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The rising star who ended her life much before Dutee Chand challenged the rules

Much before the Odisha sprinter — now an Asian Games double medallist — successfully challenged the rules regarding the eligibility of female athletes, an 18-year-old rising star, who faced similar discrimination, ended her life. The Indian Express travels to her quaint South Goan village, meets her still-grieving family and pieces together the mystery and pathos behind the suicide

Written by Nihal Koshie |
Updated: September 9, 2018 11:32:40 am
Pratima Gaonkar won a silver medal in 4×400 relay in the Junior Asian Athletics Championship in Brunei.

It was October, 2001. When they fished out Pratima Gaonkar’s body from the village well, they found bags of stones tied to her ankles. A national-level athlete, and a swimmer, the 18-year-old had gone missing a day after receiving, as her brother puts it, “a disturbing phone call from her coach.” It was three months after she had won a silver medal in 4×400 relay in the Junior Asian Athletics Championship in Brunei. When watching her perched on top of a hired Sumo with a thick ring of marigold garlands around her neck during a welcome parade, they hadn’t expected the journey to take a tragic turn. Her village, Sadgal, in South Goa, was heartbroken. The dream had drowned; it was now dead and buried.

Six years after the death of her father, a miner with meager means, Pratima was the hope of the family surviving on her mother’s intermittent Rs 15 a day income as a farm hand. That day, Pratima’s noisy felicitation procession had passed the same small patch of land with cocunut trees and the nondescript well, where the rising star of athletics would end her life.

Wiser in hindsight, Shivanand, Pratima’s younger brother, has regrets. To this day, he has demons to deal with. The telephone conversation between his sister and her ‘sir’, that he had overheard, still swirls around in his head. “She said, ‘sir, you can’t do this’. Then she hung up and began sobbing,” he says, pointing to the direction of the well that’s a kilometre away from his home.

In the days after Pratima’s death, Shivanand, from details of the post-mortem report published in newspapers, would come to know about his sister’s intersex traits. Insensitive reporting in local media — description of her private parts made it to the front pages of newspapers — would make Pratima’s deep dark secret public, something that the deceased had dreaded. For years, she had internalised the dilemma of her sexuality. After her death, it was all out there.

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Newspaper clippings of Pratima Gaonkar’s achievements.

A home guard at the Colva beach in Salcete, it’s an ordeal for her brother to relive the trauma. For more than a decade and a half, it was a closed chapter. A couple of years ago, he decided to open up: It was for a good cause, common good.

It was for girls around the world who wanted to run but were constantly chased by fears of humiliation, rejection and a sudden death of their dreams. Shivanand featured in a Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports supported short film — In the Name of Pride — that dealt on the myraid challenges faced by India’s women athletes.

Says the film’s director Dr Payoshni Mitra, an activist and researcher on gender issues: “Pratima’s story points to the magnitude of harm caused by sex-testing, hyperandrogenism policies and similar regulations which exists now in events between 400 metres and the mile. While the world body of athletics promotes such a culture of surveillance, they seem to be oblivious of what is happening at the ground level. Athletes have been subjected to unprecedented scrutiny, coercion and even intimidation.”

None of these jargons make any sense to Pratima’s mother Jayashri. It has taken the brother a couple of days to coax her into talking about ‘that’ incident. Softly, in monosyllables, she talks about the ‘hormonal changes’ she noticed in Pratima at puberty.

“We never spoke about her physical characteristics after she turned 13-14. And she looked like any other girl and behaved like a girl. I am not an expert in science or medicine to advise my daughter about hormonal changes. She never seemed distressed or upset until she had that conversation with her ‘sir’ over the phone,” Jayashri says.

A few months back, the documentary was screened at the International Working Group of Women and Sport World Conference in Botswana,which was attended, among others, by Caster Semenya, the reigning 800 metres Olympic champion. In a different country, in a different culture and in a different era, the South African athlete had dealt with the Pratima-kind deathly dilemma differently. The Semenya story unfolded about nine years after Sadgal had first mourned, and later gossiped, about the death of its prodigal daughter.

It was March, 2010. Suspended for high testosterone levels, Semenya had gatecrashed an athletics meet in Stellenbosch, South Africa. She confronted the organisers and demanded answers. They threw the IAAF rule book at her. That day she gave a quote that would awaken the world to a problem they could no longer wish away.

