In the history of women’s badminton in India, there have been three outstanding players who have each had the distinction of bagging the national singles title seven times in a row.
The first of these was Meena Shah, who made the national crown her own between 1959 and ’65; the second was Madhumita Goswami-Bisht, who won the title in an unbroken reel of seven from 1984 to ’90, and ended up with ten singles crowns; and the third was Aparna Popat, who made it nine in a row between 1997 and 2005.
Stroke artist Ami Ghia-Shah, who reached an unbelievable 15 national singles finals among the 36 summit clashes she managed in a 19-year career, has also been anointed national singles queen on seven occasions, but these were not in consecutive years. Ami won four consecutive titles from 1973 to ’76, and then again in 1979, ’80 and ’83.
There is one thing that Aparna, Madhumita and Ami had in common – they have all been slim and trim during their reign at the top. Meena Shah, on the other hand, was heavily built. But it doesn't mean her movements were affected around the court. She reached the shuttle with time to spare, and then executed strokes that had her opponent dancing to her tune. And her fitness was above reproach; she always had something left for the final dash to the tape.
Meena took home, in all, a dozen national titles in a glittering career that began with a women’s doubles crown in the company of Jasbir Kaur when she was a 19-year-old in 1956, and ended with the singles and women’s doubles crown in the 1965 Nationals. A serious knee injury cut her career short thereafter.
Daughter of a Kashmiri Muslim father and a Maharashtrian Hindu mother, Meena managed to imbibe the best of both, and became an amalgam of all religions after receiving her education in Christian institutions.
Thanks to the somewhat misleading surname `Shah’, people were not aware that she was well conversant with Marathi. And that occasionally proved to be a big advantage.
“When I had gone to Pune long ago, just before a match, someone came and started explaining things to my rival, Lilavati Bal, in Marathi, thinking I had no idea of the language,” she reminisced, with a smile, when I interviewed her in early-2011 at her home in Lucknow. “But I understood everything, and all those `tips’ given to my opponent helped me a great deal during the match.”
For the first ten years of her life, Meena was a small-town girl who had absolutely no contact with badminton. Born on 31 January, 1937, at Balrampur, in district Gonda, about 100 miles east of Lucknow, she retained few sporting recollections of the first decade of her life. It was after her father was transferred to Lucknow in 1947, and she joined school in the city, that her march to the pinnacle of badminton began.
“In those days, people were quite backward in Lucknow; and there were few opportunities for girls, as far as sports were concerned,” said Meena. “Badminton was the only sport where they had a club in which the sexes mixed and played together. Both my parents were extremely fond of sports; and banging a shuttle about at home became a regular pastime.”
Meena joined Isabella Thoburn College, an institution launched by an American missionary; and went on to complete her graduation with History, English and Psychology as her electives. For her post-graduation, she studied Psychology at Lucknow University.
“Professionally speaking, that Master’s degree in Psychology was never useful, but it did mould my mind to a certain way of reflective thought that helped me on the court to work out my opponent’s weaknesses,” Meena said.
Her first competition was as a 15-year-old at a tournament to which her college sent a team. When badminton-lovers saw her play, they told her that she had the potential; and that she could improve my game if I joined the local club. Which is what she did.
“My first tournament victory was in a local competition in 1953, as a collegian at the age of 16,” Meena recalled. “The following year, I played at state-level, and was pitchforked into the national team almost immediately.”
After playing for Uttar Pradesh for five years, she joined the Railways in 1959 at a time when she was completing her M.A.
“I owe quite a lot to TN Seth, who was the coach appointed by the Uttar Pradesh Council of Sports,” said Meena. “He was a Thomas Cupper at the time he was coaching, and he played all the way till 1963. I was one of his trainees.
“It was during the games that I played with him that he taught me to sharpen my strokes. One game, he would tell me to cut out the smash altogether, and just play the toss and drop. On other occasions, he would ask me to use only the toss, and cut out the drops altogether. So, for the 20 minutes or half-hour that the game lasted, it was intensive stroke practice. And it helped my fitness, too.”
Right through her playing career, Meena was never considered an “unfit” player. Her strokeplay and mobility on court were quite amazing, as was her anticipation; and she had an uncanny knack of locating and mercilessly exploiting her rivals’ weaknesses. She preferred the overhead strokes over the backhand, which was reserved only for emergencies.
