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December 23, 1998


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The Rediff profile / Jyotirmoyee Sikdar

"I will retire and contest elections"

Arup Chanda in Calcutta

Jyotirmoyee Sikdar Last evening, Calcutta gave a tumultous welcome to the girl from the obscure village of Debagram, in the Nadia district of West Bengal, who in the hearts of the natives has earned a place ahead of such other local heroes as Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, and ace cricketer Saurav Ganguly.

Thousands of fans landed up at Dum Dum airport, where she was accorded a civic reception and many more lined the route from the airport to her tiny railway quarter in east Calcutta.

Completely overwhelmed by the enormous crowd support, Jyotirmoye could only repeat, "So much love, so much care, it's only possible here, at home,".

"I am feeling great, really great," she kept repeating.

Her husband, meanwhile, contemplates a ruined bank balance.

The reason - ever since his wife began her medal winning spree in Bangkok, he had to distribute sweets among friends and well-wishers, who poured into their railway quarters in east Calcutta.

When I get there, I find the dining table still laden with rose bouquets and, as news of India winning the silver medal in the relay came in, it triggered a further influx of celebratory friends.

"No, I was not surprised at her winning," says Avtar. "I knew she would win a medal. I was not sure of the 1500 metres race, but was confident that she would win the 800m."

But the soft-spoken Jyotirmoyee surprised many with her driving, aggressive running that fetched her golds in both events.

As soon as she won her first gold, in the 1500m, her mother came down to Calcutta from the family home in Debagram village in the Burdwan district of West Bengal. Nihardevi is a very happy lady, today. "My daughter has brought laurels for the country, and we all are proud of her," she said.

For the last three years, Jyotirmoyee was so busy practicing that she could not even visit her parents in Debagram. "Her father (a schoolteacher) was very angry. But after she won the gold medal, he has forgiven her. She has brought together people irrespective of caste, creed or religion. We were overwhelmed when a poor Muslim labourer came to congratulate us", said the proud mother, seemingly unable to stop smiling.

While his wife was doing her heroics, hubby Avtar was alone in their small flat. And that night he couldn't even eat his dinner. "Since she is away, I had to cook my own dinner. As the news spread, the telephone kept ringing constantly and I did not get the time to cook", said a beaming Avtar, apparently finding a golden lining even in that day's starvation.

Jyotirmoyee Sikdar Avtar never had any doubts about his wife's talent. Praising her, he said, "Her power, spirit and determination is more than many athletes, but she was never used properly. I first met her at a camp in Patiala in 1993. At that time, her running lacked rhythm. She used to lose and get frustrated. But something in her told me that this girl from Bengal would do our country proud," he beans.

One thing in her favour was she was driven. After sessions with her coach, she would continue to practise on her own -- and always, beside her, was her then friend, Avtar. Gradually, friendship turned to love, and they tied the nuptial knot two years later.

"She started participating in athletics while she was in high school. But after finishing school, her coach, Satyaram Roy, brought her to a mofussil town nearer to Calcutta," recalls elder brother Sabyasachi Sikdar, who works in Calcutta.

"Ours is a large family, and my father being a school teacher, he did not have enough money to support her athletic activities," recalls Sabayasachi. "It was Satyda who provided shelter to Jyoti. She first tasted success when she won the gold medal in the All India Universities athletics meet. Since then she has never looked back".

Nihardevi recalled that as a child, Jyotirmoyee was very obstinate. "Once, when she was a kid, she was not allowed to go out with her elder sisters. As a mark of protest she kept running up and down in our backyard," she recalls, laughing. "Who knew that her running will ultimately fetch our country gold medals?!"

Before leaving for Bangkok, Jyotirmoyee had expressed herself as confident of winning a medal, particularly after she clocked 2 minutes 2.65 seconds in the 800 metres at the athletic meet in Fukoyaka in Japan four months ago. "I am sure to win a medal in the Asian Games but the question is its colour", she had said.

What are the future plans for this 29-year-old Bengali athlete? She wants to participate in the next Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, in the year 2000. But the biggest surprise is reserved for later. "After the Olympics, I want to retire and contest elections," she says, shocking many, in the immediate aftermath of her golden run at Bangkok. "In order to improve the quality of athletics, one has to join politics and obtain government support," is her rationale for the move.

Politics is not new to the Sikdar family. Her father, Gurudas Sikdar, is a member of the Communist Party of India and had even contested, unsuccessfully, the Assembly elections in West Bengal. Jyotirmoyee is close to Subhash Chakraborty of the CPI(M), a minister in the Jyoti Basu government, and thus has all the backing she needs for a successful run in politics.

Meanwhile, the Asiad success has brought with it some prosperity. The West Bengal government promptly allotted her a plot of land in Salt Lake in Calcutta. She will receive a cheque of Rs 200,000 from Chief Minister Jyoti Basu at a felicitation programme which will also be attended by another proud son of the state, Nobel Laureate Dr Amartya Sen. The Punjab government is also expected to felicitate Jyotirmoyee, who is being billed as the "bride of Punjab."

"But my problems are on the rise" said Avtar jokingly. Being a Sikh from a remote village in Punjab, he cannot read Bengali. "Each morning, I have to seek help from our neighbours who read and translate what has been written about my soni kuri in the Bengali papers. But the biggest problem comes when we visit my village in Punjab. My mother has informed me that the villagers want to celebrate Jyotirmoyee's victory, and they want me to treat them with liquor", says Avtar, laughing loud and long.


Mail Prem Panicker