She Conquered the English Channel

Feb/12/2023 / by Swarnendu Biswas
Arati Saha
Image credits: Bangla Amar Pran via Flickr

Though today most of the Indians are not familiar with her name but she was a true champion of woman power in an age where women in India were expected to play subservient roles in family and society and women excelling in sports was a rarity across the world.

Arati Saha was an Indian long-distance swimmer. As a  achieved global renown on 29th September 1959, when she became the first Asian woman to swim across the chopping waters of the English Channel. She was only 19 at that time.

Arati Saha was born in Calcutta (now unfortunately, Kolkata) on 24th September 1940 and only at the age of four she was introduced to swimming.

A Talent to Swim

While exploring about Arati Saha we can come to know that she was second of the three siblings and her father Panchugopal Saha was employed in the armed forces. She lost her mother when she was a toddler of only two-and-half years old and she was raised by her grandmother in North Calcutta as her father had a transferrable job.

It needs to be mentioned in the biography of Arati Saha that when she was only four her uncle used to take her to Champatala Ghat to bathe and there she learnt to swim, in the Ganges. And she took to swimming like a duck takes to water. Her uncle was her first swimming coach.

Noticing the child’s talent in swimming, Bijitendra Nath Bose invited her to join Hatkhola Club. There under the grooming of renowned Indian swimmer named Sachin Nag (he competed in men’s 100 metre freestyle swimming in the 1948 Olympics, held in London) and Jamini Das her swimming skills began to improve considerably.

On a Winning Spree!

Arati went on to achieve several milestones even during her childhood. In 1946, the gifted child won gold in 110 yards freestyle at the Shailendra Memorial Swimming Competition. In fact, she was taking part in swimming competitions since 1945. By 1951, the super talented11-year-old had already won 22 state level swimming competitions in West Bengal!100 metres freestyle, 100 metres breast stroke and 200 metres breast stroke were the events in which she mainly participated.

In 1951, she broke the national record of Dolly Nazir by clocking 1 minute 37.6 seconds in 100 metres breaststroke, at a West Bengal state meet. At the same meet she created new state level records (for West Bengal) in 100 metres freestyle, 200 metres freestyle and 100 metres back stroke.

Before that, in the national championship in 1948, held in Mumbai, she won silver in 100 metres freestyle and 200 metres breast stroke, and bronze in 200 metres freestyle.

Inspiration for an Olympian

At the age of 12, she took part in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, becoming one of the four women participants from India at the Helsinki Olympics and the youngest member of that Olympic contingent from India. She competed in the 200 metres breast stroke event in the Olympics.

Arati, who used to take part in long-distance swimming competitions in the Ganges, was inspired by Brojen Das to cross the English Channel. Brojen Das was a swimmer from Bangladesh who became the first Asian to cross the English Channel, on 19th August 1958. At the time of Brojen Das’s achieving the feat, Bangladesh was East Pakistan.

 In the same competition to cross the English Channel where Brojen Das participated and came first among men, Greta Andersen, a Danish-born swimmer from the United States, crossed the channel in only 11 hours and 1 minute to become first among both men and women competitors. Her astounding achievement also greatly inspired Arati. In fact, it was Greta who proposed Arati to the organizers of the Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race for the next year’s edition of the event.

Arati was also encouraged and inspired by Mihir Sen who was the first Indian to cross the English Channel in 1958.

The Challenge of the Channel

The dream of Arati Saha to cross the English Channel did eventually receive the financial backing in the form of a grant of Rs.11,000 (though a pitiable sum now, was a sizeable amount back then) from West Bengal’s government.

She began to train for long hours to prepare herself for the great challenge, which included a practice session of swimming for eight hours continuously at the pond in Deshbandhu Park, Calcutta.

She was among the 58 participants who took part in the competition to cross the English Channel on 27th August 1959. It was her first attempt to cross the English Channel. She did swim more than 40 miles and came within 5 miles of the England’s coast when she faced a current from opposite direction which impeded her swimming prowess, which forced her to eventually abort the attempt.

The Swimmer and the Winner

In the second attempt on 29th September 1959, she began from Cape Gris Nez in France and swam for 16 hours and 20 minutes, and 42 miles to reach Sandgate in England. Of course, she battled tough waves in the process. Soon congratulations began pouring in…as she achieved her well-earned celebrity status in India. This achievement needs to be explored in detail in any good biography of Arati Saha.

In 1960, she became the first sportswoman from India to be awarded Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honor in India.

However, after the pinnacle of glory in her swimming career, her later life was fairly uneventful as compared to her earlier one. She was employed in Bengal Nagpur Railway and she slowly started getting faded from public memory. She breathed her last on 23rd August 1994, because of jaundice and encephalitis. The age of Arati Saha at the time of her death was only 53 years.

On her 80th birthday, Arati Saha was honored by Google with a Google Doodle on 24th September. 

FAQs

For what is Arati Saha known for?

She earned fame as a swimmer and achieved international reputation after becoming the first Asian woman to cross the English Channel.

When did Arati Saha receive Padma Shri?

She got the coveted honor in 1960.

Who was Arati Saha’s husband?

She married Dr. Arun Gupta, her manager during the trip for the English Channel crossing.

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