IIt was September 27, 1958. Eleven years had passed since that fateful day when, rising to the sounds of the new national anthem, a piece of tricolor cloth floating above the Red Fort signaled the end of centuries of subjugation. colonial.
It had been a decade of hope, angst and strife in equal measure. Newly independent India was grappling with the twin challenges of securing a glorious future and managing the bloodbath of partition. From this delicate balance had arisen a single nation, which was greater than the sum of its disparate parts.
During this decade, the idea of a self-governing nation was embraced. But beneath that facade was a self-confidence. And a young barrister training to be a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn in London tackled this conundrum in his own way. His name was Mihir Sen.
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Break in Calais
Mihir Sen was born in an undivided village in Bengal in 1930 and grew up in Cuttack, Orissa (now Odisha). As a child, he dreamed of studying abroad. Since his father was a local doctor of limited means, Mihir’s dream could only have come true with a little help. And that help came from a rather unexpected side.
When Mihir completed his law degree at Utkal University, then Chief Minister Biju Patnaik offered to fund his move to England. There, Mihir joined Lincoln’s Inn, the prestigious law firm. He was 21 years old.
The previous year, while still at Utkal University, Mihir had read about the exploits of Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to cross the English Channel. The story had inspired him. Born in a time and place where nationalist sentiments were rampant, Sen was acutely aware that his young nation needed heroes to demonstrate what the new India was capable of. And he was determined to set that example.
Sen chose an extreme task for himself, because now was not the time for half measures. He will become the first Indian, even the first Asian, to swim across the English Channel.
Sen had no established prowess as a swimmer. Weaving through the Katjuri River at Cuttack was not sufficient preparation for a Channel crossing. But what he had to a large extent was drive, ambition and determination to succeed.
Sen spent hours at the YMCA pool in London developing his technique and endurance. He then had to learn how to manage the treacherous tides of the English Channel, avoid poisonous jellyfish and other creatures of the deep, navigate the high seas and, of course, cope with extreme temperatures and the vagaries of English weather.
The weather forced him to abandon his first attempt in the middle of 1955. Three years later, on September 27, 1958, he set sail again off Dover. This time he was better prepared. Coating his body with mustard oil, as he would on a winter’s day at home, Sen worked his way into the record books, completing the solo crossing in 14 hours and 45 minutes.
What would have been the pinnacle of achievement for many, however, was only the beginning for the determined Mihir Sen.
In 1966 he went further, swimming across the oceans of five continents in a single year. Sen crossed the Palk Strait in 25 hours and 36 minutes, the Strait of Gibraltar in eight hours and one minute, the Dardanelles in 13 hours and 55 minutes, the Bosphorus in four hours and the entire length of the Panama Canal in 34 hours. and 15 minutes.
After crossing the Palk Strait, Sen would have write“I undertook this perilous swim not to win glory or trophies but to prove once again to the world that the Indians are no longer afraid. To the young people of India, this triumph will have dramatically demonstrated that nothing is impossible for them – all they have to do is believe and persevere and the goal will be theirs!
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Business and the decline of Bengal
Back in India in the early 1960s and with a successful law practice, Mihir Sen again plunged into the unknown. In his native Bengal, he established a silk manufacturing and exporting business.
Over the next decade and a half, Sen became a very successful businessman as his business grew. When asked why he made the change, he said: “From English channels, from the seven seas to business, it’s just an extension of the same thing. Mainly my love for adventure, my taste for the dangerous, the difficult and the unknown. Business was a field where I was not trained [for]. I trained as a lawyer. But law is a very upright profession. And I wanted the heartbreak, I wanted the excitement, I wanted the high risk.
Like all elite athletes, Mihir Sen thrived on risk. But risk in a business often does not come from within, but from without. Unfortunately, the heyday of Sen’s business enterprise also coincided with a period of massive political change in West Bengal.
In February 1967, months after Sen’s famous feat of crossing the oceans, the first United Front government came to power in West Bengal. For the very first time after Independence, the Congress party had been defeated. While Ajoy Mukherjee was the face of the party, real power lay with Deputy Chief Minister Jyoti Basu who took over as CM in 1977.
Gheraos (besieging blockades), soon to be Bengal’s ignominious contribution to the English language (and subsequently to the Oxford Dictionary in 2004), had become standard as soon as the Communists took power in 1967.
Owners and senior managers were locked in their offices for days on end, often without food, water and medicine, until they succumbed to workers’ demands. These requirements, if met in full, made the management of a factory immediately loss-making. Killings when the gheraos failed to produce satisfactory results were not uncommon.
During their three decades in power, the communist government systematically destroyed the industrial and corporate base of West Bengal. The sound of sirens announcing shift changes in factories would be drowned out forever. Successful businesses downstream from the state have been shut down.
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The “dismantling” of Mihir Sen
The impact this had on Mihir Sen and his business was more immediate and deeply personal.
In 1977, Jyoti Basu had asked Mihir Sen, then one of the most emblematic personalities of Bengal, to stand for election under the banner of the CPI(M). Sen refused the offer, explaining that he was a capitalist and in good conscience could not represent the Communist Party. Under enormous pressure and facing threats against his business and family, Mihir Sen made the fateful decision to run for office as an independent candidate against Jyoti Basu.
Over the next few years, Sen’s cases were unequivocally targeted. Its manufacturing units have been shut down by social unrest, its personal finances targeted by government agencies, and cases of dishonesty and forgery have been filed. Sen was forced to file for bankruptcy, his bank accounts frozen. The stress did what all the dangers of the seas could not – it drove Sen to physical and mental decline.
In 1997, at the age of 66, Mihir Sen died, financially broken, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, a shadow of himself. The man who had conquered the world’s oceans with such impunity and contempt had succumbed to the tsunami of politics.
Anindya Dutta @Cric_Writer is a sports columnist and author of Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling and Advantage India: The Story of Indian Tennis. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)