On Wings of Fire

On Wings of Fire

Now

The scream was so loud, it drowned out all the sounds around her. Soundarya felt a ringing in her ears, like tinnitus but far louder, engulfing her whole, swallowing her. When she crumpled and hit the rough cemented floor, scraping her knee, only then did she realize that the scream that had brought her to her knees had burst forth from her own throat. A primal wail, encompassing all her anger, rage, frustration at the hate and misogyny around her. Though, if you had asked her, she wouldn’t even know what the word meant. All she knew was that she had given her all and yet they had taken it away from her. 

“How can they do this to me? Haven’t I done enough? Haven’t I been humiliated enough?” 

The questions hung in the air unsuccessful in their quest for an answer, then slowly dissipated to the ground just like the one who had uttered them. The receiver fell from her unresponsive fingers, dangling purposelessly, the dial tone, a keening for the heartbroken girl.

When Soundarya awoke, she was back in her home. Broken, humiliated, and stripped of her silver medal won at the Asian Championship at Doha.

The early beginnings 

Akka! I want to run like you someday.” A little Soundarya gushed to her older sister, Rathna. 

The two girls sat barefoot, their feet dipping into the water. The river ran cold under their inflamed feet, soothing the scratches the sand had made into their soft skin and running through the furrows etched into their feet by the random pebbles that lay on the beach. The wind that had whipped their faces a few minutes earlier, enjoying the tussle with their thick braids as they ran, now just caressed them like a lover’s soft fingers, sending thrills through their bodies, now slick with sweat.

“Hush, chinna. Why would you want to run like me, when you can run much faster than me? You run like a gazelle, Soundarya. A little training will give you wings to fly. One day, you’ll be the talk of the town,” Rathna spoke, proud of her little sister’s abilities. “You’ll be famous, chinna and I’ll make sure that we do everything to ensure it. Time for another round.” They both rose for a last sprint before returning with the clay.

As far as the eye could see, the river bank was full of rows upon rows of clay bricks, stacked neatly to resemble the streets of a long lost ancient city. Soundarya and her siblings loved to play hide-and-seek between those rows. That’s until they were old enough to help with the brick making. 

The brick kiln was the only source of income for their family and each of the family members helped in whatever way they could. Both Soundarya and Rathna came to collect clay but they liked to steal a few moments running along the bank. As their bare feet flew over the dusty ground, unmindful of the pebbles under their feet, they were unaware of a pair of eyes following their movements.

Muthuraman, their father, stood at the river’s edge. He had hurried here to fetch the clay his daughters were late in bringing. The sight of his girls oblivious to the gravel pricking their feet, ribbonned pigtails flying, wind in their faces, running without a care in the world, made him stop lest he disturb them. The joy on their faces stamped on his heart, and their clear laughter ranging in his ears were like the sight of the dawn, filling his own heart with joy and wonder. He made a vow then and there. 

“I’ll see you two run, my girls.”

Now

Lying in bed, Soundarya whimpered. She had woken up but she didn’t want to. Ever. As long as she was unconscious, she had been spared. Now every hateful comment and every prickling barb that she had been subjected to, once again began to clamour in her thoughts, the pinch of words more powerful than mere fingers could ever be. 

“You are no longer the Asian Games champion. You’ll be stripped of your medal and a press notification sent to the media to this effect,” the voice of the caller from the Athletics Federation of India at the other end of the phone was chilling in its impersonal delivery. 

“I don’t understand. How is this possible? What happened? Why are you doing this to me?” Soundarya almost begged. 

The recognition for her success had not only made her and her parent’s life easy, but brought fame and respect to her village too. She had trained day and night and worked so hard. There were nights she had slept only four hours and was up before dawn to practice. Always eaten only the prescribed food and even a morsel of anything that wasn’t approved by the coaches had never passed her mouth. Braved the poisoned taunts of her compatriots but everything was for naught. 

“You’ve failed the sex test. Your tests say that you aren’t a female. Since you aren’t one, you cannot keep the medal that you won in a race for females. “

There was a snicker at the other end of the line. More than the words, the derision in the words pierced Soundarya’s heart.

“Not a female? Who are you to say that I’m not a woman? I’ve spent my whole life being a girl. My parents and my entire village knows that.” 

“Not according to the tests. Tell me something. What kind of umm… thing do you have down there?” he sniggered. 

Rage boiled over in Soundarya but she knew that anger wouldn’t get her anywhere with this perverted individual. The implications of what the person was saying was huge. She could be barred from further participation in athletics. She couldn’t even think of a future where she couldn’t run. 

“I’ve a vagina,” she replied, her anger in check. “Will showing it prove that I’m a female?”

“I wish, but the tests are final,” the derogatory laugh at the other end had finally broken something in her as she screamed her rage and eventually lost her senses.

“Soundarya?” Rathna stood at the foot of her bed, four humble wooden poles woven with thick ropes, and covered with a patchwork quilt handed down generations and as worn to be able to prove its ancient heritage without any doubt. 

Akka!” She wailed. “They’re saying I’m not a woman. How can it be?”

