Struggle is second nature to the first female athlete from Assam to become a national champion and represent the country. Born into a middle-class farming family in Sibasagar’s Dhai Ali, her birth was not welcome as she was the second girl in the family. But her grandmother, or Aai as she fondly calls her, embraced the little Tayabun and whispered the Azaan into her years. All her life, Tayabun Nisha has woken up at the crack of dawn, even before the muezzin’s call for the Fazr prayers, Tayabun says prayer gives her strength, keeps her humble.
She countered loss early in life when she lost her mother at the tender age of ten. Her father who encouraged her to take up sports, passed away when she was in the VIIth standard. The responsibility of her six siblings and two half-sisters fell on the young 15-year-old and her eldest sister. Tayabun decided to till the little land they had with her own hands, her older siblings joined in. When I ask her if it was unusual for a Muslim girl in the 1970s to go to the rice fields, she replies in a matter-of fact way, ‘Yes, it was unusual. But public opinion would not feed me. I was good at physical labour, so I decided to grow rice. My elder sister took up stitching, everyone pitched in’. Since Tayabun was known to be good at sports (she would participate in all local athletic competitions and win them all), she was offered the job of a physical instructor at the ONGC School where her father was a fourth-grade employee. Her salary was Rs 110, barely enough to sustain a family. Tayabun thus continued working in the fields and also took up Hindi tuitions to help the family.
Considering she had had no training, knew nothing about nutrition and participated in athletics meets only because they did not require her to buy any equipment, her rise from there to the national arena is almost unbelievable. She continued to participate in athletics meets, now progressing to larger towns like Dibrugarh in 1970 where she participated in the All Assam Athletics Meet where she was selected to represent the State at the national level. In the 9th Inter State Athletics Meet held in Ahmedabad in 1971, Tayabun bagged the bronze medal. ‘I still had no instructor or any sort of training, but this win finally instilled in me a self-belief that I too could compete with the best in the field’.
At the insistence of the then Railway Secretary, RC Baruah, who was a sports enthusiast and saw great promise in Tayabun Nisha, she was offered a job in the Indian Railways in 1973 at a salary of Rs 250. ‘I was apprehensive to shift to an unknown town like Guwahati to live alone in a Railway quarter. But like every challenge I have faced, I told myself, I can do it’. From then on, encouraged by the Railways, she participated in all national sports meets and won medals in almost all of them. ‘However, I do think that if we were given proper facilities such as training and nutrition advice, I and many of my fellow athletes could have done much more for the country. Whatever little I did achieve was only because of my will power’. She missed a medal at the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi and the realization that sports in this country other than cricket has eternally been lacking in infrastructure and support led her to open a sports gym adjacent to her house after retirement. A small enclosed space with heavy equipment, young women can be seen exercising there at all hours of the day. ‘In Assamese, there is a saying that if you try to bend a tender bamboo branch, it will yield easily. But if you try the same on a mature branch of bamboo, it won’t give in so easily. Unless and until the Govt. makes sports a compulsory subject in schools, I don’t see a future for sports in India. There are so many mushrooming private schools, but where are the sports schools? Unless and until there is a national culture for sports, sports in India will be eternally neglected. I have two sons, both work for the Railways, one is a physiotherapist and the other is a technician and runs a gym in Adabarie. They are not exceptional sportspersons but the influence of sports in their lives has made them more disciplined. All of us need sports as we need education.’ Tayabun Nisha is 64-years-old now but her jest for life and athletics remains unabated. She now plans to introduce her week old granddaughter to sports as soon as she grows up. Knowing her, she will give it her best shot, or should I say, ‘throw’?
Words- Nasreen Habib