I beat her to the security gate. This tall, well-built woman travelling with a teenager. Dressed in a simple cotton salwar kameez, she walked behind me with an authoritative stance. The girl dressed in a sports jersey, was carrying a heavy backpack. A coach, I assumed.
I bumped into them again when I was picking up my luggage from the scanner. The security guard had some concerns regarding the metal they were carrying in their bags. I paid no heed and walked away.
The next time I spotted her, was at the boarding gates. She boarded the bus after me and asked the teenager to take the seat next to mine. I was busy sipping my cup of bad coffee and dreaming about running on the runway. Just then, I saw a man approach the lady. "No, I am not a boxer", she was saying with a smile. "I am sorry. I thought you...", the man muttered, and with a look of embarrassment moved to the back of the bus.
It was then that I started wondering. Who was this athletic woman standing in front of me? Was she someone famous? Could she be... Was it in fact... Just then her fingers slid slightly to reveal the name printed on her boarding pass - Usha P.T.
My heart was in my mouth. The one athlete I grew up idolising was in front of me this whole time, and I had failed to recognize her. Just to make sure, I turned to the girl in the jersey and asked, "Is this PT Usha?". She nodded with a freckled smile.
My thoughts were on a roller coaster. Should I click a picture? Should I get an autograph? My phone was in my bag! I had no paper! Damn you, Digital India! I somehow managed to find a pen and...by the time I processed what was happening, the bus had stopped and she was already boarding the aircraft.
Overcome by panic, excitement and utter disbelief, I put my stalking hat on and resolved to make things right. I entered the flight and looked around frantically. There she was! The glorious, humble, powerful P.T. Usha, looking out the window on seat 2F. I looked at my boarding pass - 28D. What luck!
I made my way to the seat at the farthest end of the aircraft and requested a stewardess for a sheet of paper. "Please wait till the boarding is complete", she said and ushered me to fasten my seatbelt.
The aisle was bustling with travellers stuffing their bags in the overhead compartments. This was a connecting flight making its way to Calicut after dropping a bunch of us at Mumbai. That's where Usha must be headed, I concluded. Restless, I Googled the legend. India's queen of track and field, PT Usha was conferred the Padma Shri and the Arjuna award in the year 1984. She was the first Indian woman to reach the Olympic finals. She currently holds the world record for most gold medals earned by a female athlete in a single track meet.
And then, I read the most magnificent fact of all. Her date of birth.
The flight was in the air, the seatbelt signs were off and I was standing with the stewardess. Sighing, she handed me a sheet of paper and hoping desperately that Usha wasn't asleep, I walked up to 2F.
She was sitting with her back straight, but her eyes were shut. My heart sank. Might as well give it a shot! "Excuse me ma'am", startled, she looked up with surprise. "I am so sorry. I didn't recognize you earlier. Can I please have your autograph?", I said it all in one breath. She smiled and took the paper from my hand. The girl was fast asleep on the seat next to her, clutching her backpack close. Written with a permanent marker on the bag was the name Jisna Mathew. A rising star, Jisna is an eighteen-year-old sprinter who qualified for the World Gold Meet by winning gold in the National Youth Athletics. Usha handed the paper back to me. "Wish you a very Happy Birthday ma'am!", the words had finally made their way to Usha. The P.T. Usha. "Thank You", she beamed. I walked back to my seat smiling ear to ear. Mission accomplished.
I wonder what the metal in their bags was. Medals and trophies, I am sure. If only I had let her walk ahead of me at the security check. If only I had been curious enough to see what was in the bag. If only I had had the common sense to recognize a legend when I saw one. What a conversation we would have had. How great would have that story been.
- Vedangi Dandwate