was asked that question,” she says.
She only lost her cool when a journalist asked her why she didn’t do two Produnovas as it would have upped her score and ensured a medal. “I glared at him and asked him if he knew anything about gymnastics,” Karmakar says.
Karmakar’s life as an Indian athlete ticks all the classic boxes: a sporting family, a parent who made crucial decisions (got her started at 5, skipped the English medium school that didn’t give students enough time for sports), access to an amazing coach, federation politics and disinterested officials sprinkled with the occasional godsend moment (like the time an official speedily organized a foam pit costing ₹25-30 lakh at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium in Delhi so the gymnast could practise the Produnova).
And, of course, surviving mostly clueless Indians through this tough journey. Most people didn’t know where Tripura was located, and many of them had no knowledge of gymnastics as a sport. In the book, Karmakar describes one recurring type of interaction in Delhi’s markets:
“...some would venture a guess as to whether I was a boxer or a wrestler. Often my biceps and sturdy built would confuse them. They would ask, “What do you do?”
“I am an athlete.”
“What do you play? Are you into boxing or wrestling?” “No,” I would try to evade.
“I think, I have seen you wrestling,” one would lie in typical Delhi bluster.
“No, I am a gymnast.”
“So, you work in some circus. Do you do trapeze also?”
“It’s not a circus. It’s gymnastics and girls also do gymnastics,” I would reply.
It hurt. It always did and it does even today.”
Through the book Karmakar refers to herself and her coach as the buffalo and the donkey, after the hurtful name calling by one male gymnast after she lost out at the CWG in 2010. Yet every setback only made her tougher, she says.
The book is packed with lovely stories like the time Soma Nandi, Karmakar’s first coach (yes, the wife of her current coach) challenged her small students to mount the uneven bars using a particular technique. She offered a Big Babol chewing gum as the prize. Karmakar was the only student who managed to win the gum (her first prize ever) and a cupboard at home is still decorated with colourful stickers which came with every chewing gum she won during that time.
She recounts her time at the Olympics village in Rio in vivid detail. She was glad for the free internet and watched Comedy Nights With Kapil on YouTube to relieve the pressure; had two star-spotting moments with Usain Bolt and Rafael Nadal; watched her coach eat pizza for every meal; got a boost when she was feeling gloomy from three-time Olympic champion and gymnastics legend Svetlana Boginskaya; and signed an autograph for discus thrower Seema Punia before her event.
Aside from the anecdotes and the ringside view of Karmakar’s mind at the Olympics, the book is important because the story of Dipa Karmakar’s sporting success is the story of every Indian athlete who has made it in the international arena despite the odds. “There’s a growing interest in the genre, not just cricket but also other sports, mirroring the explosion of interest in football, badminton, tennis, kabaddi, on screen and off it,” says Karthika V.K., publisher at Westland Books, which has just released a book on the history of women’s cricket and launched a Westland Sport imprint. Books about athletes we love such as Karmakar are a reminder that Indian sport is no longer just about cricket.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. She tweets at @priyaramani
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