It was in the 1959-60 Nationals at Jamshedpur – in which the great Dane, seven-time All-England singles winner Erland Kops, took part and won a triple crown – that Meena won her first singles title at the age of 22. In the final, she beat the gangling Prem Parashar, a two-time former national singles winner, in three tough games at 11-8, 10-12, 11-8.
Along the route to the final, another fine champion, Sushila Rege-Kapadia, who had taken the national singles crown thrice, and was defending champion in Jamshedpur, was left by the wayside by Parashar. And Meena cut to size Malaya’s Tan Gaik Bee (who was to win the women’s doubles and mixed doubles crowns in those Nationals) in two swift games at 11-8, 11-2.
Once Meena got hold of the crown, she simply refused to part with it! Having bagged it again in 1960, she was part of an Indian squad at the All-England championships, and was the only Indian lady player to make the third round, as Mumtaz Lotwalla, Sushila Kapadia and Prem Parashar all failed to cross the first hurdle.
Meena remained top of the heap until 1965. Among her victims in the finals were Prem Prashar (twice), Farida Beg and Sarojini Apte. She was also a fine doubles player, bagging three women’s doubles titles – with Jasbir Kaur in 1956, Sunila Apte in 1964 and the elder Apte sister, Sarojini, in 1965; and two mixed doubles crowns – with Amrit Lal Dewan in 1958 and Chandrakant Deoras in 1964.
After the seven national singles titles, Meena had a serious knee problem, and limped in and out of badminton over the next four years. Only on one occasion, four years later, did she try making a comeback; and fought her way to the national singles final on an eighth occasion – only to lose to the fleet-footed Damayanti Subedar in 1969-70.
“My knees were in dreadful shape at the time, and I could barely move, but it did not look nice to concede a walk-over, so I just stood there on the court and let the match end,” Meena said, with a tinge of sadness.
Meena was considered by the entire badminton fraternity to be a “heavy” player. How did she manage to move swiftly enough? “I really don’t know; perhaps it was God-given,” she shrugged. “I didn’t do anything special – just the usual training that people did at my time. Of course, I played a lot of games in practice. If others played five or six games, I would stretch myself, and play seven or eight. My fitness was more dependent upon actual playing rather than any off-court fitness regimen.”
Meena’s toughest opponent remained Prem Parashar, who was tall, extremely mobile and capable of running on court as much as was needed. Added to that, she had a peculiar style, so it was difficult to gauge her strokes. She was an aggressive player, but her retrieving powers were fabulous.
“Prem and Sushila Rege-Kapadia were about the same height,” Meena says. “Prem did not have too many strokes, but made optimum use of whatever she had. In comparison, Sushila was a graceful player with wonderful strokes, but lacked speed around the court.”
Meena played in the 1959-60 Uber Cup against Malaysia in December 1959, a tie that was won by India. The team then embarked in early-1960 for the US, where it was to play against Denmark. And that was when the knee got seriously injured.
“While playing my first singles against the Danish player Toni Holtz-Christensen, I had won the first game very easily at 11-4, and had a handy lead in the second when my left knee got badly twisted and I tore some ligaments in it,” she said. “I could not continue the match.”
The late Sushil Ruia, who had gone as the team’s manager, said, “She showed so much courage in that match. She continued to play despite being severely hampered in her movements, because she felt she could have taken India into a 1-0 lead in the tie. She narrowly lost the second game at 10-12; and the knee was simply too painful in the decider. Nevertheless, she completed the match.”
With a heavily bandaged knee, and hobbling on crutches, Meena returned home. She was substituted by Mumtaz Chinoy-Lotwalla in the Uber Cup tie; and India eventually lost. Denmark was extremely strong in the doubles, but India had banked on winning three singles, which did not happen due to Meena’s injury.
“Open-knee surgery was an arduous procedure in those days, so I relied only on rest and physiotherapy,” Meena said. “I used to play with a knee brace for nearly a year; and then the knee stopped troubling me for a while. But it was to get twisted several more times.”
