Arati Gupta (née Saha; 24 September 1940 – 23 August 1994) was an Indian Bengali long-distance swimmer, best known for becoming the first Asian woman to swim across the English Channel on 29 September 1959. In 1960, she became the first Indian sportswoman to be awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honour in India. Born in Kolkata, India, Arati had been introduced to swimming at the early age of four. Her precocious talent was spotted by Sachin Nag, and later she was inspired by the ace Indian swimmer Mihir Sen to try to cross the English Channel.
Gupta came from a middle class family. She was born the second of three children and the first of two daughters to Panchugopal Saha in 1940. Her father was an employee in the armed forces. At the age of two and half, she lost her mother. Her elder brother and younger sister Bharati were raised at their maternal uncle's house, while she was raised by her grandmother in North Kolkata. When she reached the age of four, she would accompany her uncle to the Champatala Ghat for bath where she learned to swim. Noticing his daughter's interest in swimming, Panchugopal Saha admitted his daughter to the Hatkhola Swimming Club. In 1946, at the age of five, she won the gold in 110 yards freestyle at the Shailendra Memorial Swimming Competition, beginning her swimming career.
State, national sports and Olympics
Between 1945 and 1951 she won 22 state-level competitions in West Bengal. Her main events were 100 metre freestyle, 200 metres breast stroke and 300 metres breast stroke. She came second only to Dolly Nazir of Bombay.In 1948, she participated in the national championship held at Mumbai. She won silver in 100 metres freestyle and 200 metres breast stroke and won bronze in 200 metres freestyle. She made an all-India record in 1950. At the 1951 West Bengal state meet, she clocked 1 minute 37.6 seconds in 100 metres breast stroke and broke Dolly Nazir's all-India record. At the same meet, she set new state-level record in 100 metres freestyle, 200 metres freestyle and 100 metres back stroke.
She represented India at the 1952 Summer Olympics along with compatriot Dolly Nazir. She was one of the four women participants and the youngest member of the Indian contingent at the age of 12. At the Olympics, she took part in 200 metres breast stroke event. At the heats she clocked 3 minutes 40.8 seconds. After returning from the Olympics, she lost in 100 metres freestyle to her sister Bharati Saha. After the loss, she concentrated only on breast stroke.
Crossing the English Channel
She used to take part in long distance swimming competition in the Ganges. Arati got the first inspiration to cross the English Channel Channel from Brojen Das. At the 1958 Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race, Brojen Das became the first among the men and earned the distinction of being the first person from the Indian subcontinent to cross the English Channel. Greta Andersen, a Danish-born female swimmer from United States clocked 11 hours and 1 minute and stood first among both men and women. This inspired the female swimmers all over the world. Arati sent a congratulatory message to Brojen Das on his victory. He replied back stating that she was too shall to be able to do it. He proposed the name of Arati to the organizers of the Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race for the next year's event.
Arati began to seriously think about participating in the event. Mihir Sen welcomed her decision and encouraged her. Dr. Arun Gupta, the assistant executive secretary of Hatkhola Swimming Club took the initiative in organising Arati's participation at the event. He organised exhibits of Arati's swimming prowess as part of a fund raising programme. Jamininath Das, Gour Mukherjee and Parimal Saha also provided their help in organising Arati's trip. However, in spite of the efforts of her supporters, funds fell short of the target. At this point Sambhunath Mukherjee and Ajay Ghoshal took up the matter with Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, the Chief Minister of West Bengal. He arranged a grant of ₹ 11,000. Jawahar Lal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India also showed interest in Arati's endeavour.
While the logistics of her trip were being arranged, Arati began swimming for long hours. On 13 April 1959, Arati swam continuously for eight hours at the pond in Deshbandhu Park, in the presence of renowned swimmers and thousands of supporters. Later she swam for 16 hours. She sprinted the last 70 metres and showed almost no signs of fatigue. On 24 July 1959, she left for England along with her manager Dr. Arun Gupta. She started her final practice in the English Channel on the 13 August. During this time, she was mentored by Dr. Bimal Chandra, who was also participating at the 1959 Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race.
A total of 58 participants including five women from 23 countries took part in the competition. The race was scheduled for 27 August 1959 at 1 am local time from Cape Gris Nez, France to Sandgate, England. However, the pilot boat of Arati Saha did not arrive in time. She had to start 40 minutes later and lost the optimum condition. By 11 am, she had swum more than 40 miles and came within 5 miles of the England coast. At that point she faced a strong current from the opposite direction. As a result, by 4 pm, she could only swim about two more miles. While she was still determined to carry on, she had to quit.
In spite of the failure, Arati was determined not to give up. She prepared herself for a second attempt. Her manager Dr. Arun Gupta was ill, but she carried on with her practice. On 29 September 1959, she made her second attempt. Starting from Cape Gris Nez, France, she swam for 16 hours and 20 minutes, battling tough waves and covered 42 miles to reach Sandgate, England. On reaching the coast of England, she hoisted the Indian flag. Vijaylakshmi Pandit was the first to congratulate her. Jawahar Lal Nehru and many eminent people personally congratulated her. On 30 September, the All India Radio announced the achievement of Arati Saha.
Arati had completed her Intermediate from City College. In 1959, under the supervision of Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, she married her manager Dr. Arun Gupta. First they had a court marriage and later a social marriage. Her in law's house was in Tarak Chatterjee Lane, very near to her grandmother's house. After marriage she had a daughter named Archana. She was employed in Bengal Nagpur Railway. On 4 August 1994, she was admitted to a private nursing home in Kolkata with jaundice and encephalitis. After battling against the illness for 19 days, she died on 23 August 1994.
She was awarded Padma Shri in 1960. She was the first Indian woman sportsperson to receive the award. In 1999, the Department of Posts celebrated her conquest by bringing out a postage stamp of ₹ 3 denomination. In 1996, a bust of Arati Saha was erected near her residence. The 100-metre long lane in front of the bust was renamed after her. On the day that would have been her 80th birthday in 2020, she was featured as a Google Doodle.