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The game changer

A RICH HAUL Mahavir Singh Phogat with his proteges  

Even before one gets into “Akhada” (Hachette), a black and white photograph of the gate of Balali village in Bhiwani district conveys the story of social change that is taking root in Haryana. The gate welcomes visitors to Balali, the village of international wrestling champions Geeta, Babita, Vinesh and Ritu Phogat. Penned by sports journalist Saurabh Duggal, the book captures the journey of Mahavir Singh Phogat, the man who made it possible, without any sweeping statements or hagiographic tone.

Book cover

Book cover  

It was the then Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala’s announcement of an award of one crore rupees to the winner of gold medal at Sydney Olympics that spurred Mahavir. Though Karnam Malleshwari, the daughter-in-law of Haryana, returned with a bronze medal in weightlifting and was awarded Rs.25 lakhs, the top honour remained unclaimed. Within days, Mahavir created a pit in his home and pushed his four daughters and their two cousins to grapple for his dream. In 2000, it looked unassailable but within 10 years he produced a Commonwealth Games champion when Geeta Phogat ruled the mat in Delhi. “In Indian there is no family, which has produced three Olympians in a single individual Olympic discipline. There is no family which has three Arjuna awardees. And that too despite the fact that there is no facility in their village and there is no stadium in the vicinity,” says Saurabh on what makes Mahavir’s achievement laudable. If the sporting limitations were not enough, there was tremendous social pressure as well. “There were concerns like wrestlers end up with cauliflower ears. So, who would marry these girls? Also, as it is a contact sport, he was asked how could he allow girls to be in a mud pit with boys.”

Saurabh Duggal

Saurabh Duggal  

Many might feel that he pushed his girls into the sport to achieve his ambition. Freedom of choice is an important factor in feminist discourse. Duggal differs, “It is like your parents decide for you which school you would go to. Once Geeta emerged as a champion wrestler, she was free to discontinue wrestling. She married a boy of her choice, is a DSP in Haryana Police and is living in Sonipat.”

Mahavir is a delightfully layered character and no wonder Aamir Khan agreed to play Mahavir Singh Phogat in Dangal. “The film will play an important role in taking the sport to a pan Indian level and the story to global stage but we should not forget that the film is coming in 2016. Till now, it is Geeta and Babita’s success that has created a buzz about the sport and has resulted in the success of Sakshi Malik. Synonymous with women empowerment and socio-economic change, the six Phogat sisters have won prize money of somewhat close to 10 crore rupees,” remarks Duggal.

Comparing it with Sultan, Duggal says both films have shown wrestling bouts in the realistic fashion but adds that Dangal is more relatable because it is about a real person. “In Sultan, they showed a former Olympian needing money to open a blood bank and that pro-wrestling gave him more fame and money. It doesn’t add up because they based it on London Olympics after which wrestlers got both accolades and money.”

Duggal, who has been writing about Phogat sisters since their rise not only has a great equation with Mahavir but also understands the social milieu of the region, where people are still dependent on rain water for agriculture and patriarchy is still deep rooted. But it is not straitjacketed as many commentators like us to believe. For instance, many feel Mahavir’s desire for a boy doesn’t get fulfilled even when his daughters started excelling in the sport. Duggal corrects that it was his wife Daya’s desire to have a boy. “But it does reflect that in Haryana patriarchy is deep-seated in women as well. As Daya’s mother-in-law also wanted a male heir.”

It doesn’t help that Daya won the Sarpanch’s election because it was Mahavir who used to call the shots.

As for caste equations playing a role considering the women wrestlers are coming from a single clan, Duggal says though Mahavir is open to training girls from different communities, caste remains a factor. “Also, girls from only those families come forward who have some land holding and cattle because it takes care of their dietary expenses.”

Even as we are celebrating Geeta’s success, Duggal reminds that before her there was Sonika Kaliraman, daughter of Mahavir’s guru Chandgi Ram. “She represented India in the Doha Asian Games but at that time women wrestling had not grown in India at the national level. She didn’t face much competition at the national level which is necessary to excel on the global stage.” It changed when the government, with an eye on Commonwealth Games, started focussing on long camps. “Girls started spending 300 days in camps.”

“Akhada” also unravels the making of a wrestler and how different factors come together to decide the destiny of a sportsman. Mahavir Singh Phogat trained hard under Chandgi Ram when he was aspiring to be a wrestler. “He was competitive but his focus was limited to a government job and earning money through participating in dangals,” says Duggal. Mahavir could not win even a single medal in national championships and his stubborn nature ensured that he could not last in the government job either. He tried his luck in property dealing in Delhi and later returned to his village, indulged in local politics and emerged as a strong influence in decision making at the gram panchayat level. “It was Mahavir’s stubborn nature that later helped him achieve his goal despite the fact that he was not a trained coach,” reflects Duggal. Based on his experience in dangals, his approach is titled towards the power aspect of wrestling. “Modern wrestling is about striking a balance between strength and technique while in mud pit dangals one required immense power as the wrestler gets strong grip in the mud.” Mahavir was so obsessive about training that after a point he had to be kept away from the girls as experts felt that his kind training could be harmful for his daughters in the long run. On the book and film coming late as Geeta and Babita already seem to be past their prime, Duggal says, “A champion player has the capacity to motivate others. Also their sisters Sangeeta and Ritu are still very much in the reckoning. Similarly their cousins Vinesh and Priyanka are doing well. Geeta and Babita are playing the Pro-Wrestling League. So we can’t write them off as yet.”

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 9:55:02 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/The-game-changer/article16933193.ece

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