The Google Doodle for September 24 celebrates the 80th birthday of the trailblazing Indian swimmer Arati Saha. Illustrated by fellow Kolkata native and Google guest artist, Lavanya Naidu, the Doodle depicts the awe-inspiring 67 kilometres Saha covered from Cape Gris Nez in France to Sandgate in England on September 29, 1959.
This 16-hour, 20-minute swim made her the first Asian woman to swim across the English Channel – a feat considered the swimming equivalent of climbing Mount Everest.
Born in Bengal in 1940, Saha’s love for swimming emerged early in life and she won her first accolade at just five years old. A pioneering athlete, she went from learning to swim on riverbanks with her mentor Sachin Nag to competing at the Olympics and making history aged 11.
Saha earned multiple honours in her early career, including setting an all-India record in 1949 and breaking Dolly Nazir’s all-India record in a West Bengal state meet in 1951. Nazir and Saha represented India together and were two of four female participants at the 1952 Olympics.
After the Olympics, Saha focused on perfecting the breaststroke, consistently her best category. She also started participating in long-distance competitions in the River Ganga. Her rigorous training regime once had her swimming for eight straight hours at the pond in Deshbandhu Park, and she then went on to half her time.
She reached out to congratulate Bangladeshi swimmer Brojen Das when he became the first Asian swimmer to cross the English Channel in 1952. He went on to recommend her to the Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race organisers for the 1953 event.
Despite her popularity and widespread support, she struggled to raise the funding to travel to England until Jawahar Lal Nehru, then Prime Minister of India, offered her support. After six years of training, Saha travelled to England on July 24, 1959.
Her first event was plagued with mishaps. Her pilot boat was almost an hour late, and within five miles on the English coast, she had to turn back for her own safety. On September 29, 1959, she made her second attempt at crossing the English Channel.
In a record-breaking 980 minutes, Saha swam an astonishing 42 miles, and when she reached the English shores, she hoisted the Indian national flag.
After her historic victory, she married her long-time manager, Dr Arun Gupta, in 1959. The next year she became the first woman to be awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour. She told interviewers that she was inspired by Indian swimmer Mihir Sen.
The Department of Posts created a postage stamp in her honour in 1999, five years after her passing.
The Doodle this week was drawn by Kolkata artist Lavanya Naidu, an avid stamp collector as a child in the 1990s who remembers her excitement seeing her hometown hero on a stamp.
Naidu hopes her drawing will inspire people everywhere to “dream big, no matter where you come from.”
by Vidhu Sharma