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Mihir Sen: Swimming To Greatness

Mihir Sen: Swimming To Greatness

Mihir Sen, it seems, was destined to swim against the tide. From humble beginnings in Purulia in West Bengal, where he created opportunities where there appeared to be none, to studying law at London’s Lincoln’s Inn, to becoming the first Asian to swim across the English Channel in 1958, Sen had to overcome grave odds before he could cover himself – and India – in glory.

Sen was born in 1930 in a small village in Purulia but his family moved to Cuttack in Odisha when he was eight, so that he could get a decent education. His father was a village physician and earned only enough to feed his family.

But Sen didn’t allow his financial difficulties to hold him back. He secured a degree in law from Utkal University in Bhubaneswar and, always looking for the next mountain to climb, set his heart on studying law in England.

Sen had heard that the then Odisha Chief Minister Biju Patnaik was helping youngsters with resources to achieve their goals, so he too applied for assistance. Six months later, he was sailing to London on a third-class ticket financed by Patnaik. The year was 1950 and he was only 19.

Determined to prove that Indians could shine despite the shadow of colonialism, Sen gained membership to Lincoln’s Inn, one of the world’s most prestigious societies of barristers. He studied law here but couldn’t afford to attend classes. So he studied from books he borrowed from the library, and passed his law exams in 1954.

Mihir Sen swimming the English Channel

Swimming The Channel

It was then that Sen stumbled upon a newspaper article on Florence Chadwick, the first American woman to swim the English Channel, in 1950. Swimming the Channel was considered a great feat back then and Sen decided to give it a shot. He wanted to show the world that Indians could achieve greatness. He also wanted to encourage young Indians to take risks and tell them that imperialism should not hold them back.

But the only swimming Sen had done until then was the dog paddle in a pond in Cuttack! So he took rigorous swimming lessons at the YMCA pool, mastered the freestyle and built stamina.

In 1955, Sen made his first attempt to cross the Channel but he failed due to bad weather. Three years later, on 27th September 1958, he crossed the 32-km-long English Channel in 14 hours and 45 minutes, becoming the first Asian to achieve this feat. 

That same year, Sen returned to India, a national hero and a youth icon. In 1959, he was awarded the Padma Shri.

But he was not done. When he was denied entry to an elite social club in India, a nasty colonial legacy, Sen was enraged. He was more determined than ever to show what Indians were made of. And he did. 

Mihir Sen, who recently swam the English Channel, being presented a certificate by Lord Freyberg on behalf of the Counsel Swimming Association at a function held at the India House, London | Wikimedia Commons

Conquering The Oceans

In 1966, Sen became the first human to swim the oceans of five continents in a single calendar year.
* He crossed the Palk Straits in 25 hours, 36 minutes
* Straits of Gibraltar in 8 hours, 1 minute
* The Dardanelles in 13 hours, 55 minutes
* The Bosphorus in 4 hours
* The Panama Canal in 34 hours, 15 minutes

In 1967, Sen was awarded the Padma Bhushan. The handsome, strapping and charming young man was now a folk hero.

At this time, Sen was practicing law at the Calcutta High Court but his restless spirit saw him hang up his robes for a career in business. It wasn’t long before he became a successful silk exporter. Soon, he was in the big league, he was wealthy, things couldn’t have been better.

And then life threw him a curveball.

Mihir Sen taking a class

Too Much To Endure

In 1977, West Bengal politician Jyoti Basu asked Sen to campaign for the CPM party during the state elections. Sen refused, as he didn’t believe in communism. Instead, he contested as an Independent candidate and ran against Basu. It was his undoing. 

Reports suggest that after the CPM won the election, the Left cadres allegedly went after Sen, destroyed his business and drove him bankrupt. There were lengthy sit-ins and strikes at his factory, work was regularly disrupted and it often came to a standstill. 

The walls of his office, factories and shop were defaced, and truckloads of merchandise were burnt at one of his factories.

False cases were also allegedly slapped against Sen, his assets were seized, bank accounts frozen and his home was raided. He was rendered penniless.

The former national hero was finished, his spirit crushed. He was only 50.

Sen suffered a stroke and although he recovered, he began the slow and lonely descent into the hell of Alzheimer’s. He had only his family at his side, which included his English wife, Bella, whom he had met while studying in England, and his daughters.

Then, in 1993, Mamata Banerjee, the then Union Sports Minister, secured a small government pension for him. That was all. On 11th June 1997, Sen, a national treasure once felicitated by Prime Ministers and Presidents, breathed his last. He was 67.

A champion who had until then won every test of endurance, died alone and forsaken by the country he cherished and did proud.

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