It’s 3.30 p.m. on a clear day. Balali village, in the Bhiwani district of Haryana, is slowly whirring to life after the siesta. There’s a whiff of mustard in the air as the fields of yellow sway in the gentle breeze. The serenity, however, barely seeps in to a hall adjoining the rabi crop where 11-year-old Komal Sangwan is giving the mats a hurried sweep. In minutes, the hall would be packed with 20-odd children, Komal included, first warming up and then straining their sinews to instructions yelled out from the doorway.
The tough taskmaster in question: Mahavir Singh Phogat, father and coach to golden grapplers Geeta and Babita. The father-daughters’ exploits, known in sporting circles for over half a decade, have entered the national conversation with the Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal , the Bollywood blockbuster that’s scripting a new collections high at the box office each passing day.
The ‘high notes’ have been years in the making, literally. When he started training his two eldest daughters in 2000, Mahavir quickly became the black sheep of Balali. “My relatives, even my parents, would ask me, ‘Aren’t you ashamed that you are making pehelwans (wrestlers) out of girls?’ When I used to say that my daughters would make a name for themselves and make the country proud, people used to laugh,” says Mahavir, as he sits outside the wrestling hall, Roxy, his pet pug, sleeping at his feet.
They laughed then, but the laughter turned to applause as Geeta and Babita went on to win the gold and silver medals respectively at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Their sisters and cousins, Priyanka, Ritu, Vinesh and Sangita, also followed them into the sport, winning medals at international and national-level competitions.
Winds of change
Along with the Phogat sisters and Sakshi Malik, bronze medal winner at the Rio Olympics in 2016, young girls in the State are increasingly taking to the sport as evidenced by the throng at the small wrestling centre Mahavir built on his land, complete with a running track through the fields, and elsewhere in the State. “When I started training my daughters there weren’t any akharas that allowed girls. Now, there must be at least 50 akharas that train girls,” he says.
It’s not just that attitudes are changing, the State has also been investing in sports infrastructure, even allocating Rs.1.5 crore in the 2016-2017 budget for wrestling mats and weight-training equipment for akharas. Apart from the State government’s wrestling centres, the Sports Authority of India also has three training facilities for the sport in Haryana in Hisar, Bhiwani and Sonepat. But there is a lot more to be done. With the right assistance, Mahavir says he can churn out “many Geetas”. The Haryana Sports Department itself estimates that Rs.2.5 crore is needed to strengthen akharas.
At any rate, in a State with the lowest sex ratio in the country and where women have at different points been ‘banned’ from using cell phones and wearing jeans, the sight of girls wrestling and excelling at the sport has started a conversation. Daya Kaur, Mahavir’s wife, has seen it first-hand. “From the time my daughters started wrestling to now, I can see some change. But it’s not the majority that has changed. Many still wish for a boy to be born, and take the birth of a girl in their family as a burden,” she says, as she peeks into the wrestling hall while bracing up for the evening chores.
Nine-year-old Neha Sangwan, the daughter of Balali sarpanch Amit Kumar Sangwan, has been training with Mahavir for two years. “She can do 600 push-ups,” says a village elder who is sitting outside and playing cards with friends. It’s more like 100, clarifies Neha sheepishly.
Sarpanch Sangwan says the fact that young parents like him are encouraging their daughters to train with “Mahavir pehelwan ” is an indication of change in the village. “It’s not just wrestling, but girls in the village are getting jobs in the paramilitary forces, in aviation and the government services. Wrestling will open up opportunities for my daughter,” he says.
For girls like Neha, the next step is to move to a town as training centres there offer better facilities.
The Haryana Sports Department runs wrestling centres across the State, with the one at Rohtak’s Chhotu Ram Stadium boasting of many famous students, including Sakshi Malik.
About 100 students, including 30 girls, train twice a day for up to six hours at the centre. With photos of Sakshi Malik, double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar and London 2012 medal-winner Yogeshwar Dutt hanging on the walls, the students’ aren’t short on inspiration.
Most of the girls are aged 16-24 and have come from villages across the State, with their families funding their stay. They live by themselves in Rohtak, in single rooms on rent. A typical day starts at 5 a.m., with the morning training session spanning from 6.30 a.m. to around 9 a.m. Then it’s back to the room, where they cook, clean and rest before the afternoon session from 3.30 p.m. to around 7 p.m., and back home in time for dinner. Sunday is the only respite from this gruelling schedule, with the luxury of a few extra hours of sleep.
For 18-year-old Reena, who has been wrestling for seven years, while attitudes of those around her may be changing, society still needs to. “When I started winning medals, the people in my village started looking at me differently. The biggest change was after Sakshi didi ’s bronze medal in the Olympics. But I feel it’s superficial support, they don’t really believe in us,” she says.
Back home, girls are “married off” as soon as they finish Class X, says Reena in the middle of a training break. “Their mindset has not changed overall. My village is about 2 km away, but my parents insist that I rent a room in Rohtak just to keep out the taunts of others,” she says.
The coach at the centre, Mandeep Singh, who also trains Sakshi Malik, however, insists attitudes are changing. “Just from talking to parents, we can see the change,” he says, as girls as young as eight years old are being dropped off and picked up twice a day at the centre by eager parents.
The wrestling boom
If the number of girls who are starting to take up the sport is any indication, then wrestling is booming in Haryana. Coaches and training centres are finding it difficult to accommodate the rush.
At Rohtak’s Maharshi Dayanand University, about 100 students train under former national-level coach Ishwar Chand Dahiya, who used to run the Chhotu Ram Stadium centre till his retirement a few years ago. It was there that he encountered Sakshi Malik and became her first coach.
