BARMAN RAISES THE BAR Dhi­man Sarkar

They sneered that she was ‘go­ing to Jakarta as a tourist’. Asian Games medal­list Swapna Barman on her tem­per, her gold, and not look­ing like a hep­tath­lete

Hindustan Times (Gurugram) - - Ht Think! - ■ dhi­man@htlive.com

Swapna Barman is a walk­ing, talk­ing, Asian Games gold medal-win­ning ex­am­ple of how wrong some first im­pres­sions can be. Based on three in­ter­ac­tions over five days, Barman also seems like some­one who might not mind trad­ing star­dom for be­ing the girl with an in­fec­tious smile. Not un­like Anna Scott in the film Not­ting Hill. And with a tem­per just as foul.

“I have just fin­ished an in­ter­view, why don’t you all come to­mor­row,” she says when we meet for the sec­ond time at the east­ern cen­tre of the Sports Author­ity of In­dia (SAI); her mood mir­ror­ing the sullen con­di­tions af­ter a heavy spell of thun­der, light­ning and rain with the prom­ise of more to fol­low. But since we have come at the ap­pointed hour, she trudges back to the pink hos­tel build­ing to change her red top and deep blue denim shorts for some­thing more pho­to­shoot-wor­thy. The flip-flops she re­fuses to swap for sneak­ers.

Barman’s mood lifts as she is shown the frames she has posed for. A par­tic­u­lar shot pleases her and, as dusk bleeds into night, the superwoman smiles. Barman is one in ev­ery sense of the word. You can’t be the best hep­tath­lete on the con­ti­nent — a first for In­dia — oth­er­wise. Pe­riod. It is an event spread over two days with skills tested in seven dis­ci­plines rang­ing from sprint and hur­dles to jumps and throws.

At ev­ery step, Barman has bro­ken stereo­types. She has had to get used to the pain and dis­com­fort of fit­ting 12 toes into shoes meant for 10, and that’s worse than wear­ing footwear one size small. The prob­lem is com­pounded for a hep­tath­lete be­cause dif­fer­ent events need dif­fer­ent types of shoes.

Hep­tath­letes are sinewy — think Soma Biswas, JJ Shobha and Sush­mita Singha Roy, her fa­mous pre­de­ces­sors in the sport; Barman is stocky. “She was the small­est in the field in Jakarta,” says Subash Sarkar, Barman’s trainer, life coach, sup­port sys­tem and the punch­ing bag she is wob­bly with­out, on join­ing the con­ver­sa­tion.

Barman be­gan as a high jumper — “I started it fol­low­ing my brother Amit who is three years older, and kept at it on be­ing en­cour­aged by my fa­ther Pan­chanan,” she says — and aced an all-In­dia school com­pe­ti­tion in 2011. High jumpers are longlimbed, Barman has big thighs.

Weeks be­fore last month’s Asian Games, Barman was bat­tling a knee prob­lem, her back was dodgy and she felt pain in her lower ab­domen. At the Ne­taji Sub­has Na­tional In­sti­tute of Sports in Pa­tiala, where the prepara­tory camp for the Games was held, they sneered when they weren’t pass­ing snide com­ments. “Swapna is go­ing to Jakarta as a tourist,” is what Sarkar says he would hear. Self-doubt crept in and Barman was will­ing to trade months of hard work that, ac­cord­ing to Sarkar, saw her reg­u­larly log 6000 points (she won gold with 6026) in train­ing, for pas­sage home to Jal­paig­uri.

he knee still hurts when I am walk­ing... In­juries I can deal with be­cause pain is part of an ath­lete’s life. But what stung was the neg­a­tive vibes from peo­ple who didn’t know what I was go­ing through. I would cry. Then, I would think of my par­ents… I would speak to them and they would tell me, ‘you can’. That would al­ways lift my spir­its,” says Barman.

It takes seven to eight years to master the hep­tathlon and you are re­ally good at it af­ter about nine or ten, says Sarkar. Barman’s been do­ing it for five and lost nearly two years to in­jury.

So when Barman says her gold on Au­gust 29, also hockey leg­end Dhyan Chand’s birth­day and cel­e­brated as Na­tional Sports Day in In­dia, still feels like a dream, you un­der­stand. “I keep ask­ing my­self, have I re­ally done some­thing in­cred­i­ble? And then I tell my­self, okay I have won an Asian Games gold and that is it… I am still the same.”

By ‘same’, Barman means the girl who lives in a hos­tel that she says can never be home. It was on May 21, 2012, that Barman, then 15, came to the SAI cen­tre in Kolkata. “Ma came to help me set­tle in. When she was go­ing, I broke down; I just couldn’t stop cry­ing. Then I saw girls younger than me were here and I told my­self, if they can, why can’t I?,” she says.

‘Ma’ is Basana Barman, the woman who of­ten did dou­ble shifts pluck­ing leaves at a tea gar­den, af­ter her hus­band suf­fered a stroke, to pro­vide for him and their four chil­dren, the youngest of whom has now made them a house­hold name.

