On her right arm is a tattoo of elephant god Ganesha, harbinger of good luck and fortune. It has stood Karnam Malleshwari in good stead all these years. The shy daughter of a police constable from the Andhra Pradesh boondocks began lifting weights when she was only 12. Seven years later, in 1994, she had lifted enough barbells to become a world champion. Before she flew out to Sydney earlier this month, she was already a two-time world champion with 29 international medals, including 11 golds, under her belt. "She was always a never-say-die girl," says Neelamsetty Appanna, who coached the weightlifter in her early days at her Oosavanipeta village in Srikakulam district, northern Andhra Pradesh.
Malleshwari proved that amply last week. Her triumphs truly climaxed: she became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal. This, after the 25-year-old weightlifter had been written off by some hacks as a glutton and boozer, and even an indolent sportswoman resting on her laurels. There were doubts about her selection in the Indian squad. "I was a little hurt and mentally disturbed," she says. "But I am happy that I have proved my detractors wrong."
Opting for a career in weightlifting and giving formal education a go-by wasn't a difficult decision: lifting barbells was a way of life in her village, and Malleshwari, the third among six children, was born into a family of weightlifters. Of the five sisters, four have already made their mark in weightlifting, while Karnam Madhavi, the fifth sibling, regrets not taking it up. (To make amends, she is now training her four-year-old daughter under, who else, but Malleshwari.) No wonder confidence in Malleshwari's abilities runs high in the family. "We expected her to win a gold or a silver at Sydney," says Madhavi.
But from lifting barbells in her village to hogging the glory at the greatest sporting show on the planet has not been easy. In her childhood, she had to make do with sparse equipment in Oosavanipeta or its nearest town, Amudalavasa, to practice. AP state minister for sports Tammineni Sitaram remembers that Malleshwari seldom had money to travel to and participate in national meets. Says he: "District weightlifting officials had to give her money and meet her expenses." A Delhi-based sports journalist remembers her as an introvert during a meeting some 10 years ago. The then teenage weightlifter had been shacking up with her sister Mahalakshmi in a small room at the Karnail Singh Stadium, so that they could train with other weightlifters. "The sisters would train in the morning, rest a while in the afternoon, and return in the evening for more training," reminisces the journalist. "In between, they spent time cooking, washing and attending to chores."
But she made her mark quickly. She was spotted soon and was nurtured under a special area games project of the Sports Authority of India (sai). She joined the national camp in 1990 and four years on she was already a world championship winner in the 54-kg class. In October 1996 Outlook featured her among the fifty Indians who make a difference in its first anniversary special. And the medal rush continued unabated. Soon, Malleshwari shifted to Yamunanagar in Haryana after marrying Rajesh Tyagi, also a weightlifter. She also stuck with her favourite Byelorussian coach Leonid Taranenko, who in his prime had himself held some two dozen world records.
Clearly, today life is more settled - she has mopped up medals regularly, and holds a job with the Food Corporation of India (fci). Says Tyagi: "The Olympics bronze is a result of sheer determination and grit. She practises six hours daily."
Life can only get better for Malleshwari now. After her crowning glory, even the money is flowing - two chief ministers and the Union sports ministry have together offered her cash awards amounting to nearly Rs 45 lakh. She has changed her mind about retirement, and now wants to continue "at least till the next Olympics". She even hopes to open a sports academy in Harayana. The blossoming of Karnam Malleshwari - her name means fragrant flower in her native Telugu - is complete.