As the spotlight fell on Sajan Prakash’s historic ‘A’ cut butterfly timing of 1:56.38, VJ Shantymol reflected on the uncountable hours she travelled in a rickety bus, carrying three massive torchlights – unlikeliest of paraphernalia, appearing in the tale of this swimmer.
Even an inflatable tyre doesn’t quite mean the safety saddle that beginners use in swimming, in this story of the making of India’s trendsetter in water set to go to Tokyo Games. While Sajan was younger and chiselling his stroke-movement in Bangalore needing his mother Shantymol to make overnight 380 km journeys every weekend from her home in Neyveli, she carried torches routinely in her duffel bag to help bus drivers fix punctures on unlit, potholed roads.
“I had to punch in at the office at 8.30 am sharp the next morning, or I’d lose half a day’s salary. The state transport buses would routinely stop because the roadworks on that route was bad due to tyre punctures. I couldn’t afford for the bus to halt because I couldn’t reach late. I just started carrying three torches and many times got down from the bus myself to fix the puncture,” Shantymol recalls the two-member family’s struggle from 2011 through 2015.
Sajan was raised by a single mother, an athlete herself who raced the 100m, 200m sprints at the 1987 World and Asian Juniors. She married in 1992, Sajan was born in 1993, and her husband abandoned them a year later. “It’s ok,” she says, “yes, there was noone in the family to give Sajan a great childhood. But his father left us. Frankly, it was for the best that he never returned. Living with a drunk, violent man was an everyday mental torture,” she says.
“Every girl who marries young should find a job,” she explains of the austere life the mother and child led at Neyveli Lignite township in Tamil Nadu, where she was employed on a sports quota at 18 and moved from Idukki in Kerala.
What Shantymol could afford for her son were adjunct facilities for children of workers like her at the thermal power site. There was a swimming pool, an indoor stadium at the township, and a 3-year-old Sajan started swimming in summer vacations, before things got serious at age 10.
“Though he has a flat foot, even if flexible, he can actually run very fast and was good at jumps. He’s also a good dancer, though when I put him in Bharatanatyam, he pleaded he wanted to learn western dance. One summer he learnt that too on the campus, and also plays keyboards,” the proud mother says. “In that age I gave him what I could.”
Shantymol remembers a naughty kid till age 10 who wanted a shiny battery car which cost half her salary. “After age 10, I think he realised his mother has nothing, and he stopped asking for anything like new clothes,” she recalls.
Sabi Sebastien was a proficient coach at the Neyveli township, as Sajan started bringing home medals. But life was far from easy even as Shantymol accustomed to the Idukki mountains (“We walked several kms, there was no fast food and we trained in cleaner cooler surroundings in Kerala so my athletics career blossomed”), struggled with health issues at Neyveli.
“It’s too hot here and can reach 45 degrees because of sulphur and lignite. The October-February weather gets dangerous when it turns cold and there are allergies,” Shantymol explains. The former India camper from 1988-89 who picked four medals at the Inter University, remembers suffering from acute bouts of dehydration, scary vitamin deficiencies and in subsequent years when she started travelling 11 hours in the buses to Bangalore, from health issues of a battered spine.
“When Sajan moved to Bangalore for better swimming facilities, I’d regularly take the weekend 8.30 evening bus, reach next morning, and return same night,” she recalls. Munching on fruits to patch her health back and learning to patch up bus tyres is what she remembers of those times.
Elite swimming had been the preserve of the rich in Bangalore, and Shantymol recalls cutting out every luxury from her life to ensure that Sajan could fit in.
“He couldn’t travel by trains to competitions, so there were flight costs. 90 percent of my savings went into ensuring he could be at competitions.
Till 2015, he even used second-hand suits,” Shantymol says. The mother hoping to fix meals for Sajan when she travelled to Bangalore, braved the ramshackle buses. “There were no trains on that route.”
Sajan would first land a job with the Railways even as he staked claim on 5 national records over several seasons. His job in Bangalore entailed standing long hours at the yards and checking every bogey of seven trains decamping there. “It used to be tiring for him, besides the long hours of training. Once he was pulled up for going to a nearby juice shop after he felt dizzy, his work was so stressful,” she recalls. He had settled for a small scooter to go to work, his only indulgence.
Shantymol would, alongside all this, resume her own track career in the Masters category and take young Sajan along everywhere. A constant source of support, she would also travel to Thailand and Dubai where Sajan got homesick over extended stints. “I don’t cook that well; Sajan’s coach’s wife, Gowri ma’am actually makes excellent biryani for him. But I made sure he got nutritious food through his childhood. And I would travel anywhere to ensure he got his food,” she says. She feels tired now, though. “I used to run four events and heats and win a lot in my youth. School level, pre degree, state, national. I miss that excitement of running races, but my job became important to make a living, so I couldn’t compete actively,” she says wistfully.
In 2015, the destructing floods of South India played havoc in Neyveli too. “All my running certificates were in the lower drawer and were destroyed, so I have nothing remaining to prove that I was a good athlete too,” she says, feeling wretched. “Thankfully, Sajan’s certificates were in the upper drawer and we could salvage them.”
The traumatic memory of what happened to her tiniest of quarters leads to what is now her biggest dream. “I want to build a house for Sajan. He doesn’t even have a permanent address proof, can you imagine?”
While Sajan would join Kerala Police after a six-medal splash at the Nationals, the second-time Olympian faced some dark times – even having to sell a medal once for a sum of Rs 3 lakh, as tickets and visa to an international competition ate into his entire salary.
“He won a massive trophy in 2018 after a gold medal-glut which we couldn’t bring home because there’s no place in this house,” she says. The trophy sits in the Kerala Sports Council showcase. “I think he needs a house just to keep his trophies!”
Sajan’s life is sprawled unsteadily over 5-6 cities of the world. “Some things at two friends’ homes in Bangalore, some in Bangkok, some in Dubai. It’s like a museum in suitcases in different parts of the world,” she says.
“I’m like a swimming refugee with many suitcases,” Sajan says, with an exhausted chuckle after returning from Rome where he packed in some history by becoming the first Indian to make the elite ‘A’ standard. Needing 1:56.48, Sajan swam the 200 fly In 1:56.38.
His fragments of glory might be strewn at different places, but he carries his mother’s ethical core within him wherever he goes.
“You can imagine just how difficult the life of a single mother could be,” he says, adding, “I inherited her strong attitude. She’s not weak-hearted at all.”
His childhood got crystallised into the unspoken discipline that only an athlete can pass onto her children. “She understood the pain of training for sport. She always knew how difficult it was to reach goals, so she drilled discipline into me without me realising it was a strict life. Also many kids have abilities, but only some parents who’ve been in sport can understand moments of failure. Their knowledge helps keep children mentally strong through sport’s ups and downs.”
He recalls the testing times when Shantymol kept him in the hunt despite having little access to financial cushioning. “A good swimsuit can cost around 18-25 thousand rupees, and now I can get sponsors for whatever I want. But back then, though I didn’t have nutrition or supplements like others, my mother somehow managed to keep my career going,” he recalls.
Discipline he says is not just waking up at 5 am daily.
“What my mother taught me was the attitude. It’s what you think in your mind. It’s what you prioritise,” he says.
It was what VJ Shantymol packed into her duffel all those years ago – three torchlights and loads of attitude. A lifetime spent in pursuit of her son’s 1 minute 56.38 seconds splash in the water.