First came Sakshi Malik. Her Rio bronze put women wrestling in the spotlight. Then Dangal. The Bollywood blockbuster made women fall in love with the combat sport. The akhara, which for centuries remained a no-go zone for girls, is now changing. Welcome to the world of women wrestling in Haryana. As you enter the sprawling wrestling arena of Rohtak’s Chhotu Ram Stadium, you will find hundreds of youngsters practicing their daus (moves) on two huge yellow and blue mats. As many as 150 students, including 40 girls, come here to practice even as Sakshi, double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar and 2012 London Olympics medal-winner Yogeshwar Dutt look on from the imposing posters on the walls of the hall. The students certainly aren’t short on inspiration. The success of Sakshi and Phogat sisters is inspiring more and more girls to take the plunge into the ‘Mal’, as the sport is referred to in Haryana. Whether it is a marginal farmer’s daughter or a woman who was married off at the age of 13, they are jumping into the wrestling ring as if to prove a point.
Almost every village in Jatland—known in the past more for honour killings and female foeticide—boasts of an akhara. In fact, all of Haryana’s 800-1,000 akharas are blooming and girls are slowly making their entry into these male-dominated bastion.
Ritu Malik, 23, who won gold in the National Games last year (55 kg category) and a medal in the Junior Asian Championship, reveals how it began for her. The girl from Ahulana village in Sonepat recalls, “I was very slim. My parents thought I would be a good bet in sports. So they decided to enrol me at Nidani Sports School in Jind. But I did not choose any sport initially. I was very fast and good in athletics, but I decided to take up wrestling.”
Ritu, the youngest of the five siblings, says: “Nobody in my family was into sports. But my father, an ex-serviceman, supported me. I came to Rohtak.”
Wrestling got Ritu the job of a train ticket collector two years ago. But the comfort of a government job failed to change her lifestyle. Wrestling is still her first full-time occupation. The last time she checked tickets of passengers at Bhiwani railway station was seven months ago.
But all this would not have been possible without her parents’ support. Her elder sisters were married off after they completed their master’s. But for Ritu, her parents shifted to Rohtak a few years ago to support her love for wrestling.
Wrestling requires discipline and intense training. “I have been in Rohtak for the last six years. My day starts at 5am. I reach the stadium for practice at 6am every day after munching on a few bananas, apples or papayas. I begin by warming up before going on for technical sessions and wrestling. I am through with all this by 8.30am. Then I’m back home. I have a vegetarian meal and try to get some rest,” she says.
Ritu’s diet comprises proteins, vitamins, milk, almonds and lots of greens. She eats twice a day, has an afternoon siesta and is back for training by 4pm. She winds up at 7.30pm.
She got married to fellow wrestler Bhagwan Singh, who is in the Army, seven months ago. “I met him at the nationals in Delhi two years ago. It was love first and then marriage. Neither his parents, nor mine, objected to our affair or our decision to settle down.” They live with their parents.
“If we keep on winning medals, we don’t need to get back to work. But if we fail to earn laurels for our state and country, we may have to rejoin our duty,” she adds.
Most of the girls training in Rohtak are between 16 and 24, and hail from villages across the state. The best part is that their families fund their stay.
They live in rented single-rooms with the aim of winning a gold medal some day. They, too, believe in what Mahavir Phogat said in the Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal: “If you win gold, everyone will remember you. But if you win silver, you’ll be forgotten soon.”
Commonwealth and National Games gold medallist Pinky Malik, who hails from Urgrakehri village in Haryana’s Panipat district, has been practicing for seven years. The 24-year-old girl, the youngest of three sisters and brother, says: “A girl from our village was sent to the sports school at Nidani in Jind. This convinced our parents to send me there. I used to play cricket, badminton and football. Slowly I fell in love with wrestling and changed my sport,” she adds.
Pinky, who is doing her bachelor’s in physical education, says: “My parents take care of all the finances. There is no pressure on me to get married.”
Tina, 16, a six-time national champion and a bronze medallist in the recent Asian Games in Taiwan, says that it was her wrestler father Satvan Malik who introduced her to this sport. “My father accompanies me to all competitions. He was the first to take me to a akhara when I was 10. There, I developed interest for the sport,” she adds.
After the morning training, the girls are back in their rented accommodations where they cook, clean and rest before the afternoon session. Sunday is their off. “I want to be the first girl from my village to set an example that girls can also excel in wrestling,” says Reena Saharan, 19, of Singhpura Kalan village in Rohtak.
Though her home is barely two-and-a-half kilometres away from Rohtak, this young girl lives in a rented accommodation. Although she is the daughter of a marginal farmer, her father spends between Rs 20,000 and Rs 25,000 per month on her. “At times my father takes loan from money lenders to pay for my needs, especially when I go for competitions. The 2010 Commonwealth Games gave me all the reason to join wrestling. It was tough,” she recalls. Her brother was a volleyball player but left the sport following an injury.
“When I won the medal in 2014, my village erupted in joy. They honoured and welcomed me,” says the proud Asian Games silver medallist.
The going has been tough for 21-year-old Neetu Bedwa, a constable in SSB. A mother of twin boys, she joined the paramilitary force last month as it was tough for the family to make both ends meet.