“Shhh, chinna! I know what they’re saying. Everyone knows. It’s the only news running on the television for the past two days.”

“How can this be, akka? We’ve grown up together. You know I’m like you, a woman.” Large tears drained down Soundarya’s face, her heartbreak at her public humiliation and bewilderment spread over her face for everyone to see. 

Chinna, we’ll get to the bottom of things. But first you need to get well. So stop this nonsense of fainting and leave the bed. You also have to keep up your form while we see what we can do. Now, come… be a good girl and eat something.”

Rathna tried her best to calm her little sister. Soundarya had been her friend, sister, and daughter. It was Rathna who had looked after her since infancy, since their mother was busy looking after the household chores and working in the brick kiln along with their father. The five years between them had dissolved when they ran together but made themselves felt when Rathna had to act as the big sister. It was the big sister who got Soundarya out of her fugue, and made her eat the boiled rice and rasam. Simple wholesome fare to soothe her body and mind, for Soundarya looked and felt frayed like the ends of a silk ribbon and needed loving care. 

A week went by and Rathna cared for Soundarya like a newborn baby, making sure she was well fed, bathed and not disturbed. She didn’t tell her that reporters had been clamouring to get her to talk to them or their channels. Or that there were mumblings in the village about the news reports and Soundarya. 

Soundarya was the owner of long limbs and a muscled body. She was stronger than most girls her age on account of handling large amounts of clay since childhood. But the exact traits that made her a good runner now sowed doubts in the hearts of the simple villagers. There were more than a few voices that went around whispering. 

Whispers in the night. And day!

“Where do you think you’re going? It’s the girls’ washroom. Find one for yourself,” the girl pushed Soundarya and proceeded into the cubicle. She stood there dumbstruck, tears threatening to breach the walls of her eyelids. The laughter at her back, however, reminded her that she had to be strong. Now she was alone. 

The two years of training and running in various national races had gone by in the blink of an eye. The two sisters won many state medals and made Muthuraman, who had begged, borrowed, and broken his back to get his girls into the state sports team, proud. But Rathna had to leave because of an injury. No one had bothered Soundarya much till Rathna stayed with her. With Rathna gone, the girls found Soundarya an easy target. 

Soundarya tried to keep aloof and stayed in her room, but mealtimes proved a nightmare. Jokes on her looks and physique were served to her with each meal where she had to either swallow the insults along with the mandated food or go hungry. She took to eating later but couldn’t avoid the morning rush for the bathroom and toilet when tap water would be available.  

“Hey, Sundar. You come here to ogle at the girls in all their glory? Enjoying being here among so many beautiful girls?” Another one taunted her. The name stuck to her like an unwanted gaze. Soundarya retaliated by winning all her races with definitive margins and alienating her fellow athletes further. Her excellent performance led to her selection for the Asian Games at Doha and she couldn’t be happier. She forgot the taunts and the whispers behind her back and began training for the Championship with even more fervour if it was possible.

The day finally arrived. It was her first plane ride and she was so excited, she couldn’t keep her safety belt on. Soundarya woke up in the morning feeling blessed. She knew she would be giving the race her best, and the results would be in God’s hands. 

She stood at the track, her whole being focused on the ribbon at the end. The call was made to get ready and the runners were off like bullets, as soon as the pistol was shot. As she breasted the ribbon, Soundarya could see her team rise in jubilation. She had finished the 800m in two minutes, three seconds and had come second. When the silver medal rested on her heaving breast, she remembered her parents and Rathna and sent them her heartfelt thanks.

There were other races scheduled for the next day. Soundarya was resting in her room, when a knock on the door made her get up. There were two strange men in lab coats standing there with the team manager. 

“You’ve been called for some tests,” he informed her gruffly, without looking her in the eye. Soundarya felt alarmed but followed the two men, feeling like someone who had been caught cheating. Tests for doping were random, and there was no point in making a scene about them. After all, she was clean. 

Soon they reached a lab room, white and bright, dominated by strange machinery. Though Soundarya was apprehensive, she quietly subjected herself to the blood tests, and swabs that were taken from various orifices of her body. Once the swabs were done, one of them pointed to a table and asked her to lie down. She didn’t know what was going on but was scared. There was no one with her in whom she could confide. She removed her pants and lay down on the table, her legs straddled wide to enable ease of access. She shivered as the man prodded and probed in the most intimate places of her body but lay there quietly. No one saw the tears that escaped from the corners of her eyes. 

She had to undergo a few more examinations, which she submitted to without complaints. Once she was done, she was escorted back to her room, scarred and humiliated. Soundarya failed to make any splashes in the second day’s races.

Now

Whispers and rumours are like the ten headed Ravana. You can’t nip them all at once. And so Rathna ignored what couldn’t be defeated, and prayed to the Goddess to show her the way forward. Maybe the Goddess heard her words. Maybe it was Soundarya’s good luck. When a week had gone by, a woman reached their little hut, where the family stayed and asked to meet Soundarya. 

