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Sea of Life: An 87-year-old’s romance with a gruelling endurance sport

Govind Fatehpuria joined Bengal Rowing Club 30 years ago to play badminton, but it was rowing that kept him going

Vedant Karia | Published 16.09.21, 05:02 PM

At 87, this city sculler doesn’t mind a hard row to hoe

Video editing by Madhurai Banerjee

It’s 4.30pm at the Bengal Rowing Club (BRC). The crows, pigeons and cuckoos are homing in and older members crowd the lobbies for a chin-wag. There’s something about Govind Fatehpuria, the person opposite me. It has nothing to do with how the 87-year-old dives into the pool with the gusto of a teenager, or how he’s done with his daily workouts by 8.45am when the city isn’t entirely rid of slumber. 

It may have something to do with how difficult it is to sustain an uninterrupted conversation with him because every few minutes a fellow member would walk in our direction to touch his feet or to clasp his hand enthusiastically. To Fatehpuria’s credit, he seamlessly switches between talking to a complete stranger (i.e, me), and cracking a joke with a club-mate, making both of us feel equally appreciated. 

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In the 1940s when Calcutta was witnessing its most tumultuous era yet, a young Fatehpuria encountered a particularly noteworthy brand of peace-seekers. “My mother enrolled me in St. Xavier’s Collegiate School, which in the 1940s had Christian missionaries coming in from Europe. It offered me exposure to diverse thoughts. My mother also encouraged me to play sports. Although I was never into competitive sports, I was always playing something, be it hockey or football,” Fatehpuria recalls. 

His family migrated to the metropolis from Rajasthan’s Bissau and took up residence in Burrabazar nearly a century ago. Much like in rowing, moving in the right direction has served Fatehpuria well in life too, because the right connections seemed to have found him at crucial junctures. 

An acquaintance he made as an adolescent at the Burrabazar Yubak Sabha turned out to be the secretary of College Square Swimming Club, who dragged him to the pool, where the rower discovered his love for diving (his highest dive has been from a height of 20 feet). At the BRC’s pool every morning, the octogenarian endurance athlete can be found post his daily rowing session, diving from a height of 5 feet. 

Fatehpuria’s plans to study at Cambridge University came to a halt as his father’s untimely demise left him in charge of the family-run business. At 24, Fatehpuria found himself at the helm of multiple businesses, his love for sport at the backseat. It was another accidental connection that brought him back two decades later.

Every time I get into my boat, I feel like I am out in the high seas, going on a discovery like Columbus. Rowing towards the shore in the opposite direction makes me feel I am going somewhere. At 87, you’d expect someone my age to be riddled with health problems but my reports are completely normal, primarily due to rowing. I don’t do it to build biceps, I do it to build my internal strength.

Fatehpuria met the then-president of BRC in a cultural club, and the latter insisted on him joining BRC and in 1985, he became a member for Rs 22,000. “There was a Number 9 red double-decker bus that went from Shyambazar to Golpark. I used to get on that bus from Ram Mandir, and get down near Lake, every single day at 6 in the morning,” he recalls. When I ask him if the daily commute from Burrabazar to BRC was demanding for him, he quips, “What is distance?”

“I would play badminton with this person who was also into rowing. On the days when I got a bit late, he wouldn’t wait, and would instead take a boat and go rowing. I asked myself why I couldn’t go on a boat too, and that’s how in my 50s, I took to rowing for the first time in my life,” Fatehpuria smiles.

Though he's not one to enjoy competitive athletics, Fatehpuria is a regular at the club’s annual regatta and even won a gold medal at the recent edition. “I like performing well, but for me, it is not about winning, but the adrenaline rush. The general atmosphere of the club motivates me to push myself, and the junior members really respect me,” he shares. 

Today as Fatehpuria manages to wade through his well-wishers at BRC, he finds a boat reserved for him at 7:30 every morning and spends half an hour rowing. “Every time I get into my boat, I feel like I am out in the high seas, going on a discovery like Columbus. Rowing towards the shore in the opposite direction makes me feel I am going somewhere. At 87, you’d expect someone my age to be riddled with health problems but my reports are completely normal, primarily due to rowing. I don’t do it to build biceps, I do it to build my internal strength,” Fatehpuria says.

The rower’s oldest daughter, Anuradha Lohia, Vice-Chancellor of Presidency University often manages to schedule a swim at The Saturday Club, while his son and granddaughter play golf at Royal Calcutta Golf Club. His grand nieces happen to be excellent horse riders. “If I don’t show up to the club someday, I get a call from my family, reprimanding me. Now that Anuradha is such a senior academician, she always has the final word for everything!” he laughs.

At several points during our conversation, Fatehpuria catches me off-guard with his youthful exuberance, it is almost impossible to believe he is 87. I get one final shock when I ask him about the highlights of his rowing career (expecting him to mention medals or achievements). “The real fun starts when the boat gets overturned! It can literally happen at any time, and there is a science behind it. The balance lies in the oars, and only when you understand this can you become a good rower. I've experienced it around 7 times in 30 years, with the last one being just a few months ago. It is a great teacher, and I pray to god that he keeps me rowing every day,” chuckles the seasoned rule-breaker.

Last updated on 16.09.21, 05:08 PM
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