“I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being. Some of the occurrences leading up to and immediately following the Berlin World Championships have infringed on not only my rights as an athlete but also my fundamental and human rights.”

Pratima didn’t have the stature, or even the articulation, to express her predicament. Also, there was no one by her side. Four years after Semenya’s outburst, an Indian athlete was mysteriously dropped from the 2014 Commonwealth Games squad. The Indian athletics body — that would later get bellowed by the world for their insensitivity —had dropped the sprinter for her high testosterone levels. This wasn’t 2001, not even 2011, the world now has more gender empathy. Dutee Chand wasn’t as alone as Pratima, or as helpless as Semenya.

Supported by government, Indian lawyers and international activists with a formidable body of work on gender issues, Dutee took IAAF to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). In April this year, the hyperandrogenism guidelines were disbanded and Dutee was allowed to compete in 100 and 200 metres. She went on to become the first Indian woman in three decades—after the legendary PT Usha— to win medals in both sprint events at the Asian Games.

However, new IAAF rules, which come into force from November 1 this year, place restrictions on athletes with naturally occuring but elevated levels of testosterone from participating in events between 400 metres and a mile. Now Semenya, with Dutee’s team on her side, is challenging the rules. She is a middle-distance runner. She goes to CAS with a simple question: If sprinters with higher levels of testosterone can compete why can’t the middle-distance runners?

Pratima had no safety net and nobody to turn to in her darkest hour. She experienced the trauma female athletes were subjected to before Chand showed the courage to challenge the rules. The teenager from the South Goa village would have feared that her world would come crashing down if coaches or fellow athletes began a whisper campaign about her gender.

It would result in a loss of name and fame and in a village where everyone knew everything about each other the stigma would stick for life. Not just for her but for her family too.

The shortest way to reach Sadgal, a 60-hut hamlet 33-odd kilometres from the Colva beach, is to get to Raia and take a five-minute ferry ride to Shiroda. Using the Zuari waterway will save 45 minutes, is what the locals advice.

A decade and a half ago, the villagers would get excited in case someone asked for directions to Pratima’s house. Now, they are suspicious. Having her brother helps. He wants the visit to be low-key. Shivanand insists on maneuvering the scooter right into the backyard of his house which leads to the backdoor. Any unknown face is easily recognised, Shivanand says, and the Gaonkars don’t want any enquiries from curious neighbours. They have tried to keep to themselves since Pratima committed suicide.

Pratima’s medals and certificates have been carefully preserved by her younger brother Shivanand and mother Jayashri. (Express Photo)

At Pratima’s home, the only picture of her is a black and white portrait alongside her father’s, hung on the wall near the small puja room. Shivanand brings out a mildewed file and an old photo album. Stacked in the file are Pratima’s certificates. She was an all-rounder, Shivanand says pointing to winner’s certificates in 100 metres, 400 metres, shot put, long jump and volleyball. There’s also ‘the diploma’ — issued by the Asian Amateur Athletics Association for the silver she won for India. The medal is preserved in a red display box.

Things started to improve when Pratima started winning medals. Local businessmen forwarded her cheques after reading about the family’s plight and the state government announced prize money and promised financial support. Shivanand says Pratima used the money to buy running shoes and for her diet but she was thoughtful and looked after the family. To keep in touch when she was at the Mapusa training centre, Pratima got a landline installed at home, one of the first in the village.

“When I went to receive her at the railway station after winning the medal in Brunei, I wore an old pair of jeans. I had just one pair and it had faded so much that it had turned white. She didn’t say anything then. But the next time she came home from Mapusa, she bought me two pairs of jeans and a saree for my mother,” Shivanand recalls.

The family, Jayashri, Shivanand and Seema, the youngest, did not go hungry for a while after Pratima’s weekly trips home. She always visited the market and came home with basic groceries to last till her next visit. She found time to help her siblings in academics and also had a say in who they looked upto as young impressionable teenagers. “I was weak in mathematics. She was my tutor. I managed to pass mathematics because of her,” Shivanand says.

He is now in his early 30s but the walls of Shivanand’s room are adorned with posters — Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, a stern-looking Sunny Deol wearing a holster, an early picture of Shahid Kapoor and one of WWE stars turned actor, The Rock aka Dwayne Johnson. “The first time I heard about wrestling was when Pratima bought me a t-shirt of The Rock. I will never remove his poster.”

