The Wrestling Sisters
Women were not allowed to enter the dangal, until six girls from Haryana decided to break in. The story of how they pushed the boundaries of tradition from Enter the Dangal
The distinction of being India's first woman wrestler to qualify for the Olympics belongs to Geeta Phogat, who competed at the 2012 London Games ... Geeta belongs to what is perhaps wrestling's most remarkable family. Her father, Mahavir Singh Phogat, came to Delhi from the village of Balali in Haryana to train under Chandgi Ram* when he was just 16 …
Balali is deep country. It is still untouched by Haryana's hurried pace of urbanization, and sits hidden in the middle of wheat fields and guava and citrus groves. In the afternoon, you can walk around Balali's slim tracery of cobbled streets and meet not a single person.
Inside Mahavir's house -- an elongated rectangle of flat white -- there is a stirring of post-siesta activity. There is a gathering of village elders, all in white kurtas, who have lit the communal hookah and broken out the cards. Mahavir himself is on his charpoy, eyes still resolutely closed. His wife Daya has swung into action. The family's immense black buffaloes have been led out of the shed, their troughs filled with feed. Daya is laying out the buckets she will use for milking.
Mahavir opens his eyes abruptly, pulls out his phone and scolds someone at the other end: "Where's your daughter? We start in five minutes. Tell her to run."
He stands up and shuffles towards the house. It's not a house. It's a large wrestling hall: a double-sized mat on one side, top-of-the-line weight machines in another, thick ropes dangling from the high ceiling, and a series of small windows overlooking lush farmland.
Mahavir's six girls are the first on the mat -- Geeta, Babita, Ritu, Sangeeta, Vinesh and Priyanka -- all dressed in dry-fit tees and training tights [Mahavir has four daughters and two adopted daughters from his brother after he was killed in a land dispute]. Two more girls come running in. Then three boys. "Warm up," Mahavir barks, pointing to the mat.
That there are girls wrestling at all, in these rural settings, is in itself a miracle, let alone the quality of international success they have managed.
Geeta is a gentle, soft-spoken woman with an aquiline nose and an easy smile. She is the only one of the six sisters with long hair, which she ties in a high ponytail during her bouts. The rest have identical short crops that barely cross the nape. As the eldest sister, Geeta has forged a remarkable path for the rest to follow-Commonwealth Games (CWG) gold in 2010 was followed by a bronze at the 2012 World Championship, a first for Indian women; then she qualified for the Olympics. The sisters are not far behind. Babita won silver at the 2010 CWG, and gold at the 2014 version, where Vinesh also won gold. Ritu has every major international medal at the junior level (including multiple World Championships), and is about to make her leap to the senior team.
Sangeeta and Priyanka have medals from junior Asian Championships.
What if all six of them land up in the same competition one day, and all of them finish with medals?
"Let that be the Olympics!" Babita is thrilled with the idea. It has occurred to her before.
"Well, perhaps not all six. Let's say three," Geeta says. "Now that's not fantasy -- that can happen in Rio."
"Yes, and then papa will finally say-," Now Babita makes her voice heavy and manly: "Fine, not bad. Now you can rest a little."
The sisters laugh.
Despite Chandgi Ram's efforts, no village in India has a wrestling school where women are allowed, except here, in Balali. Even in the cities, the number of private akhadas that allow women can be counted on your fingers …
"The general atmosphere is still strongly against women in wrestling," says Kripa Shankar [Kripa Shankar Patel, Olympian and former coach of the national women's team] …
"We have a very small talent pool to pick from," Kripa Shankar says. "Maharashtra, which produces hundreds of male wrestlers, has nothing for women. Madhya Pradesh has very little, Jabbar Singh is alone in Uttar Pradesh. Only Haryana is really trying. Women's wrestling is still new to the world, and we could have stepped ahead, taken the lead and dominated it for years. But no, we are stuck being backwards, judgemental and idiotic."
Not Mahavir, not in Balali.
