After Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu broke India’s duck at Rio,, it was as usual social media that supplied us the axiom of the moment. “It’s not just the groceries now. We have to go get medals as well,” went one joke. But why are we surprised that it took three women, Sakshi, Sindhu and Dipa Karmakar, to save the nation’s blushes at Rio? Years after we’ve had women presidents and prime ministers? And a roll of honour that includes Saina Nehwal, Sania Mirza, Mary Kom, Anju Bobby George, Karnam Malleswari and PT Usha? Because the success of SS&D is still a despite story.
Sindhu, Sakshi and Dipa are three typical Indian women from typical Indian families who had to battle problems that every girl getting into sports has to. Sakshi hails from Rohtak, one of the 262 districts in the country marked ‘gendercritical’. A gender-critical district is one where the sex-ratio has slipped below 900 women to every 1000 men. For Rohtak, that number is 867 while for Haryana it is 879 — the lowest in the country for a state. A girl excelling in sport from a place where her kind are most endangered is still a compelling narrative.
“Girls are not supposed to do that,” is what Sakshi’s neighbours and relatives told her parents when she first started wrestling, a sport which is seen as a male domain. Advice like ‘behave like a girl,’ ‘nice girls don’t fight’ must have been dinned into her years all her life. It is perhaps no surprise that after winning her Olympic medal, she chose it as a moment to frame her reply. “I’d like to tell such people that you should show some confidence in girls,” she said.
Fire in the belly
Sindhu’s parents are sportspersons, and so you might expect her passage to have been easier. As an 11-year-old initiated into badminton, her problem was meekness, a quality prescribed to girls to make them marriable. She was an easy-going girl with a lot of friends, and here was coach Pullela Gopichand ordering her to stand in the middle of the court and scream, surrounded by fellow trainees.
“Gopi Sir worked on it for almost threeyears,” says HS Prannoy, who practised alongside Sindhu at Gopichand’s academy. “He made her scream after each point during every practice session.” But anybody who saw Sindhu during her semifinal against Nozomi Okuhara of Japan would scarcely have believed that story. Sindhu was a beast in the court, shouting out her guts and pumping her fists after every point. In the second game, it looked like she was bullying her opponent into submission. As he watched his ward will her way towards victory, did Gopi Sir remember for one rushed moment that nice girl of 10 years ago?
And Dipa. She was first written off at the age of eight by experts who decided that the shape of her foot was not what gymnastics demanded. A girl from a middle-class family hailing from a remote corner of Tripura, her dreams when she started off in gymnastics were of the ordinary kind. “Neither of us were thinking about Olympics when we started,” her coach Bisweswar Nandi told The New Indian Express in an interview in July. “I just hoped she would be a good national-level athlete which would help her with her future.” What does that ‘future’ mean for girls turning to sport in India? On the other side of the world, girls at six or seven harbour dreams of standing on Olympic podium, draped in their country’s flag. Indians dream of sports quota admissions and government jobs.
So will the likes of Sindhu, Sakshi and Dipa open the floodgates for Indian women to shine on the global sporting stage? In a country where the trickle-down effect is the governing principle, there is going to be no flood, but perhaps a more promising trickle. But if ever an Indian girl aspiring to be a sportsperson at the highest level is faced with a career-defining question, she only needs to look at this trio of nice girl, fortunate foetus and gymnast with a wrong foot for an answer.
Read all about how they grew up from being shy, curious and unsure to the nation's wonder women