28 May 2022

A Letter To Nikhat Zareen: Unboxing The Dreams Of A Small-Town Girl

A letter to boxing prodigy Nikhat Zareen acknowledges the efforts of her father and offers words of advice on the way forward

Boxer Nikhat Zareen
Boxer Nikhat Zareen Hardik Chhabra/Outlook

Boxing is a great metaphor for most Indian girls who feel boxed in by the stereotypical notions of how a girl should be. If they dare to dream, the barriers appear insuperable. It is as much true of the Phogat girls in the boondocks of Haryana as it is for you. Mahavir Singh Phogat was a rebel. So must have been your father, Mohammad Jameel. It helps that both Phogat senior and your father had exposure to the demanding, sometimes rewarding, but mostly unforgiving world of sports. 

The call to induct girls into sports in rural settings or provincial towns is almost always the work of a rebel father. Jameel Sir must have faced resistance, societal intimidation, and lots of doubting Thomases. A wink here, a smirk there, a general air of dismissiveness writ large and suggestions galore to not venture into what has not been attempted before. What kept Phogat senior or Jameel Sir going is difficult to figure out. An irrational belief in the ability of daughters and remaining invested in a small and beautiful word—hope. Fathers weather storms, take on the world, cling to small scraps of positivity and keep reminding themselves that tomorrow would be better than today. 

How about mothers, Nikhat? When you returned from the boxing ring the first time after sparring with a boy, bruised with a blackened eye, you say your mother was frightened. 'Who would marry my daughter?' she had said. Even after discounting stereotypes, this is how Indian mothers are. But after initial scepticism, after a few more bruises and black eyes, their scepticism gradually gives way to sense of possibility. In a close-knit community set-up, they are privy to more snide remarks than their husbands. But after the initial torments, they refuse to care. After the first consequential medal and the first coverage of exploits in the newspaper accompanied with photographs, they strut around with spring in their feet. Dear Nikhat, your sporting exploits owe as much to your excellence in the boxing ring as to obstinacy of your father and stoicism of your mother. What we call society and community is generally a spoilsport, a killjoy. 

Champions like you change the grammar of community and society. Girls feel more emboldened. Their mothers less inhibited, and fathers more supportive. That burden of tradition, that need to conform, that expectation to stay inside and not occupy public space is broken. From a drop to torrent to deluge. Nikhat, you might have heard of Vandana Katariya from a small village called Roshanabad in Haridwar, Uttarakhand. She had scored the hat-trick at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and yet she had to suffer caste slurs. That is how mean some of us can be. Through such travails and tribulations, your World Cup Boxing Championship is the triumph of tenacity over adversity or rather adversities. 

Nikhat Zareen
Nikhat Zareen | Credit: Hardik Chhabra/Outlook

Nikhat, yours has been a remarkable journey from the provinciality of Nizamabad in Telangana to the big world stage. Along the way there have been defeats and slip-ups, heartaches, and crippling injuries and yet resilience, fightback, comeback...What a spectacular journey! With your shoulder injury, everything must have looked bleak amidst creeping darkness and lengthening shadows. So, a salute to your defiant resilience/resilient defiance!

Nikhat, when you would unconsciously snap your thumb against your forefingers, you would remember pain. What would give you relief from pain is your confident but innocent yearning: Am I trending on Twitter? Are people talking about me? But the social media business is ephemeral. What you have achieved is enduring and inspiring. You could be that one reason that makes fathers more accommodating and mothers more supportive of their daughters' whims and fancies. 

Nikhat, boxing as a sport brings both glory and setback to the individual. But the way you have acknowledged everyone—parents, coaches, everyone else—that is so heartening. Your individuality is deeply embedded in where to excel is not to forget one's roots but to return and be feted by those roots. Nikhat, how about becoming emblematic of a provincial town. Mahendra Singh Dhoni: Ranchi. Nikhat Zareen: Nizamabad. Nikhat Nizamabadi. That is how a poetess would love to fancy her chances. 

Nikhat, Anne Frank in The Diary of a Young Girl says, "In the long run, the sharpest weapon of all is a kind and gentle spirit...Where there is hope, there is life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again." You do signify that kind and gentle spirit. 

All the best, Nikhat Zareen Nizamabadi!