Sakshi Malik isn’t just a wrestler. She is a champion of women’s rights & embodiment of what they can do against towering odds
Some say it was the craving for a wrestler’s costume that drove Sakshi Malik towards the sport. Some reckon an inquisitive mind has taken her to the Olympic podium. Going by her father, it’s all in genes! The bronze winner’s story is much bigger in the backdrop of Haryana, a state where a girl child has to overcome numerous obstacles to live, before thinking of pursuing sports. The journey to assess the true value of her success may not be pleasant, but is certainly worth it.
A strong stench of ammonia jars one’s senses while entering the wrestling academy run by the State Sports Department at Chotu Ram Stadium in Rohtak, situated on the side of the Rohtak-Sonepat Road. At a time, over 100 girls and boys sweat it out over here in a hall that has two wrestling mats, a few weights and two or three ropes hanging from the roof for strengthening exercises.
Hailed as the epicentre of women’s wrestling in India, this academy commands the same respect that the Chhatrasal akhada of Delhi does. Both produce champion wrestlers from scratch, using basic and mostly outdated training equipment. While Chhatrasal has been at the receiving end of official patronage and government largesse, thanks to the exploits of Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt, the one in Rohtak has been working silently, away from the spotlight.
Things have changed after Sakshi Malik’s historic bronze. It has suddenly become the centre of national attention, as scores of scribes from all over the country have started making beelines outside the akhada. “Almost a hundred journalists have been here in the last few days. Sakshi ki akhada kahan hai pooch ke (they ask where Sakshi’s training place is). It seems as if the place has changed overnight. She’s our daughter. We feel proud,” says the father of one the trainees, who has come to take his child home after practice.
This is a telling sign of things changing, to those aware of the Child Sex Ratio (number of girls per thousand boys in the age group 0-6) in Haryana. Out of its 21 districts, 12 have abysmally low CSR and are included in the “Beti bachao, beti padhao” scheme of the central government. Rohtak is one of the 12. Estimates of various NGOs suggest that in Haryana, approximately 37,000 girls are killed annually in the womb. There are still places surrounding the city where faces of the members of the household turn pale when told about the birth of a girl child.
“People from everywhere are coming here, looking for Sakshi’s akhada. Do you get it?” asks Ishwar Dahiya, Sakshi’s long-time coach and former trainees at the academy despite having retired. “Earlier, women had no honour. When wrestling was introduced among girls, I was asked why the hell was I was doing this! Girls were seen as a liability people wanted to get rid of. And see what has happened now. They are coming here and looking for Sakshi’s akhada! Some irony of time this is,” says Dahiya, unable to conceal joy and surprise.
Inside the training hall, all one can hear are the occasional commands given by the instructors and the thud of the wrestlers falling on the mat. Trainees rarely speak. When they do, it’s usually in a hushed tone, intended only for those in close physical proximity. Since Dahiya’s retirement, senior student Mandeep is in charge of the academy. Dahiya is around to oversee training and proceedings. Mandeep is also an advocate of equality and there is no segregation on the basis of gender. That’s why girls are seen practising moves with boys. In a society steeped in patriarchy, this was unacceptable till very recently.
Has Rohtak changed? “One way you can say it has. On the other hand, it hasn’t. What you see inside the academy is Rohtak and what you see outside is also Rohtak. There are many Rohtaks,” Dahiya philosophises. Apart from sight of kids training, something else that’s difficult to miss inside hall is a bunch of flex posters with pictures of iconic Indian wrestlers. Among them is a banner with Sakshi’s photograph and words that stands out because of its size. Compared to it, posters of Sushil and Yogeshwar look like miniature paintings. This came up two years ago, after Sakshi won silver in the Commonwealth Games. “We will print a smaller version of and move it to some other part of the hall. A new poster with the Olympic medal will be ready when Sakshi is here for felicitation,” Mandeep said.
Fad for photos
Sakshi had a fascination for photographs. An anecdote shared by Mandeep is worth mentioning. She made up her mind that she would pursue the sport after seeing another woman wrestler’s photo in the newspapers. “I think it was Kavita’s picture. She was one of the senior most wrestlers here. She had won an event in Rajasthan and her picture with a mace was printed in newspapers. Sakshi saw it and started training harder, so that her picture too could appear in print,” he reminisces.