"Masterji [Chandgi Ram] opened my eyes," Mahavir says. "He used to tell me, 'What you are doing for your girls, you will see one day that it will bring you great happiness. So keep doing it, don't be scared, face your difficulties like you face opponents, and be deaf to the criticism'."
Geeta remembers that morning when her father woke her and Babita up at five one morning, and said, "I want to see how well you two run."
She was 10 then, Babita eight, and they were both a bit puzzled.
"It was fun though," Geeta says. "We ran laughing through the fields when everyone else was asleep, it felt like a secret game."
A week of that, and Mahavir in the meantime had finished making a level square of soft earth next to his house, and had raised a tin roof over it. The akhada was ready.
"People said, Mahavir has lost his mind," he says. "They said, he is destroying the village, he has no shame, and he is making an exhibit out of his own girls."
But there was only so much the villagers could do to oppose this unprecedented development-Mahavir was the sarpanch, and the family had both influence and land.
"So we were spared the worst of it," Daya says. "They could not come up to me and say these things to my face. But I was told many times, 'Your daughters will become like boys, their faces will get messed up, they won't be able to bear children, their ears will get mangled, and who will marry them?' I felt the stress of that. But I felt angry that there was so much opposition to the girls doing anything different, so I wanted to see the fight through the end."
Geeta and Babita were exposed to some of this harassment; people in the village stopped talking to them. They would not even make eye contact with the sisters. "After a few months, there were a couple of boys also at the akhada, and papa started training us together. We would fight the boys, and wrestling's such an intimate sport," Babita says. "That was a step too far for most people in the village. There was constant trouble during that time."
Despite the social boycott, the Phogat girls loved the life of the wrestler -- the pain, the euphoria, the fighting, sleeping exhausted after a hard day's training, the liberating experience of wearing shorts and T-shirts, all the fuss over their diet.
"It was a great adventure," Babita says, "And what made it special was that we knew no other girls in our village or in any nearby village who were doing this!"
In 2010, when Geeta won India's first Commonwealth gold in women's wrestling, Balali went berserk. The celebrations lasted 10 days. The word spread to nearby villages. So many girls started coming for training that Mahavir had to build a hostel for them. Thirty-six girls live there now …
"Just don't hide them at home," he says. "When I was growing up, girls did not go to school here. Now every single one in the village is working for a college degree. So, things are changing."
... It is spreading, ever so slowly. Dangals in Haryana still don't have official competitions for women, but nearly all of them hold exhibition matches, sometimes allowing the girls to fight boys as well.
I remember a slow Sunday morning at Mehr Singh's** akhada. Everyone had slept late. There was an easy lightness to the day, and the mood was gently joyous, almost festive. The wrestling halls with their mats were empty, but some of the pahalwans were getting a light workout by digging, tilling and flattening out the earthen wrestling pit. A senior wrestler had brought his two young daughters to the akhada. One was eight, the other a year younger, and the two of them tumbled on the tilled earthen pit, with their father yelling out instructions with a big smile on his face. Wrestlers crowded around the pit, divided into neat little camps -- each side had picked a girl to support and instruct. The young girls were already technically adept, and it was both amusing and thrilling to see the two tiny figures so seriously engaged in combat, while their father shouted out things like "get your elbow on top of her neck and push down hard" or "jam your knee into her stomach, c'mon, you can do it, bring your left leg in, no left, and jam the knee into her stomach. Good, now push-up with the knee. Yes!"
The girls showed no signs of tiring, their pretty pink and white dresses covered in dirt.
Chandgi Ram would have thrilled at the sight.
Wrestling was a male bastion in India up until 1997. Chandgi Ram became the first pahalwan in the country to encourage and train women in the sport, beginning with his daughters Sonika and Deepika Kaliraman. His determination to include women in the sport played a huge role in influencing one of his talented students, Mahavir Singh Phogat.Phogat's story has now been made into Dangal, starring Aamir Khan.
*Legendary freestyle wrestler who was the first to encourage and promote women's wrestling.
**National wrestler from Haryana, now retired
Excerpt from Enter the Dangal by Rudraneil Sengupta. Published with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India
You can buy Enter the Dangal here.