I have always been totally in awe, and even jealous, of people who manage to stay level-headed at all times, never uttering an out-of-place remark; those who can remain calm and composed in spite of all the excitement or provocation.
Today, it was Swapna Burman who totally swept me off my feet.
The 21-year-old Indian athlete who won gold at the Asian Games in heptathlon came home today to a rousing welcome. She was greeted by massive crowds at the airport, and even before she had covered five kilometres, she was felicitated at an event organised by a Kamtapuri cultural organisation led by the veteran leader Atul Roy. It was attended by hundreds, and she addressed them with a flourish, thanking them for their love in her mothertongue Rajbangshi, or Kamtapuri.
Coming home after 11 months, and first time since her Asiad gold, she must have been dying to proceed to her village in Jalpaiguri, 60 km from Bagdogra airport, where her family was eagerly waiting for her. But she kept her date with Siliguri Journalists Club, though two hours late, and at the risk of getting further delayed to see her loved ones.
She seemed distracted at first; she had to turn back and read the banner to check where she had come when asked to deliver an address. She also absent-mindedly, rather mechanically, rose to reach for the bouquet actually meant for her coach. She had already received hers just moments ago. Evidently, she has had enough of these felicitations, this overwhelming outpouring of public adulation that has completely changed her life.
It is not easy to get used to a life of a public figure in such a short time. Tagore had described his condition on the sudden post-Nobel recognition as a “tin can tied to a dog’s tail“, and, more recently, even Venki Ramakrishnan made public his displeasure on the sudden surge of mass attention in no kind terms.
Burman takes it all in her stride. “I have to go to see my parents and I cannot wait, but I also had to meet you all,” she told reporters gathered at the club. She patiently took everyone’s questions, smiling her infectious smile generously.
But the seasoned newshounds, apart from felicitating her, were also looking for headlines, and controversies. One broadcast journalist asked her (I paraphrase): Asiad medal winners in other states have been given cash rewards of crores of rupees. Compared to that, West Bengal chief minister has given you only Rs 10 lakh. How does that make you feel?
She smiled, paused, then answered: “I come from a poor background. For me Rs 10 lakh is a lot of money… I am happy.”
The reporter persisted: “But in other states….”
She answered “It may be the case… but I am from West Bengal… It’s alright. I am happy.”
I was truly blown over by her steadfast refusal to take the bait, by her tactful answer which is also very telling. I was also reminded of sportspersons, and pretty senior ones at that, rather gracelessly begging for government awards, attention and rewards.
She has had her share of struggles, having risen from life of poverty in a remote village. “I very badly needed a job,” she said, explaining her motivation to take up sports. “At first it was about the job.. I desperately needed one… and once I started winning medals, it was no longer about jobs.”
Head firmly on her shoulders, her answer was matter-of-fact, and shorn of sentimentality. Neither was she denying her past in poverty, nor was she playing it up reality-show style, which the headline-hunters would have not minded at all.
Even after donkey’s years of journalism, of attending press meets, of interviewing young achievers, of inuring myself to surprise revelations; I just couldn’t help being impressed by Burman. And it was not just me. My feelings were echoed by everyone in the room, who kept discussing her grace even long after she left. Now, that’s a true sporting icon.
(I shuddered, reminded of what I was doing when I was 21.)