At a cold early morning session at the university’s wrestling hall, Kiran Ahlawat can’t wait to get back on the mat. The 16-year-old injured her shoulder trying to impress the coach and now has to look on while the others practise. Wearing a pink hoodie and matching socks that peep out from a small hole in her shoes, Kiran is among 14 girls who train under Dahiya. “When I started training girls in 2003, even my relatives used to say ‘he’s gone mad’. But I did not treat girls and boys differently,” says the genial coach as he watches over the students’ morning session.
One of the beginners at the centre is 11-year-old Sakshi Malik. After her illustrious namesake became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal for wrestling, Sakshi decided that she wanted to follow in her footsteps. Every morning before school, and every afternoon after classes get over, she makes her way from her village, Kharawar, which is about half an hour away.
For the twenty-somethings, the wrestlers are grappling with the pressure to get married, but not in the same way as their peers. Their families insist that they focus on their game, win accolades and then think of “settling down”. Medals will give them an “upper hand” when it comes to prospective suitors, says a coach. For now, the mat is where their focus is.
Sudesh Malik, 22, who is from Bhainswal Kalan village in Sonepat district but lives and trains in Rohtak, knows exactly how things have changed for her ilk. Her parents had forced her to stop wrestling when she was younger. Only an intervention from her coach could get them to agree. “When I started winning, they stopped objecting. Now they support me completely. In fact, when I meet my friends from the village, they tell me that I have it the best. They’re all married. They tell me not to get married,” she says.
For Sudesh, who competes in the 74-kg weight class, the growing participation of girls has meant more competition. “Earlier, there used to be only five to seven girls in my weight class. Now, at national-level events, there are up to 25,” she says.
Grappling with ground realities
Another wrestler at the session, 23-year-old Seema, says though wrestling gave her a “new life”, life back in her village has not changed much. “They talk about us behind our backs. They say things like ‘wonder what she is up to’ and ‘what kind of clothes must she be wearing’,” she says.
But the villages the girls come from are a world away from the mats. During an evening session, Dahiya shows the students some techniques. The entire hall gathers around as he tackles a student to the ground. As he stands on the sidelines giving instructions, he is interrupted by a girl asking permission to leave early. “The hostel warden isn’t allowing me to stay late,” says the undergraduate student. The hostel she stays at has a fixed curfew for girls, 6 p.m., while boys are not required to adhere to any deadlines. The coach says he will figure it out, speak to the authorities and ask for permission.
Meanwhile, Sudesh and Seema are grappling on one side of the mat when they bump into two young men who have also just gone to the ground. “Move to your side,” yells one of the boys, pointing to the edge of the mat where the girls are supposed to practise. Seema and Sudesh roll their eyes and carry on.
Towards the end of the session, the young men and women practise with each other, as the coaches make sure that the doors and windows are closed. “I don’t let anyone, apart from parents, hang around the hall. If they see girls and boys wrestling with each other, they’ll create a ruckus. If this (points towards a girl and boy grappling) was happening in a village, there would be murder,” says one of the coaches.
League of aspirations
In some time, it’s Sudesh who asks to leave. The second edition of the Pro Wrestling League — a bid to professionalise the game on the lines of similar franchise models for cricket, hockey, badminton, kabaddi, etc. — is starting and she wants to catch the first match on TV. Coach Dahiya agrees, and tells all his students to watch “kushti on TV” as he wraps up the session.
The girls cycle frantically to Sudesh’s one-room house to make it in time for the opening. With three teddy bears hanging on the wall and two dumb-bells on the floor next to the bed, Sudesh’s room is far removed from the staid wrestling hall where she spends hours each day.
As Sudesh peels amlas (gooseberries) and a beetroot for juice (it’s good for you after practice, she says), the programme begins. Seema and Sudesh watch the bouts, talk about which of their favourites could win. As the day winds down, Sudesh gets a call from her father. She assures him that she’s taking care of herself and not exerting too much — she hasn’t competed in a “big competition” in about two years due to a knee injury. “But I’m getting better, getting the strength back,” she says, as images from the K.D. Jadhav stadium in Delhi play on in the background.
For many of the young girls in Haryana’s wrestling centres and akharas, getting to compete alongside international stars in a televised league is a new opportunity, complete with money, fame and the opportunity to learn. But life is no breeze for the young women who appear to have “made it”.
Kiran and Indu Chaudhary have just completed their bouts on day three of the league. With the deafening roar of cheering fans and drums still ringing in their ears, the Haryana Hammers teammates catch a breath. “If we give our best, then young girls and their families can see the possibilities. It promotes the sport for the next generation,” says Indu, who is from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. Indu has had a tough bout and ended up injured. “ Injury toh wrestler ka gehna hai ,” says Kiran, to which Indu nods.
Whether it is in the wrestling centres or the akharas or under the floodlights of a Delhi stadium, the assembly line coming out of Haryana augurs well for India’s sporting ambitions in the global arena even as it equalises opportunities and alters societal attitudes along the way. There’s a new-found can-do spirit stemming from the successes of the Phogat sisters and Sakshi Malik. Even in faraway Balali, where Neha Sangwan has set her sights on winning an Olympic medal. “Like Sakshi didi ,” she says. Only two notches better.
From the time my daughters started wrestling to now, I can see some change. But it’s not the majority that has changed. Many still wish for a boy to be born, and take the birth of a girl in their family as a burden-Daya Kaur, wife of Mahavir Phogat