In the Uber Cup international women’s team championship, Meena was the kingpin in India’s comfortable 4-1 victory in 1962. From there, the squad went to Japan to play in an international tournament, and was to proceed to Jakarta to play against Indonesia. However, political trouble erupted between the two countries, leading to an Indian refusal to go to Jakarta. The tie had to be forfeited.
In February 1966, Meena played in the Uber Cup against Thailand in Hyderabad. Sadly, her knee problem resurfaced during the first singles against Bhupa. “I had beaten her comfortably at 11-2 in the opening game, and held an 8-1 lead in the second when the knee went for a toss,” reminisced Meena. “Thereafter, the knee became a serious trouble spot.
“I did try playing in 1967, but against twisted it, and had to retire half-way through the season. I did not play singles in 1968, but restricted myself to doubles for most of the season – but it was not to my satisfaction. I tried again in the 1968 Nationals, and barely managed to win the semi-final against Jessie Phillip, but there was no chance for me in the final against Damayanti. Even after taking a couple of pain-killing injections, I found the knee had been so badly aggravated that I could barely stand.”
Meena spent the greater part of her working career in the Personnel department of the Railways. But after 28 years in the public sector, she opted for voluntary retirement, and joined UP Electronics Corporation (Uptron). She worked with them until her retirement at the age of 58 in 1995.
“I was the coach of the Uber Cup team in 1974, and coached the Railways team as well,” she said. “But I never coached as a professional, for money. If people wanted my advice, I always gave it to them. But I never went around offering my advice to anyone.”
For her badminton achievements, Meena was felicitated with the Lakshman Puraskar, a sports award given by the Uttar Pradesh state government, and equivalent to the Shiv Chhatrapati Award given in Maharashtra to outstanding sportspeople.
It was a fitting tribute that the coveted Arjuna Award followed. On 28 March, 1963, she ascended the dais in New Delhi and accepted the award at the hands of President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. It was one of the most memorable moments of her career.
“The government gave me the Padma Shri in 1977,” Meena adds. “I was to have received the award at the hands of President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, but due to his untimely demise, the award was finally given to me by the Acting President (BD) Jatti.”
Meena had no regrets in her truncated badminton career. “Whatever ups and downs one has in one’s playing career have to be taken in stride,” she said, soberly. “It is never smooth sailing right through. Yes, there was a time when Maharashtra dominated badminton, and most of the Indian team members were from Maharashtra. They did not want any outsiders to be part of the Indian team. There I faced a really tough challenge.
“In a way, it did me a lot of good. I saw that they did not want me in the team in their heart of hearts; and it made me all the more determined to gain their acceptance. And I did manage to win their respect and affection after I became the national champion and forced my way into the Indian Uber Cup side.”
The dawn of the new millennium coincided with a new and seriously debilitating physical problem – Meena suffered from severely herniated discs in her spine, which deformed the back. There was further deterioration in the spine over the next decade; and from 2007, Meena’s mobility was been severely restricted. From 2008 onwards, she was totally bed-ridden.
“My spine became crooked, and my weight didn’t help,” she remarked, with a tinge of sadness. “Those who knew of my badminton career used to laugh it off, and say that everything comes at a premium; and that this was the price I was paying for the badminton I had played. If that is true, I am happy to have paid that price!”
It is a sad commentary on the way we Indians treat our elite sportsfolk that, for the seven-year period (2008 to 2015) that Meena was totally bed-ridden, virtually nobody came to meet her, and no one bothered about her welfare or financial status. The body had totally given up, but she remained cheerful, and her mind stayed as sharp as it had been on the badminton court when she would clinically work out her opponents’ strengths and weaknesses.
It was only a private grant, procured from cricketer Sunil Gavaskar’s The Champs Foundation at the instance of former state-level player Hemant Sampat, and supported by Meena’s Railways team-mate Dipu Ghosh, that kept her nose above water in her final year, until she passed away in Lucknow’s Sahara Hospital on 10 March 2015, six weeks after her 78th birthday.
Her lonely, unheralded end was in sharp contrast to the respect and adulation that her imposing presence on the badminton courts inspired in both her rivals and fans.
The writer is a former veterans' world champion (50+ age group men's doubles, Kuala Lumpur 2004), an eight-time National champion, and a 13-time Maharashtra state veterans' doubles title holder.
Updated Date: Apr 14, 2020 10:31:36 IST