I used to play carrom well. The common room in the hostel at my management school campus had a board that I frequented almost daily. My opponent for one game was a guy, a very good player himself. But our paths had not crossed earlier.
When I hit a particularly good shot, he said, “Good shot! You play just like a boy”. He was truly being appreciative. But I only remember the rush of blood in my ears at the patronising tone, and the assumption that only boys could play well. I had earned my stripes already, and those around the table knew I was among the top players.
As he hit the next shot, I grinned back at him and said, “Hey you play well too, just like a girl.” The audience – all male – tittered. This was going to make a good story at the dinner mess!
My opponent actually stood up, shocked. “How can you say that?”, he asked. I felt sorry for him. I knew it was not entirely his fault; he was raised that way. I smiled to take the sting off, and explained that I was just replying in kind, tit for tat, sauce for goose/gander etc. And I said I really think you are a great player. He was mollified at the compliment, and the awkward moment was smoothed over.
But he didn’t really get it, of course. In his book, he was complimenting me, whereas I was insulting him. They were mostly like that, the guys at my B-school… it was 1988. They simply didn’t have the slightest notion.
We also had an exchange student from Uruguay on campus. I played TT with him. After one of our games he said hey I just realised the way you play reminds me of Jodie Foster. He meant that I was focused and intense while playing. Anyway, it felt like a compliment that I was glad to accept. I remember grinning back and saying thanks.
The way I reacted to these two incidents taught me that the words and comparisons we use matter. How we compliment young women matters.
Cut to 2019, and Sindhu has brought home the world cup. But “like a boy” is still high praise and “like a girl” an insult. You can be pretty sure that at some point in her life, every top sportswoman in India has heard patronising stuff about playing “like a boy”. And it’s not just sports.
But there’s a point when the patronising stops. That happens when you get really good at what you do, and become the boss, or the champion. I don’t think anyone’s telling Sindhu now that she plays like a boy. Or Indira Nooyi that she’s one of the boys. We need more Sindhus out there, in basketball and cricket and football and boxing and every other sport. We need Indian women winning on the global stage, at every darn arena there is…finance, business, economics, aeronautics, science, space travel…. until stereotypes shatter and “like a girl” stops being an insult.