Rathna was aware the reporters could go to any lengths to hound the family for an interview. So she first decided to talk to the woman herself and decide if she was a friend or another one of those slick reporters. She offered the woman a stool after dusting it to make sure it was clean and handed her a cup of black tea. As the woman took a hesitant sip, Rathna launched her query. 

“I’m Rathna, Soundarya’s elder sister. Who’re you, madam? And why do you want to meet Soundarya? Please forgive me for asking but our lives have been made into a circus, for everyone to gawp at and get entertained from.”

Soundarya sat in the corner, and watched the whole proceeding, still not sure of her words or her actions in spite of the care shown to her by Rathna and her family. No one knew that she had guessed the situation that was brewing in the village from the worried faces of her parents and guilt, though uninvited, had made a permanent residence in her heart. 

“I’m someone who’s interested in cases like Soundarya and I try to help wherever I can,” the woman replied. 

“If you want to help us, then at least tell us what this is all about?” Rathna’s frustration finally found its voice. 

“Didn’t they even tell you that? Why is it that I’m not surprised? Soundarya had been made to take a test that determines whether she’s biologically a male or a female. According to the result of that test, she suffers from Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Her body produces male hormones but the body parts or receptors to absorb the androgens either aren’t there or are ineffectual. So she can either have surgery or take hormone pills to suppress the testosterone.”

“I’ve heard of the pills. They make one so sick, you feel as if you’re on fire and dying a slow painful death. I’m not going to take some pills just to justify someone’s sick idea of what a female should be. I’m a woman. I’ve always been,” Soundarya spoke, startling everyone with her vehemence.

“Hello, Soundarya. I’m Paromita Chatterjee. I’m here to act as your consultant and make sure you’ve a voice. I’ve been retained to work as a consultant by the Sports Federation of India and we’ll fight your case in the Court of Arbitration for Sports. Hopefully we’ll make the IAAF see the error of their ways. Gender is totally a social construct and you’ve always identified as a woman. Some random and outdated test reports cannot say with certainty that you aren’t what you say you are. It’s time someone called out these invasive practices in sports.” The woman turned and her kind eyes assured Soundarya as much as her words did. 

Paromita smiled at her and continued, “We tried convincing the AFI to stand with us in this fight against these archaic practices but they’ve refused. However, you’ll be glad to know that the minister of sports has agreed to raise the issue of your insensitive treatment by the AFI in front of the Parliament. This will be a difficult journey and if you agree with me, then you’ll have to be strong. What do you say? Are you willing to take on the world?”

Hope blossomed like a tiny little bud unfurling its petals one by one in Soundarya’s heart. She felt all together for the first time since the day her scream had broken her into pieces. She smiled and replied, 

“When hasn’t a woman been strong? Didn’t she take on even the God of death for defending what she loved? I’m ready. Bring it on.”

Six Months Later

The women stood poised at the starting point of the track, Soundarya among them. The call was given. “Ready, Steady…”

Their fight had been worth it. The Court of Arbitration for Sports had overturned her test results and even struck down the practice as archaic and detrimental to the dignity of women. The IAAF had been asked to prove the correlation of heightened testosterone levels in women with improved performance on field. Until then, no pre-ordained limits were to be set for the females to qualify for track events in the female category. Her medal had been restored and she had been cleared to participate in upcoming track events. 

The pistol shot sounded like a whip crack and the contestants flew on the track. Soundarya felt the wind whipping against her cheeks and knew that the days of her trial were behind her. What lay before her… the whole world to be won, one race at a time.

-—-*******—–

Author’s Note:

This story has been inspired from the lives of two Indian athletes Santhi Soundarajan who had her medal stripped after failing a sex test and Dutee Chand who had the courage to refuse hormone correction pills and fight her case in the Court of Arbitration for Sports against the practices of the IAAF, The International Amateur Athletics Federation. Both of them suffered from heightened testosterone value in their bodies and had to face lots of humiliation and discrimination based on the above. The story of Dutee had a happy ending but Santhi hasn’t been so lucky. Her fight for the restoration of her medal is still ongoing. 

Androgen insensitivity syndrome: 

Androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) is when a person who is genetically male (who has one X and one Y chromosome) is resistant to male hormones (called androgens). As a result, the person has some of the physical traits of a woman, but the genetic makeup of a man.

Causes

AIS is caused by genetic defects on the X chromosome. These defects make the body unable to respond to the hormones that produce a male appearance.

The syndrome is divided into two main categories:

Complete AIS

Partial AIS

In complete AIS, the penis and other male body parts fail to develop. At birth, the child looks like a girl. The complete form of the syndrome occurs in as many as 1 in 20,000 live births.

In partial AIS, people have different numbers of male traits.

Anyone interested in both the women can read up their stories on the internet.

*******

Glossary:

Akka: Elder sister

Chinna: affectionate term for someone younger

Rasam: a dish to go with rice

AFI: Athletics Federation of India

SFI: Sports Federation of India

CAS: Court of Arbitration for Sports

IAAF: World Athletics, previously International Amateur Athletics Federation 

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