I've been a sports fan all my life and can recount every major Indian achievement - they're so few! - in sport in the past 40 years. I was before a television screen, glued to a radio, when India won big victories in cricket or tennis, when P.T. Usha outran all of Asia, and when Vishy Anand became world champion.
But truly nothing, just nothing has given me as much of a thrill as seeing you perform those definition-defying feats on the gymnastics floor. You finished fourth in Rio, but your performance was worth its weight in more than gold. I was a kid when Nadia Comaneci scored that perfect 10 in Montreal in 1976. I never thought then, or till a few months ago when I first read of you, that an Indian gymnast would make it to that league. Your performance that day in the Olympics moved me to tears.
It was an emotional whirl, and I'll explain why. I know Tripura well. Aside from the cultural similarities with Bengal, it's a state I have visited several times on work, to conduct quizzes in Agartala, to travel to schools, to meet people. Very rarely for politics, I must add, though that could change in the coming days.
I know the conditions you've trained in, I have read about them, and can almost picture the landscape. I must salute your courageous parents and your indomitable coach. Most of all, I must salute your spirit. I have a daughter who is exactly two years junior to you, born in August as well, a Leo like you. But very different from you in her interests and her social setting.
Your feats have bridged all such gaps. Today, you are my hero. My mother's hero (she's almost 80 but can't stop raving about you). You are a hero for my daughter and her generation. On her 21st birthday, a few days after your historic vault, she was at a party with friends. There was no talk that evening, I was told, of Pokemon or Zayn Malik or Deepika Padukone. The theme of the evening was Dipa Karmakar.
An honest confession: I knew nothing about you till a few months ago. When you qualified for the Olympics, I peeked at your Wikipedia entry (yes, yes, not always reliable). When you reached the top eight, I watched the final live with zero expectations. That fourth place was a leap of faith, a leap of imagination, a leap of hope. A leap for all India. It made me your fan.
You are my - our - Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt rolled into one. They didn't have to battle the odds and the nonsensical "system" that you did. I read your physiotherapist was sent to Rio only after you qualified for the final. It reminded me of Ilyas Babar, coach of Sriram Singh, who borrowed money, sold household furniture and bought his own ticket to make it to Montreal on the eve of the 800 metres final to encourage his favourite student and just be with him in his toughest hour. The "system" and the fat cats of Indian sport had no time for Ilyas Babar or Sriram Singh or for sport. They still don't.
One request, when you come to Delhi to receive the Khel Ratna, do let me know where I can come to take an autograph. I promise not to take a selfie. I leave that to the expert in the Sports Ministry. If I do have the honour of meeting you, there are three questions I would like answered. These may sound trivial, but I am an unceasing trivia buff:
- What's your favourite dish (fish?)!
- What's been the second most memorable moment of your life?
Bhalo theko. And a pranam to your Ma and Baba, and your coach.
Derek O'Brien is leader, parliamentary party Trinamool Congress (RS), and Chief National spokesperson of the party.
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