Shivanand was deeply disturbed after Pratima’s death. He sat for Class X examinations that academic year but failed in mathematics. Even after four attempts he could not clear the examination. “I was not in the right frame of mind. If Pratima were alive I am sure I would have cleared and my career would have taken a different path.”

Shivanand enrolled for a ‘mechanic course’ at the Indian Technical Institute in Panaji and eventually landed a job in a mining company. “When restrictions were imposed on mining in the state a few years ago I lost my job. Then I applied for the job of a home guard.”

Jayashri’s recollections of the fateful day are tragic. The 60-year-old recalls the sequence of events after the telephone conversation with ‘sir’. Pratima managed to hold herself together and when it was clear that she didn’t want to talk about what was troubling her, the family gave her the space she wanted. The next morning they had breakfast together.

Jayashri went to work on the farm before 8 am and Shivanand set out for school around the same time. Shivanand says he remembers Pratima warming up on the morning of October 9. “She was to leave for the SAI hostel in Mapusa that day. Her bags were packed,” Jayashri says.

However, when she came home for lunch, Jayashri noticed Pratima’s shoes outside the house. She presumed her daughter had decided to stay on a little longer or had gone to meet a friend. But when dusk fell, panic set in.

A search party armed with torches began searching for Pratima. After scanning through the houses and coconut fields, someone suggested, in a hushed tone, to search the well. That’s where the search ended. “I think Pratima had tied the heavy bag full of stones to her ankles because she wanted to make sure her swimming instincts wouldn’t stop her from drowning. At least that is what I think. She didn’t want to live.” All because of the phone call and ‘sir’.

The Indian Express tracked down the ‘sir’ in May. He was two months away from retirement and had been with the Sports Authority of India (SAI) for the last 24 years. Pratima’s family had alleged it was this ‘sir’ who made that ‘phone call’. They also implicated him of blackmailing her by threatening to reveal she was an intersex athlete unless she gave a share of her prize money.

The coach was battling cancer when contacted and was feeling the side effects of chemotherapy. “I was suspended for three and a half years after an inquiry by a SAI assistant director. I had asked for a CBI inquiry into Pratima’s death because I wanted people to know the truth. I did not blackmail her. SAI conducted its own inquiry and found that I had no role to play. I have coached hundreds of athletes since then and nobody has complained about me. I have been posted in Gandhinagar, Hyderabad and Thrissur,” he says.

He has his own version of the events, which could have led to Pratima committing suicide.

During the course of the SAI inquiry, he says he obtained medical certificates from the Indian team doctor and the primary health centre, which mentioned that Pratima had intersex traits. “These certificates proved that those conducting the Indian junior team’s camp knew there were issues related to her gender. Despite this they chose to field her in the Asian junior meet. Why did they do that? After the team won a medal, Pratima started to get financial assistance. My guess is that someone who knew beforehand about her condition was trying to blackmail her. It was not me.”

One of the coaches at the 2001 junior camp spoke off the record. “It was only after Pratima passed away and the contents of the post mortem report became public did I first hear about the possibility of she being an intersex athlete. We did not ask her to undergo any gender tests. The national camp before the Asian junior meet in Brunei lasted hardly a month, so my interactions with her were limited. I remember Pratima because she later committed suicide and it became news. When such an unfortunate incident happens you tend to remember the person. As an athlete I remember she was hardworking and sincere,” he says.

Pratima’s personal best in the 400 was 54.39 seconds according to the IAAF website. The timing puts her in the same league as another junior from the early aughts– Manjeet Kaur, who held the senior national mark for a decade and a half till Hima Das broke it at the 2018 Asian Games.

After the village visit, Shivanand has gone silent. Back at his scenic workplace, the Colva beach, he stares at the setting sun. He talks about his decision to be in the documentary and go through the trauma again. In this ever-evolving world, he wants some changes to be permanent.

“People have forgotten about Pratima. The only reason I agreed to talk to you about my sister and took you to our village is because I don’t want any other girl to suffer like she did. She died before she could get justice. We have tried to forget what happened so many years ago. But now I feel we need to talk about what happened to Pratima. Not for us but for other girls like her. So that they are treated with respect.”

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