Dhing, Assam: “Hima has always been brave and she’s really not afraid of anything,” says Jonali Das, Hima’s mother, sitting inside a dimly lit room on a humid, overcast morning in Kandulimari village, Assam. She looked very calm for a mother whose daughter created history just four days earlier in Tampere, Finland, becoming the lone Indian to win a gold medal at a global track event: the IAAF World U20 Athletics Championship 2018, clocking 51.46 seconds.
In just a day, this otherwise nondescript village in Dhing, a town about an hour away from Nagaon, became the most important place to be for politicians and journalists alike. But the mood in the Das household, a joint family of 17 comprising Hima’s parents, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins, is typified by a mix of happiness and innocence, as though unprepared to deal with the barrage of guests.
Growing up, Hima loved playing all kinds of sports. “She would get upset when she wouldn’t be allowed to play, and I would encourage her to continue, but her mother would be worried that it might affect her studies,” Ranjit Das, her 52-year-old father, a farmer, told The Wire.
“She enjoyed helping her father and shared his share of work, not so much the kitchen work,” Jonali quickly adds. “She loved the work that usually the men of the family would take up. She couldn’t sit still for more than 15 minutes at her desk while studying. She just wanted to be out in the fields, playing.”
The day Hima made everyone proud, her family was able to watch her run on the television but the electricity went off during the presentation ceremony. “I hadn’t eaten anything but after she won, I did,” Ranjit said. “Later, she called us at 1 in the night, and said, ‘Deutaa (father) did you watch my match? I made the world shiver while you were asleep.’”
“We had tears of joy. I wondered if she had anyone there in Finland whom she could embrace,” Pushpalata Das, Hima’s aunt, says with tears streaming down her face.
Hima studied at the Dhing Public High School, loved playing football with the boys of her village but never took part in any major tournaments, although she did participate in regional matches. “This one time, we had organised a woman’s friendly football match between Amsoi, a nearby village, and Karbi Anglong,” Nabajyoti Saikia, 28, a friend of Hima’s, recalled. “Amsoi was trailing behind by a goal and this got Hima restless. She told the Amsoi coach she wanted to play and he let her. As a striker, she scored immediately for Amsoi and drew the match.”
Saikia is president of the Dhing Regional Students’ Union, a wing of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). Hima is today the sports secretary of the same outfit.
Ranjit says Hima would never tell them about certain competitions she would take part in. “We would hear from other people or sometimes read on the local newspaper that she’s won.”
Sometime in 2013, when Hima was 13, she took part at a local sports meet organised by the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, where the physical education teacher, Shamshul Haque, was impressed by her discipline. “There were more than a hundred students who took part in the games but Hima was different. She would always be on time and showed immense dedication, and won many prizes in most of the games,” Haque, who now works at the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Morigaon district, said.
“I thought something needs to be done here. I knew Gowri Shankar Roy at the Nagaon Sports Association and requested him to somehow take her in.”
Haque believes Hima has done as well as she has because her parents kept sending her to play, against all odds, because she wanted to. “There are notions that people in rural areas are not open minded like city dwellers but look at Hima’s family – they’ve always allowed her – and look where she’s now,” Haque said.
‘She does what she says’
Jitu Bora, a member of a WhatsApp group called ‘Mon Jai’ – a term Hima refers to often in her social media posts – says. “Her biggest inspiration is Mary Kom, Hima wanted to be like her.” Mon Jai has seven members and serves as a sort of support group in Dhing.
From 2014 to 2016, Hima trained at the Nagaon Sports Association, where Gowri Shankar Roy was in charge of the athletics wing. Hima’s family couldn’t always afford to pay for her travel – from her village to Nagaon – and Roy would step in to help.
“We had first sent her to Visakhapatnam to play at the National Inter-district Athletics Championship, where she didn’t win any medals,” Roy said. “She was then selected for the Inter-district U16 Athletics Meet in Goalpara, Assam, for 100 and 200 m, where again she was unable to win any medals. But in 2015, we sent her for the same event at Dhekiajuli, where she placed third in both the 100m and 200m” runs.
“Then in 2016 we sent her to Sivasagar, where she won gold at both the 100 m and 200 m at the Inter-district Sports Meet, coached under Sailen Bhuyan.”
