|Arati Gupta Saha|
|Born||24 September 1940
Kolkata, Bengal, British India
|Died||23 August 1994
Kolkata, West Bengal, India
|Awards||Padma Shri in 1960|
Arati Gupta née Saha (24 September 1940 – 23 August 1994) was a long distance swimmer. Born in Calcutta, West Bengal, British India, Arati was initiated in swimming at the early age of four, and her talent was spotted bySachin Nag. She was inspired by Indian swimmer Mihir Sen to try to cross the English Channel. In 1959 she became the first Indian and Asian woman to swim across English Channel. In 1960, she became the first Indian female sportsperson to be awarded Padma Shri.
Arati came from a middle class Bengali Hindu family. She was born the second of three children and the first of two daughters to Panchugopal Saha in 1940 in Kolkata. Her father was an ordinary employee in the armed forces. At the age of two and half, she lost her mother. Her elder brother and younger sister Bharati was raised at the maternal uncle’s house, while she was raised by her grandmother in North Kolkata.
When she reached the age of four, she would accompany her uncle to the Champatala Ghat for bath where she learned to swim. Noticing his daughter’s interest in swimming, Panchugopal Saha admitted his daughter to the Hatkhola Swimming Club. In 1946, at the age of five, she won the gold in 110 yards freestyle at the Shailendra Memorial Swimming Competition. It was the beginning of her swimming career.
State, national and Olympics
Between 1946 and 1956, Arati participated in several swimming competitions. Between 1945 and 1951 she won 22 state-level competitions in West Bengal. Her main events were 100 metres freestyle, 100 metres breast stroke and 200 metres breast stroke. She came second only to Dolly Nazir of Bombay.
In 1948, she participated in the national championship held at Mumbai. She won silver in 100 metres freestyle and 200 metres breast stroke and won bronze in 200 metres freestyle. She made an all-India record in 1949. At the 1951 West Bengal state meet, she clocked 1 minute 37.6 seconds in 100 metres breast stroke and broke Dolly Nazir’s all-India record. At the same meet, she set new state-level record in 100 metres freestyle, 200 metres freestyle and 100 metres back stroke.
She represented India at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics along with compatriot Dolly Nazir. She was one of the four women participants and the youngest member of the Indian contingent. At the Olympics, she took part in 200 metres breast stroke event. At the heats she clocked 3 minutes 40.8 seconds. After returning from the Olympics, she lost in 100 metres freestyle to her sister Bharati Saha. After the loss, she concentrated only on breast stroke.
Crossing the English Channel
She used to take part in long distance swimming competition in the Ganges. Arati got the first inspiration to cross the English Channel from Brojen Das. At the 1958 Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race, Brojen Das became the first among the men and earned the distinction of being the first person from the Indian subcontinent to cross the English Channel. Greta Andersen, a Danish-born female swimmer from United States clocked 11 hours and 1 minute and stood first among both men and women. This inspired the female swimmers all over the world. Arati sent a congratulatory message to Brojen Das on his victory. He replied back stating that she too shall be able to achieve it. He proposed the name of Arati to the organizers of the Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race for the next year’s event.
At the inspiration of Brojen Das, Arati began to seriously think about participating in the event. Mihir Sen welcomed her decision and encouraged her. Dr. Arun Gupta, the assistant executive secretary of Hatkhola Swimming Club took the major initiative in organising Arati’s participation at the event. He organised exhibits of Arati’s swimming prowess as a part of fund raising programs. Apart from him, Jamininath Das, Gour Mukherjee and Parimal Saha too provided their help in organising Arati’s trip. However, in spite of sincere efforts of her sympathizers, funds raised still fell short of the target. At this point eminent social work Sambhunath Mukherjee and Ajay Ghoshal took up the matter with Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, the Chief Minister of West Bengal. He arranged an amount of ₹ 11,000. Jawahar Lal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, too showed keen interest in Arati’s endeavour.
While the logistics of her trip was being arranged, Arati began her training. A major component of her preparation was swimming for long hours. On 13 April 1959, Arati swam continuously for eight hours at the pond in Deshbandhu Park, in the presence of renowned swimmers and thousands of supporters. Later she swam continuously for 16 hours. She sprinted the last 70 metres and showed almost no signs of fatigue. On 24 July 1959, she left for England along with her manager Dr. Arun Gupta. After basic practice, she started her final practice at the English Channel from 13 August. During this time, she was mentored by Dr. Bimal Chandra, who was also participating at the 1959 Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race. He had arrived in England from another swimming competition in Naples in Italy.
A total of 58 participants including 5 women from 23 countries took part in the competition. The race was scheduled on 27 August 1959 at 1 am local time from Cape Gris Nez, France to Sandgate, England. However, the pilot boat of Arati Saha did not arrive in time. She had to start late by 40 minutes and lost the favourable condition. By 11 am, she had swam more than 40 miles and came within 5 miles of the England coast. At that point she faced a strong current from the opposite direction. As a result, by 4 pm, she could only swim about two more miles. While she was still determined to carry on, she had to quit under pressure from her pilot.
In spite of the failure, Arati was determined not to give up. She prepared herself for a second attempt. Her manager Dr. Arun Gupta’s illness made her situation difficult, but she carried on with her practice. On 29 September 1959, she made her second attempt. Starting from Cape Gris Nez, France, she swam for 16 hours and 20 minutes, batting tough waves and covered 42 miles to reach Sandgate, England. On reaching the coast of England, she hoisted the Indian flag. Vijaylakshmi Pandit was the first to congratulate her. Jawahar Lal Nehru and many eminent people personally congratulated her. On 30 September, the All India Radio announced the achievement of Arati Saha.
Arati had completed her Intermediate from City College. In 1959, under the supervision of Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, she got married to her manager Dr. Arun Gupta. First they had a court marriage and later a social marriage. Her in law’s house was in Tarak Chatterjee Lane, very near to her grandmother’s house. After marriage she had a daughter named Archana. She was employed in Bengal Nagpur Railway. On 4 August 1994, she got admitted to a private nursing home in Kolkata with jaundice and encephalitis. After battling for 19 days she died on 23 August 1994.
She was awarded Padmashri in 1960. In 1999, the Department of Posts celebrated her conquest by bringing out a postage stamp of ₹ 3 denomination. In 1996, a bust of Arati Saha was erected near her residence. The 100-metre long lane in front the bust was renamed after her.
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