What if Sania Mirza had been a man? Would she still have been at the epicenter of a strange and stormy love-hate relationship with her country? Would she still have evoked reactions that tend to swing between extremes of adulation and annoyance?
Before you dismiss the idea as the forced rant of a crazed feminist, think about it.
Could it be that the cascading hair, the gleaming nose ring, the cheeky I-don’t-give-a-damn t-shirts, the indisputable confidence that often borders on brashness and the self-aware sexuality is exactly what makes some people so uncomfortable?
Actually, if you think about it, women’s tennis the world over has always been partially defined by the cult of personality along with the force of performance. And the mere presence of women in sports has always pushed the boundaries of the gender and sexuality debate — confirming archaic stereotypes while simultaneously drawing up new and radical rules to live by.
So, whether it was Martina Navratilova’s androgynous and intense court style locked in glorious competition with Chris Evert Lloyd’s ringlets and softness, Monica Seles’ high-decibel grunts, Gabriela Sabatini’s hotly debated ‘manly’ good looks, Steffi Graf’s familiar and comforting ‘femininity’ or most recently, Anna Kournikova’s unabashedly aggressive sexiness, women in tennis have always held up a mirror to both our prejudices and our changing attitudes.
In India though, while we have watched (in breathless awe and bewildered fright) women storm successfully into several all-male zones, the breakthrough has hardly been that dramatic when it comes to the rough and tumble of the sporting world.
If you think I’m wrong, name me an Indian sportswoman (other than Sania) who has a national following or is even recognised or written about regularly.
We don’t show up to watch when our women’s cricket team plays at home. Even when the team outperformed their male counterparts by reaching the finals of the World Cup, I doubt if anyone other than sports journalists could name the captain of our side.
Chak De gave us a sentimental feel-good slogan, but despite Shah rukh Khan’s public support, women’s hockey isn’t going to capture public imagination anytime soon. My friend, Jaideep Sahni, who wrote the film and has spent many earnest hours promoting the cause of the ‘real’ players on whom his script was drawn from, will have to accept that fiction has been more inspiring for the Indian imagination than fact. Sagarika Ghatge, who plays a centre-forward in the film, may have got elevated to ‘babe’ status by becoming a cover girl for Cosmopolitan and landing a contract for being a Reebok brand ambassador. But how many people even know the name of the actual player her character is modelled on?
PT Usha, who is indisputably the greatest woman athlete India has produced, still holds the record for the maximum number of gold medals at a single track event. But her reticent manner, camera-shy personality and simple and distinctly unglamorous earthiness has kept her legendary achievements confined to textbook trivia. Perhaps, because her achievements pre-dated the advent of 24-hour television, and perhaps because she would never have had the glib charm or the thrusting confidence of today’s generation, Usha would sadly never have been a youth icon, in the way Sania has become.
Therein may lie a clue to the seemingly inexplicable and mixed up responses that the 22-year-old Sania provokes. She’s quite simply the only female sports icon India has ever known. And our contradictory responses to her say something about how we respond to women who are non-conformist trailblazers and not afraid to be themselves.
It’s almost as if we admire them and resent them at the same time.
Perhaps the paradox is also rooted in the fact that, in general, India likes its heroes to be humble. We will unconditionally worship Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar, partly because we approve of their well-mannered modesty. They are non-threatening, good hearted blokes — the boys we take home to Momma. But when it comes to — let’s say a Sourav Ganguly, who will rip off his shirt in a moment of victorious passion and parade his happiness for the world to see — it gets more complicated. Sometimes we love him; sometimes we hate him and sometimes it’s just a curious mixture of both. We can barely deal with men who set their own rules; to ask us to accept a woman who is individualistic, passionate, beautiful and yes, possibly annoyingly arrogant, makes us just a little nervous.
There’s no doubt that many of the controversies that have tailed Sania have been ridiculous, unfair and often downright inane. From the length of her skirt, to her religious beliefs; from fundamentalist fatwas to hyper-patriotic expectations, Sania has had to live in the gaze of battle unprecedented and relentless scrutiny. Much of it has to do with the fact that she’s a young, single, good looking woman. But some of it has also borne in the very nature of the media that made her a heroine. To put it crassly — it’s the inevitable flip side of fame, especially in a society where the camera will hunt down warts just as assiduously as it manufactures allure.
When Sania Mirza says she feels hurt or fed up at constantly grabbing the headlines for the wrong reasons, it’s an understandable reaction. But when she goes ahead to say she doesn’t want to play in India anymore, we can’t help thinking it’s the sort of thing you’d expect a defeatist to say. Self-pity appears to have replaced the spunk, and as anyone who plays to win, will tell you, that’s the first sign of surrender.
As an 18-year-old, Sania Mirza’s t-shirt was emblazoned with the now-constantly quoted cliché: ‘Well-behaved women don’t make history’. Nor do those who walk away from the game mid-way.
India may have been unfair to Sania Mirza, but she can’t let herself down. Not now — when she’s already changed the rules of the game.
Barkha Dutt is managing editor, ndtv 24x7.
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