The same year, Hima qualified from Nagaon district for the Khelo India State Meet in Guwahati, where she again placed first in the 100m and 200m runs. Following that, she qualified for the Khelo India National Meet in Hyderabad. “That was when she came under Nipon Das and Nobojit Malakar, her coaches in Guwahati,” according to Roy.
He is still in touch with Hima through WhatsApp and believes she has surpassed everyone’s expectations. “At the last curve, when she was behind, my heart sank but I had a feeling she would pull ahead, and she did. That girl has immense mental strength and she does what she says.”
From Guwahati to Tampere
After her stint in Hyderabad in January 2017, Hima shifted base to Guwahati upon the insistence of Nipon Das, an athletics coach with the directorate of sports and youth welfare.
“Her enthusiasm forced us to believe that she had it in her to pull off something truly exceptional, so we thought we should bring her here. I looked after her accommodation and meals until July,” Nipon told The Wire.
In Guwahati, the 18-year-old, who was used to running 100m and 200m, was asked to switch to 400m. When she started out, she clocked 57.00 seconds. Nipon realised that she would be able to compete internationally with proper training.
In September, she played at the East Zone Championships in Kolkata, where she ran 400m in 55.57 seconds. “Since then, she has made quick strides. The same month, she was taken to the Indian Open in Chennai, but due to financial constraints a local doctor, Pratul Sarma from Guwahati, came to our rescue, and provided for her air tickets,” Nipon said.
“At that tournament, she fell sick and she couldn’t do well in 400m, but with her determination and mental strength, she was able to win the 200m there. She beat a lot of good players which made her stand out at the National Senior India Camp.” Those present were chief coach Basant Singh and deputy chief Radhakrishnan Nair, who said they would take her in only if she ran the 400m.
According to Nipon, there are two two advantages to training for the 400m: you can participate in an individual event and you can also participate in the 4 x 100 relay.
“In October, Nair called and told me that they had selected Hima for the national camp,” Nipon continued. “It was a very happy moment for us. Then we took her to Patiala, for which the funds were again sponsored by Pratul Sarma. Before she won the match in Tampere, we didn’t have anyone who wanted to bear her costs – let alone sponsor her – but now I am getting so many calls from so many people who want to sponsor her.”
Nipon believes that Hima has it in her to play at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 but confesses it’s going to be difficult. “Then again,” he adds, “we all know what she is like.”
At the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games this April, Hima finished sixth at the 400m (51.32 seconds). But in June, she clocked her personal best at the Interstate Championships in Guwahati: 51.13 seconds.
Support system for athletes in Assam
Bhogeswar Baruah, an Assamese athlete, won gold at the 800m event at the 1966 Asian Games in Bangkok. Inspired by his achievement, Tayabun Nisha trained hard out of Sivasagar town and broke a countrywide record in discus throw in 1971, becoming the first Assamese woman to win a medal on a national platform.
At that time, she says, things were very different. “When I won a national medal, people started recognising me but nobody knew about my struggles before that. We did not receive the kind of financial support that people get now. Usually, a lot of players come from very poor conditions and there is no support system as such,” she explained. “The best part about Hima is that she has [emerged] early and got herself a position at the national camp, which she is utilising well.”
Nisha believes there are many talents like Hima hidden away in Assam’s, and India’s, villages, constrained by the lack of a very simple resource. “For something like athletics, you don’t need infrastructure, you just need a good field, and schools don’t even have that. In Assam, there are many areas where there are fields but during monsoons, one can’t practice in those fields,” Nisha said.
Uday Chetia, assistant director at the directorate of sports and youth welfare in Assam, thinks progress is stuck at a different point. He believes that even though Guwahati’s sports infrastructure has become better over the last few years, it is not used enough. “If kids are at home and don’t come out to play, what’s the point of infrastructure?”
“Physical education is not compulsory here. Some kids are exceptional and, if lucky, they are spotted early and get a chance to go ahead,” Chetia added. “We have a lack of coaches, associations need to be more active, parents should encourage children to play, and we need corporate support as well. It has to be a combined effort.”
For example, her triumph at Tampere means Hima can now look forward to a job – something many of her peers in the state can’t even if they’re accomplished athletes themselves.
Rajen Gohain, the minister of state for railways and current president of the Nagaon Sports Association, was present at Hima’s house in Kandulimari the day this reporter visited. He said: “We have already made arrangements for a job for her at the railways. It is not expected of her to go to work every day and she will have ample time for training.”
Sanskrita Bharadwaj is an independent journalist from Guwahati, Assam.