Arati was the lady who was an inspiration to many girls in an age when women were not free to follow their passion. The reason Arati is famous is that back in 1959, she became the first Asian woman to swim across the English Channel. She was just 19 at the time. Her story is one of courage, perseverance and of course endurance. Her unconventional career choice, in a then ‘male-dominated’ field, makes her unforgettable.
On September 24, 1940, Arati was born into a middle-class Bengali family in Calcutta in British India. Her father, PanchugopalSahu, was employed in the armed forces. The middle-born of three siblings, she lost her mother when she was 2 years old and was raised by her grandmother.
Arati loved swimming even as a child. She would often accompany her father and uncle to the city’s ChampatalaGhat for a bath, and this is where she got her initial lessons in swimming. Noticing his young daughter’s burgeoning interest, Arati’s father admitted her to the Hatkhola Swimming Club where she caught the attention of Sachin Nag, India’s first Asian Games gold medallist.
At the time, Nag was India’s foremost swimming powerhouse. In 1940, he had set the national record for the 100m freestyle, a record that remained unbroken for 31 years. Other than his career as an expert short- and long-distance swimmer, Nag also mentored Bengal’s most talented swimmers.Impressed by Arati’s natural talent and affinity for swimming, Nag took her under his wings and the little girl blossomed under his guidanceIn 1946, the five-year-old won gold in 110 yards freestyle at the Shailendra Memorial Swimming Competition. That was where it all began.
Between 1945 and 1951 she won 22 state-level competitions in West Bengal. Arati’sspeciality were 100m freestyle, 100m breast stroke and 200m breast stroke. She dominated the nationals in 1948 and at the 1951 West Bengal state meet, she clocked 1 minute 37.6 seconds in 100m breast stroke to set an all-India record which was previously held by Dolly Nazir.
Determined to excel, the hardworking girl put in her sweat and blood, and in 1951, went on to create an all-India record in 100m breast stroke. The same year, she also set new state-level record in 100m freestyle, 200m freestyle and 100m back stroke.
In 1952, after a few national tiles, Arati represented India at the Helsinki Olympics along with fellow swimmer, Mumbai girl Dolly Nazir. The youngest girl in the contingent, she did not return with a medal but came back richer for the experience.
One of the proudest moments in India’s sporting history,Arati first got the inspiration to attempt this feat from two swimming legends – Brojen Das and Mihir Sen.
At the 1958 Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race, Brojen Das became the first Asian to cross the English Channel. When Arati sent a congratulatory message to the swimmer on his achievement, he replied stating that she too was capable of achieving it. Not only this, Das also proposed Arati’s name to the organizers for the next year’s event.
Other than Brojen Das, it was MihirSen who encouraged Arati to seriously think about participating in the event. On September 27, 1958, Sen became the first Indian to swim the English Channel in the fourth-fastest time. The legendary swimmer also went on to earn the distinction of being the only man to swim the oceans of the five continents – the Palk Strait, The Strait of Gibraltar, the Dardenelles, the Bosphorus and the Panama Canal – in one calendar year, 1966.
Her decision to cross the Channel opened a lot of new avenues for women swimmers of the future.She trained hard encouraged by the likes of MihirSen, who would become the first Indian to achieve the feat in 1958. In 1959, Arati swam and covered a large distance but eventually had to quit under pressure. But the next attempt proved to be successful just a month later, only 5 days after her 19th birthday.On September 29, 1959, Arati made her second attempt. After battling rough waves and powerful currents for 16 hours and 20 minutes, she finally reached Sandgate, her destination on the English coast. The first thing she did was hoist the Indian tricolour, fluttering proudly in the cool breeze as if it knew that this victory was not just for Arati, but for all the women of India.
On September 30, the All India Radio announced Arati’s memorable achievement to the country. Next year, she was awarded the Padma Shri in recognition of her relentless determination, indomitable spirit and outstanding courage that helped her accomplish this feat. She was the first Indian female sportsperson to be awarded India’s fourth-highest civilian award.
She was the toast of the nation and later that year she married her manager Dr. Arun Gupta. A Padma Shri was awarded to her in 1960 and she had also joined Bengal Nagpur Railway.
In 1994 she was admitted to a nursing home with jaundice and encephalitis. She battled for 19 days before succumbing and passed away a month before turning 54. Department of Posts made aRs 3 postage stamp in honour of her conquest of the English Channel in 1999. Earlier, in 1996, a bust was erected near her residence. In 1999, to commemorate her conquest of the English Channel, the Department of Posts issued a postage stamp in her memory.
Arati put Indian swimming on the map and was an idol to many girls who took up the sport. She is no more than a memory to the modern Indian sports fan but it is up to us to ensure that her legacy is not a mere footnote in the pages of the history of our sport.At a time when the rest of the world believed that Indian women rarely ventured outside their kitchens, Arati overcame obstacles, both physical and mental, to carve her way to success. The example she set decades ago continues to inspire countless Indian women to chase their dreams, no matter how improbable they seem.