So, why does this not feel like home? “Well, I fly into a rage eas­ily and hence don’t talk to too many peo­ple. That is why I miss home. Some­times, I cry to Ma and I can hear her cry­ing over the phone, but then I tell my­self, I am here for a rea­son.”

It is good, she says, that be­tween train­ing, re­cov­ery ses­sions, tend­ing to in­juries, wash­ing your clothes and rest­ing, there is not much time left over. “No time to even have a boyfriend. That can wait till I am done with sport.” When she does get time, Barman keeps a di­ary and lis­tens to mu­sic, Bhawaia be­ing her favourite. With songs writ­ten mainly in Kam­ta­puri, Bhawaia is a form of folk mu­sic pop­u­lar among Ra­jbong­shis in north­ern West Ben­gal. Barman can more than hold a tune but even though we don’t ask, she says ‘I’m not go­ing to sing now’.

Sarkar’s get­ting her to SAI started a jour­ney that is per­haps halfway from its end. They first met around Durga Puja in 2011. “I am from Jal­paig­uri and on a visit home some of my stu­dents [Sarkar has been a coach at SAI since 1992] asked me to take a look at this young high jumper. My first im­pres­sion wasn’t that im­pres­sive since she does not have the body type of a high jumper. Later that year, she won a schools’ com­pe­ti­tion in Ludhiana and I was told by Samir Das, who had put Barman through the paces ear­lier, to take her to SAI. Oth­er­wise, he said, she would per­haps be­come a daily-wage earner. I thought, if she is al­ready win­ning medals, clear­ing 1.57m with rudi­men­tary train­ing, she could be a na­tional ju­nior-level com­peti­tor. And that is how she came here.”

The switch to hep­tathlon hap­pened in 2013. “With her frame, reg­u­larly clear­ing 1.90m or more, the kind re­quired to win in­ter­na­tional medals [the high jump gold in Jakarta went at 1.96m], would be dif­fi­cult. So I thought, why not put her in an event where she can win sil­ver or bronze at the Asian Games. Even when she was just do­ing high jump, I tested her abil­ity in long jump, saw that her arms are strong and felt a medal would be pos­si­ble if we could put in three or four years of work. That is how this started,” says Sarkar.

Barman says try­ing out six new events didn’t in­tim­i­date her. “It was a lot of work but I liked it. Be­cause it also had Sir fo­cus­ing more on me than his other trainees; me, the short, squat one. That felt good,” she says.

“What helped is her abil­ity to grasp things quickly. In three months, she made rapid progress in the javelin. Same with shot put and long jump. Then, in 2014, I saw that 5482 points fetched an Asian Games bronze in hep­tathlon,” says Sarkar. That was also Barman’s first ex­pe­ri­ence of the Games. She fin­ished fifth, on 5178 points, but Sarkar knew they were on course.

For some­one who didn’t know what the Asian Games were when she started high jump while at Patkata Pri­mary School; for some­one who took to sport be­cause it could get her a job and her fam­ily a bet­ter life; for some­one whose home is still a tin shack, the tin re­plac­ing straw bale walls not long ago, Barman’s come a long way.

She says she has stopped her fa­ther from work­ing — he used to drive a cy­cle van — even though he has re­cov­ered from the stroke he suf­fered in 2009 be­cause, “I am a big girl now, I earn. My par­ents have strug­gled through life. They worked very hard to bring us up. I want them to take it easy now. I want to pro­vide for them. This is my re­spon­si­bil­ity,” she says.

Barman is weigh­ing job of­fers from the In­dian Rail­ways and the West Ben­gal gov­ern­ment but says she is in no hurry. “I could have got a job in the sports quota a lot ear­lier but Sir didn’t al­low me, say­ing that tak­ing up a job usu­ally leads to the fo­cus shift­ing. Also, I now get money from the TOP [Tar­get Olympic Podium] Scheme,” she says. TOPS is a pro­gramme run by the union sports min­istry to sup­port po­ten­tial Olympic medal-win­ners.

So what now? Work­ing on my tem­per, she says, wind­ing up the me­dia in­ter­ac­tion on the day of her ar­rival here. Barman’s short fuse has led to run-ins with Sarkar and she even left SAI once. Heal­ing in­juries is pri­or­ity too, says Barman, when we meet for the third time, at a fe­lic­i­ta­tion; she’s aver­ag­ing one event ev­ery day since get­ting here on Septem­ber 7.

The Olympics is a tar­get she hasn’t started dream­ing about yet. “If Sir shows me the way, I will,” she says.

Swapna’s mother Basana Barman, holds up a pic­ture of her daugh­ter at the Games. Basana of­ten did dou­ble shifts pluck­ing leaves at a tea gar­den, af­ter her hus­band suf­fered a stroke, to pro­vide for him and their four chil­dren.

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