One of the first things Hima Das’s father asked her after she landed at the Guwahati Airport on Friday afternoon was “what are these torn clothes you are wearing?” Later that evening, speaking at a public felicitation ceremony organised by the State government at the city’s Srimanta Sankardev Kalakshetra, the 18-year-old athlete, joked saying, “Of course, things have changed quite a bit. I have changed. I have definitely become more stylish. That’s why when my father saw me in my ripped jeans, he commented on them. I told him, ‘I am just doing a bit of style’.”
Das recently clinched two silvers and one gold at the Asian Games 2018 in Jakarta. A month ago, she had created history by becoming the first Indian woman athlete to clinch a gold medal in the IAAF World U-20 Athletics Championships in Finland.
— Tora Agarwala (@toramatix) September 7, 2018
Friday was her homecoming, and on her first trip back, Das received a rousing reception. At the Guwahati Airport — hundreds attended, including Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal himself, members of the All Assam Students’ Union, and of course her family and friends who had travelled earlier that morning from Kandhulimari village in Dhing.
“We all felt very emotional to see her. We do not know how long she will stay. The moment I saw her, I gave her a gold ring,” said Pushpalata Das, Hima’s aunt, at the airport. Inside, a red carpet — fashioned as a running track was laid out. Outside, huge banners that hailed her as dour’or rani or sprint queen fluttered as the beats of traditional Assamese folk instruments played in the background. “We had been preparing for this since yesterday but we did not expect such a big crowd,” said a security personnel at the airport.
The gathering had at least 150 people. As the crowd jostled to get a glimpse of her, Das walked out, flanked by ‘Birangona’ — 25 Assam Police special women commandos. For a few seconds, she broke away from them to hug two women she spotted in the crowd — one neighbour and another family friend — who had travelled from Dhing to Guwahati to see her.
After spending about thirty minutes with her family, her close friends and various dignitaries at the airport, Das travelled in a vehicle, waving at people through its sun roof, first to the memorial of Assamese singing legend Bhupen Hazarika and later to the Sarusajai Sports Complex — the tracks where she had started training less a little over a year ago.
At the Kalakshetra felicitation, Das was given a cash award of Rs 1.60 crore by the State government. She was also officially declared as the state’s brand ambassador for sports. The ceremony was attended by CM Sonowal, Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, Agriculture Minister Atul Bora, among other politicians, as well as members of the sports community, including three athletes who had represented Assam at the Asian Games 2018: badminton player Ashmita Chaliha, archer Promila Daimary, and Taekwondo champion Rodali Baruah. A screen was put up outside the auditorium for the general public.
In his speech, Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma assured that there was “no pressure” on Das to get more medals — something the young athlete has been hearing or reading almost every day (either on the local news channels in Assam or on social media) since she won the gold at Finland. “We don’t want to put pressure. Hima has already done enough for us. We will continue to support her regardless,” he said, to hoots and cheers.
Das added, “Everyone is talking about a medal at the Olympics. But what we should remember is that even a small injury can ruin a career in athletics. Today you’re felicitating me. But if something happens to me tomorrow, then I will be over. That is the precise reason why I chase time (and not medals). So that I keep bettering my record. And even if — god forbid — I do stop running, at least the athlete who follows will be inspired to break my record.”
Das will be spending three days in Guwahati before heading to her home in Kandhulimari village in Dhing for a day, after which she flies to Delhi again. “This month she will be resting before taking up training again,” said Nabajit Malakar, her coach in Guwahati.
Until then, Das is happy for the break and especially to be back home. “I am speaking in Assamese in public after such a long time. And it feels so good. I travelled to so many countries, but there is nothing like coming home,” she said.