Book Review: Sohini Chattopadhyay’s The Day I Became a Runner is Educating, Inspiring and Agitating

Even while running is a solitary sport, requiring not much beyond yourself and a path to tread, as a woman runner, you are always in the unenviable company of curious walkers. And so the author’s concerns as a hobbyist runner are funny, yet familiar. ‘The shape of my sweating—does it frame my bra line too obviously?’, she asks. ‘Do my breasts bounce offensively? Is my presence provocative?’

For a country obsessed with heroines running around trees (with men in tow, of course), the sight of women running is still aberrant. And hence, the warm-up includes carefully picking out a running outfit that does not scream for attention. An outfit that is, at the very least, somewhat comfortable. 

Mary D’Souza, the first woman to represent India at the Olympics in 1952, Kamaljit Sandhu, the first Indian woman to win a gold at an international event, and PT Usha, who won over a hundred medals for India, were stared at, too. But they had bigger hurdles to jump through. The Day I Became a Runner chronicles the stories of these extraordinary athletes who paved the track for many, allowing Indian women to dream big. 

The author also documents the tribulations athletes Santhi Soundarajan, Pinki Pramanik, and Dutee Chand, who faced discrimination on account of their ‘sex’. The setback and humiliation faced by each, despite winning medals for their country, can never be remedied. To me, Soundarajan’s story seemed particularly saddening. 

I had not heard of Santhi Soundarajan before. Reading the author’s account of the athlete, in the chapter aptly titled ‘The Woman Who Was Erased’, left me with a lump in my throat. While she had seen trying times right from her childhood, and yet nothing tops the humiliation she faced at the Doha Asian Games in 2006. After winning a silver medal in the 800-metre race, an understandably ecstatic Soundarajan received her medal at the felicitation ceremony. Two days later, she was asked to undergo a test and was then sent off home without an explanation. 

Back home as she basked in a new found glory amidst a flurry of visitors, she found out on the news that she had been stripped of her medal because she had failed the ‘gender test’. Furthermore, she was told that she would not be allowed to compete again. 

Growing up on leftovers—from kind neighbours and community feasts—in an impoverished household, in an orthodox village in Tamil Nadu, Soundarajan took to sports in school without any formal training and ended up representing her state in 2002 in athletics. Just as she thought she was making a name for herself and inching closer to a life of comfort and dignity, her name was struck off. The winner of 12 international medals was, then, seen toiling at a brick kiln. 

Years later, Dutee Chand made history. When World Athletics attempted to kick her out in 2014, Chand refused to plainly accept their decision, protesting the disqualification as well as the rule that outlaws ‘higher-than-permitted’ testosterone levels. She won the case. She was also widely celebrated in the media for coming out as gay in May 2019—the first female public personality in India to do so.

The book delves deep into what it is like to be an Indian woman in competitive sport: from convincing reluctant parents and shattering society’s expectations of how a woman should behave to competing with the best on the world stage despite being disadvantaged. Add to that, furnishing proof of their ‘womanhood’ should the occasion arise and being at the centre of callous media reports.

Through the intimate accounts of eight women athletes, Sohini Chattopadhyay’s The Day I Became a Runner leaves you feeling educated, inspired, and agitated. Their stories and contributions ought not to be forgotten. 

They ran on beaches and open grounds in full public view, sometimes barefoot, sometimes hungry, sometimes in the sweltering sun; but not necessarily because they loved running. They ran in the hope of better prospects, a government job, and a sense of pride and security. 

Somewhere in the middle of this book, my mind conjured up a distant memory: of a kid in karate uniform doing front kicks, fending off undue attention and curious stares, on account of being the only girl among the karate kids. That kid was me. The other girls had opted for the more conventional drama and dance classes. Reading about these extraordinary women made me wonder if I could have followed through and earned the black belt.

Pick up Sohini Chattopadhyay’s “The Day I Became a Runner” from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

About the Reviewer:

Sapna Nair is a writer, editor, and writing coach. She has worked with publications such as Financial Express, Business Today, and afaqs!. Follow her escapades on Instagram.

1 thought on “Book Review: Sohini Chattopadhyay’s The Day I Became a Runner is Educating, Inspiring and Agitating”

  1. Every woman should read this 📚, bec the content is very much real.
    Thanks Sapna you made achance to read the review of the book.


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