Santhi: Sports, Gender and Suicide

07 Sep

Just a few months ago, Santhi Soundarajan was the butt of late night jokes on American TV and the subject of outraged editorials in Indian newspapers as the Indian woman athlete who failed a gender test.

While details are scarce and confusing, news reports have it that Soundarajan, who won the silver in the women’s 800 metre event for India at the Asian Games in Doha last year, failed a routine test carried out by a team of doctors (including a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist and internal medicine specialist). Their consensus? Soundarajan “does not possess the sexual characteristics” necessary to qualify as a female of the species.

Or maybe they just saw an Indian win a medal in a sporting event and thought, Now what’s wrong with this picture? Hey, don’t hate on me – I’m just pointing out what you already know.

Levity aside, this past week, Soundarajan, now stripped of her medal (featured above, first from left), made the news again when she was admitted to a hospital in her native Tamil Nadu for attempted suicide. Well, there’s a shock for Chief Minister Karunanidhi – apparently a shiny new plasma TV and a check for a few lakh rupees isn’t a magical cure-all for having your life turned upside down.

Leading the life of a recluse and unemployed, this was the first anybody had heard of her since the results of the gender test were revealed. Although she has denied all allegations even in her weakened state, her doctors insist that she swallowed “veterinary medicines” in a bid to end her life. A few thoughts:

When somebody tries to commit suicide and you’re called to attend to them, kindly keep the details of your patient to yourself. The place for a doctor attending a high risk patient is by that patient’s bedside, not confirming the particulars of the case to whichever reporter that’s on the phone. She’s already been through a lot if she’s tried to kill herself, she doesn’t need your tuppence to help her that last remaining inch over the edge, alright?

Secondly, why is it that we’re only hearing about her now and in these circumstances? Immediately after the scandal broke there was a lot of stuff written up in the papers about the smelly state of affairs in Indian sport, especially women’s sport. Months and one successful sports movie later, everything is very Chak De and all the righteous indignation is about media coverage.

This is what really bothers me about the Chak De phenomenon. I loved the movie unreservedly and I agree with the point that so many have raised i.e. that our famous obsession with cricket has slowly strangled all other sport in India. I even agree that with argument that publicity has a lot to do with the popularity of a sport. Look at spelling bees, for example – I mean, spelling bees for crying out loud, people! All it took was one bizarre documentary full of kids going crazy under parental pressure and hey, presto! Memorizing the dictionary is now a sport and you can catch it on ESPN (funny post). [Full disclosure: um, so, the bee and snooker are the only sports I’ll watch. Stop laughing at me, it’s not funny!]

But coming back to Chak De, very little of the focus seems to have shifted to underlying point driven home relentlessly with everything but a sledgehammer throughout the movie: the apathy and downright criminal negligence on the part of the government authorities that run Indian sport and the deep rot that has set into the “system”.

I’m not sports mad so I’m sure I’m missing out great big nuances somewhere but everytime I see India lose yet another sporting event, I’m sure to find someone somewhere saying something along the lines of: Indians aren’t big on sport. These people are either expressing themselves very badly or else I grew up in an entirely different India because it seems to me that every single Indian I know, from my mother on to the little kids across the street, are positively sports mad. In fact, I have always felt like I was part of some despised minority because I lack a mania for sports.

Additionally, I went to a school that sponsored talented kids enrolled in programs with the Sports Authority of India. In return for tuition, room and board at a school that many of them would have been hard pressed to afford, SAI required them to make full use of the track field that the rest of us used mainly for football or dodgeball and the like. So I know there are kids out there who’re not only willing to make sport their whole life but are incredibly eager to do so, not least because it paves the way to a better life for a number of them as Chak De points out with very little melodramatic posturing about sport for sport’s sake.

In any case, it defies logic that anybody would believe that – if nothing else, then just numerically speaking, we are looking at one billion people; are you telling me not even a fraction of that number feel the spark of sportsmanship in their bones?

Others have tried to make the case that we’re not naturally built for sport unlike, say, the Australians. On the face of it, that sounds like something that’s true. Except for two things: A) if one needs to be built like the Australians to win medals, then why are the Chinese sweeping everything in sight recently? B) you can work on your physique to a great extent. That’s why God invented dietitians and gym machines. I assure you the Australians are well aware of the existence of both.

