Mihir Sen (16 November 1930 – 11 June 1997) was a long distance swimmer, best known for being the first Indian to conquer the English Channel from Dover to Calais in 1958 and the only man to earn the distinction of swimming the Oceans of the 5 continents in one calendar year (1966). This included the Palk Strait, Dardanelles, Bosphorpous, The straits of Gibraltar and the entire length of the Panama Canal. In 1969, he was named by The Guinness Book of Records as the greatest "world's greatest long distance swimmer".
Mihir Sen was born on 16 November 1930, in Purulia, West Bengal to physician Dr. Ramesh Sengupta and his wife, Lilabati, who were Bengali Brahmins from a poor middle class community. Largely due to the efforts of his mother Lilabati, the Sens moved to Cuttack when Mihir was eight, as Cuttack had better schools.
Caught in the grip of poverty, nonetheless Mihir would go on to graduate with a degree in law from the famous Utkal University in Bhubaneswar in Odisha. He wanted to travel to England to prepare himself for the bar but was constrained by lack of funds and due to the initial lack of support from the then chief minister of Orissa. Nonetheless, in 1950, he managed to board a ship heading for England with the chief minister Biju Patnaik's help. He was given a suitcase, £10 and a one-way third class ticket.
In England, he initially worked at a railway station as a night porter. Subsequently, he was hired at India House, at the Indian High Commission. He enrolled at Lincoln's Inn to study Law on 21 November 1951. He worked all day at India House and studied at home at night. He couldn't afford to attend lectures at Lincoln's Inn and self-studied from the books he borrowed from their library. He was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn on 9 February 1954 and his achievements as a swimmer are recorded in their prestigious Black books. During this time, he also met his future British wife Bella Weingarten, at a dance at the International Youth Hostel in London.
Sen read an article in a local newspaper about Florence Chadwick, the first American woman to swim the English Channel in 1950, and was inspired to repeat this feat for his country. At this time, he had hardly any experience in swimming, so sought lessons in at the local YMCA, until he mastered the freestyle technique.
After a few unsuccessful attempts, he became the first Indian to swim the English Channel from Dover to Calais on 27 September, 1958 in the fourth fastest time (14 hours and 45 minutes). Upon his return to India he was awarded the Padma Shri in 1959 by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. (Telegraph -Sen and the Channel)
He then set out to earn the distinction of being the only man to swim the oceans of the five continents in one calendar year (1966). Initially he needed to raise Rs 45,000 to pay the Indian navy to accompany him to record and navigate the Palk Strait swim. Sen managed to raise half the money through sponsors (notably the Kolkata daily, The Statesman) and convinced then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to sponsor the balance.
Mihir Sen successfully accomplished the feat of becoming the first Indian on record to swim across the Palk Straits on 5–6 April 1966 between Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Dhanushkodi (India) in 25 hours and 36 minutes. Admiral Adhar Kumar Chatterji supported him by sending the INS Sukanya and INS Sharada with him. Thereafter on 24 August, he was the first Asian to cross the Straits of Gibraltar (Europe to Africa) in 8 hours and 1 minute, and on 12 Sep became the world's first man to swim across the 40-mile long Dardanelles (Gallipoli, Europe to Sedulbahir, Asia minor) in 13 hours and 55 minutes. In the same year Sen was also the first Indian to swim the Bosphorus (Turkey) in 4 hrs and the first non-American (and third man) to swim across the entire (50-mile length) of the Panama Canal in 34 hrs and 15 mins on 29–31 Oct
This unique achievement earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for long distance swimming and he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1967 by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In the same year he also won the Blitz Nehru Trophy for daring achievements in the seven seas of the world.
He initially practised Criminal Law at the Calcutta High Court, but subsequently became a successful businessman. His company was recognised by the Government of India as the country's second largest silk exporter and was thus awarded.
In 1977, the Communist leader Jyoti Basu, requested him to join and campaign for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in return for a high-profile government post. Being strongly anti-communist, Sen refused and instead filed his papers as an independent candidate against Basu. With the CPI(M) victory, Basu vindictively attacked Sen's business and steadily undermined its functioning, till it was forced to shut down permanently. In this aggressive trade unionism by the CPI(M)'s Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) played a prominent role.
Outside Sen's offices, factory and his retail shop, slogans and graffiti filled the walls. Strikes were staged on a regular basis in the garment factory, which brought work to a complete halt. In the silk screening and silk block print factory, truckloads of merchandise ready for export were set on fire. During all of this, the local police refused to help Sen. Sen's successful business was systematically and brutally destroyed by the CPI(M) leadership and he was forced into bankruptcy. To add insult to this misery, false cases were initiated against him and his house and office were raided repeatedly by the police and their assets seized. His bank accounts were frozen and all cash at home was confiscated by the police. Left in utter despair, he could not even feed his family at times. The shock & stress of the brutal harassment initiated a series of mini strokes in his brain triggering Alzheimer's like symptoms (Dimentia) at the age of 50, the prime of his life. His refusal to work for a formidable political opponent tragically cost him his livelihood, his dignity and everything that he held dear.
He died with a combination of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease at the age of 66 in June 1997.
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