Her story is similar to a Bollywood pot-boiler. At 13, her parents got her married to a mentally-challenged man thrice her age. She ran away three days later from her husband’s house and married someone else. Her husband Sanjay says, “My wife, now Neetu Sarkar, gave birth to twins when she was 14. She then decided to fulfil her wrestling dreams to support her family. But it hasn’t been a cakewalk.”
Neetu won a silver medal at the National Games in 2015 and represented India at the Junior World Championships in Brazil. “She wakes up at 4am and travels to Rohtak for training. After some gruelling practice sessions, she returns home in the evening,” says Sanjay.
WINDS OF CHANGE
The man who has seen it all is Ishwar Singh Dahiya, the former coach of Sakshi. “In 2002, I decided to train girls for wrestling and everyone told me I was mad. But that did not deter me. I started training three girls,” he recalls.
Mindset of people is changing. “Two blockbusters—Sultan and Dangal—have acted as great motivators. Now I have 40-odd girls who come for practice. Parents are coming forward requesting me to train their girls. The intake has increased in the last few months.”
First, it was Suman Kundu who won gold in the sub-junior category in Asian Games in 2004. Six years later in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the Phogat sisters, Geeta and Babita, won gold and silver medals, respectively. In 2016, it was Sakshi who won bronze at Rio Olympics.
Such is the rush among girls wanting to become wrestlers that coaches and training centres are finding it difficult to accommodate. In short, wrestling is booming in Haryana.
Sakshi’s coach Mandeep, who lives on the first floor of a house in Rohtak and walks down to Chhotu Ram Stadium, adds, “Parents now want their daughters to be wrestlers. I have more than 40 girls with me who want to excel in the combat sport.”
Geetika Jakhar, the first woman wrestler to get the Arjuna Award in 2006, says: “There are more women wrestlers in Haryana than the rest of the country. The two Bollywood movies have definitely made an impact. Now women wrestlers are getting recognition.”
Geetika, who is preparing for the 2018 Asian and Commonwealth Games, says: “Now parents are coming forward and want their girls to join the sport.”
Former wrestler Ved Pal Mor, 73, says: “During our days, woman wrestling was unheard off. When my friend and fellow wrestler Jagroop Rathi said his daughter Neha wanted to become a wrestler, I opposed. I told him our friendship was over. But when she won, my perception changed.”
Sakshi Malik’s Rio bronze has taken women’s wrestling in the country to a new high. “I want my daughter Chestha, 6, to become a wrestler,” says Aman Bhutani, a businessman. “It was a tough call to convince my family, especially my wife. I always wanted my children to join sports,” he adds. Not only Chestha, her 10-year-old brother Dharuv is also learning wrestling at the same training centre. “I want to be wrestler and win a gold medal,” says six-year-old Chestha.
Thirteen-year-old wrestler Kushi Kaliraman says, “Four months ago, I started wrestling training. My father supports me. Although he has a busy schedule, he makes sure that I get up at 5am and he drops me at the centre.”
A Class VIII student and eldest of three siblings, she has a packed day. But when it comes to wrestling, Kushi is focused. “I am at the training centre by 6am and out by 7.30am. At 8am, I reach school. School is over at 3pm and I am back for training an hour later. The session winds up at 7pm and then it’s time for tuition classes. I reach home at 9pm. I have dinner and watch TV for some time before I go to sleep.”
PHOGATS WANT ACADEMY
Geeta and Babita Phogat, the two sisters who won gold and silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, respectively, say: “Our father struggled to make us wrestlers. He was not liked by anyone in our village Balali. Our relatives stopped talking to us. But his dedication proved everyone wrong.”
Geeta and Babita, who were in spotlight after Dangal, met Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar. “Around 10 to 15 parents come to our house in the village almost daily requesting my father to train their girls. But there’s no space in our house. Finally we got a mat to practice in our village. We want some sponsors so that my father can open an academy to train the girls,” they say.
WRESTLERS OF SULTAN FAME
Ritu Malik, 23, who played the role of wrestler Shanti Devi opposite actress Anushka Sharma in Sultan, says: “I was selected after the film crew requested our coaches to send photographs of all the girls. I had to get my photos clicked and then got the call from them. For two months, I was travelling between Mumbai and Rohtak shooting for the movie. Although my role in the film was a cameo, it took two months and a week of continuous shooting.” She says she got Rs 5,000 per day.
Not only Ritu, 24-year-old Raj Pal also acted in the movie as a wrestler who took on Salman Khan. “My role was a bout against Salman for a few seconds. But it took the whole day,” he says.
Pal, a Bharat Kesri fame wrestler, says, “For two days, I was shooting with Salman. They paid Rs 70,000 besides hotel and travelling expenses to Mumbai.”
GOVERNMENT WAKES UP
The Haryana government has announced to provide mats at 100 akharas. Besides the official wrestling centres, the Sports Authority of India also has three training facilities for the sport. Those are located at Hisar, Bhiwani and Sonepat. According to the state’s sports department, Rs 2.5 crore is needed to improve the akharas. The state government had allocated Rs 1.5 crore in the last budget for wrestling mats and weight-training equipment.
The mat is laid. Let the women win.