So we have the talent, some of it recognized, perhaps even celebrated – and forget winning medals, we’re up on charges of doping and failing gender tests? I know I’m not the only one who thinks something’s not adding up. From time to time, I even get to read the thoughts of various former players about the quality and conditions of training available to athletes in India. Unfortunately, these articles only seem to make the papers after we’ve lost at yet another event and that too rather badly. I don’t know whether this is an editorial decision of the newspapers or whether humiliation is the only ink that gets the sports writer’s pen working, but it seems to me that the time to pay attention to the deepening abyss that is Indian sport, especially Indian athletics, is now. Before it gets any worse.

As for Soundarajan, she has always insisted that she is a woman. And seldom mentioned in any of the press briefings about her is the fact that she was cleared of any “deliberate wrongdoing” and might be a hermaphrodite due to a rare chromosome condition:

Dr. P S M Chandran, Director (Sports Medicine), Sports Authority of India, says: “There are hermaphrodite, pseudo-hermaphrodite and all these groups are there. There are certain syndrome diseases – Turner Syndrome, Klenfelter Syndrome all these. When you examine the chromosome you will find that it doesn’t fit into a ‘pukka’ female or male group. So it is an aberration to the normal picture. So that’s why they call it a syndrome, some type of a medical problem.”

What really made me mad when reading that report, however, was a casual bit of information that one of them tossed in there: these are “symptoms which she has been diagnosed with before”. So everybody knew and they just sat on that information and let her take that test in Doha?

Bear in mind that Soundarajan is not just an Indian woman athlete who’s failed a gender test; she’s an Indian woman athlete from a small town in Tamil Nadu who failed a gender test. Even if hers is the best small town in all of India, it’ll still be a small Indian town and as such, she’ll always be that curiosity piece that gets whispered about.

So to sum it up, here’s a small town girl in her mid-twenties who’s never done anything in her life but run and she chased the dream all the way to the victory stand… only to have everything, including her gender identity, taken away at the end of it. And all of it went down at an international sporting event. She didn’t step off that ledge; she was pushed off it. And everybody looked the other way.

But hey, now she gets to see the worst moments of her life get played out on national TV with amazing clarity on her fantastic plasma set. How lucky can a girl get?


Posted by on September 7, 2007 in Life, News, Newsmakers


8 responses to “Santhi: Sports, Gender and Suicide

  1. bombaydosti

    September 8, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    came to your site through bvn.
    hey, i guess these are lives that get hidden amongst all the stink “stories”..
    you are spot on… respect your opinions lady

  2. apu

    September 8, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    bravo amrita, for taking up this subject. one can only imagine her plight on one, losing her career and two, the severe blow to her dignity. I wonder, should this case not serve as some sort of warning to authorities to have a clear policy on such cases? The chromosomal stuff is obviously no fault of hers..

  3. desigirl

    September 9, 2007 at 7:44 am

    oh the shame! why can’t we stand by our people? esp when they are hurting and desperate? i think, like u so rightly said Ams, the poor woman deserves kindness and unreserved help, not more jeers and judgement. Had the same happened to an American athlete, the sitch wud have been completely different and we wud have had a hundred Human Rights agencies descend on anyone who dares to snigger. We have Maneka Gandhi campaigning for animal rights – who is there to fight for human rights?

  4. Amrita

    September 11, 2007 at 1:09 am

    BD – I’ll have to thank BVN šŸ™‚ You’d think someone would look beyond the failed gender test to the facts of the case but I guess TRPs are better served this way.

    Apu – thanks šŸ™‚ I was thinking something along the same lines as you w/re to hermaphrodites and transgendered people. Shouldn’t we have some sort of policy in place? Not just in India but internationally speaking. This is the 21st century, what happens if an athlete wants to go in for a sex change tomorrow?

    DG – very true, there arent enough people who are doing something for people and when they do, do something you’ll find a million others all too happy to dump on them and call them names and say they’re anti-national in some way irrespective of what they’re doing. And people like Santhi, who have no idea that they have rights in cases like these end up getting trampled on.

  5. DesiGirl

    September 11, 2007 at 8:00 am

    c’est la vie, eh?

  6. Mahesh

    September 28, 2007 at 7:45 am

    Hi Amrita, I came across this link from a post on a mailing list. I hadn’t even realized that Santhi had tried to kill herself. Will check back with some people here and see if there is anything we can do to help.

    Also read some other of your stuff, and would liek to add you to my google reader. Hope that’s cool.

    – Mahesh

  7. Amrita

    September 30, 2007 at 10:17 am

    Hey Mahesh – are you kidding? I love it!
    Re: Santhi, it’s one of the most under reported stories of the year, which isn’t all that surprising given that people with gender issues are routinely swept under the carpet. If you find out something, do let me know. Thanks šŸ™‚

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