Seema Bisla, friend and practice partner of Sakshi, says love for the wrestler’s attire and the curiosity to know ‘a secret’ prompted Sakshi to take up wrestling seriously. “She came here when she was 11 and I joined four years later. She had been impressed by the wrestling costume when she came to the academy with her mother. She wanted to wear it at any cost. She also wanted to find out how a mat that big is carried through such a small door. She wanted to know the secret,” Seema laughs. After a few sessions, Sakshi discovered a mat isn’t a single piece. The surface used for wrestling is prepared by putting several blocks together. “We still laugh about it. She had started thinking that the roof is removed to drop the mat in.”
In a way, this story points to traits that helped a little girl evolve into an Olympic medallist — curiosity and eagerness to learn. She was good at what she was doing, but to go a few levels higher, Sakshi had to apply her mind. “She was always good with techniques. Still, there was always a keen interest in working out how things are happening. Even while sparring with us, she tries to analyse, examines areas she is going wrong. If we perform any technique or move better, she asks how to do that and tries to implement it in her game. By doing this, she has added variety to her repertoire. She had this inquisitiveness from childhood.” Mandeep seconds Seema’s observation. He says she has got an edge over others in terms of devising strategy and executing plans that wouldn’t have come without hard work and a smart brain.
“Her techniques are good and refined. And with time, that is improving. The whole world knows that she attacks more on the legs. At the international level, these things get noticed quickly and counter moves are prepared. Sakshi still finds a way to outmanoeuvre. How is that possible if she doesn’t possess a thinking mind?”
Sakshi’s father Sukhbir Malik seems to have an answer to that. A native of Mokhra, he was an employee of Delhi Transport Corporation. He now lives with his family in Rohtak. “Other than hard work and smartness, there can also be a factor called genes. Isn’t it?” Malik’s father was a wrestler and Sakshi spent a lot of time with him till she was fiveand- a half. “I had to go out on work and her mother too got an Anganwadi job when she was just three months old. She grew up in Mokhra with her grandparents. My father was a wrestler, who was respected by the villagers. None of his children learned wrestling but the grandchild did. Sakshi grew up in that environment and wrestling became her passion. It’s all in genes,” he says.
Hounded by the media ever since Sakshi broke India’s barren run in Rio, Malik is about to forget the meaning of peace. It had been difficult for a few days to even lay hands on food as journalists kept bombarding them with interview requests. “Everyone wants to take us here and there and asks us to pose for photos or for bytes,” he says, adding that they obliged until it became impossible to manage.
Foodie at heart
The mention of sound bytes leads to the story of the other ‘bite’ that has earned Sakshi nothing short of legendary status among friends. Many believe she is stronger because she eats more than others. “Her digestive juices are strong. She eats a fair amount and encourages others to eat like her,” noted a wrestler. Her father concurs. “She eats everything. Meat and fish, everything other than cow. She has even tried horse meat and spoke to me about it in excitement. But her favourite is kadi pakoda (a vegetarian dish).”
Sakshi’s mother Sudesh Malik was waiting for her daughter to return so that she could prepare her favourite dish. Sitting in the bedroom, ringed by women folks of the family, she made no bones about her getting tired of the media. Revered at the academy by trainees for being a pillar of strength for Sakshi, Sudesh is considered a big factor behind her rise. One of the trainees said on condition of anonymity that she ‘envies’ the Olympic star for having a mother who takes so much care of her wrestling. “She backs Sakshi to the hilt. When she returns home after training, her mom changes her shoes. Wish I had such a mom!” Sudesh laughs it off. “Mothers have to do this. That’s what they are for.” Dahiya, meanwhile, is back home watching wrestling on TV.
Most of the queries go unanswered, as he is glued to the screen. “Will perception about women in sport change a bit after Sakshi’s success?” A strange, piercing and at times mysterious, glint which was clear in his eyes when he was at the academy comes back. “One way you can say yes. But another way you can say no. Casteism and subordination of women is still quite commonplace over here. But girls like Sakshi are coming up, gunning for glory. I’d planted a seed in the form of the academy and now it has grown into a plant. I’m sure it will grow bigger.” For a country starved of medals, Sakshi is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise lacklustre show at the Olympics. For a state that traditionally denied female children the right to live, her story is far bigger. For, it marks the beginning of an era.