On a sultry afternoon, there is little to break the stillness of the sparsely populated Balali village, except for the slow, continuous chomping of buffaloes that dot the narrow windy roads, guarded on both sides by endless fields of lush wheat and sunflower. Perched on the edge of the Bhiwani district of Haryana, all 668 hectares of the wet, green village, embellished with old-style bungalows, with their big aangans, seem to have stepped right out of Subhash Ghai’s Pardes. There is not a soul to be seen until late in the evening, when the Amrish Puri-esque Mahavir Singh Phogat comes out of his house to pigeon call all his students for the second round of training—“chalo chalo chalo”.
The wrestler-turned-coach from Delhi’s famous Chandgi Ram Akhara begins the two-hour session with a round of warm-up. Nothing about his calm demeanour and humble tone gives away the tiny detail that he alone is responsible for providing the Indian wrestling contingent with half-a-dozen “A-Ones”, all women grapplers, giving the country its first woman wrestler to qualify for the Olympics, its second Olympian, its first Gold in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and several world championship bronzes and national medals. Suffice it to say that the family has four big glass cupboards for the honours. “We haven’t done anything until that Olympic gold, not once, but six times,” says Phogat. A troop of six—his daughters and nieces: Geeta, Babita, Priyanka, Vinesh, Ritu and Sangita—agrees. “Every time I train, all I can see is the Olympic gold,” says Ritu Phogat, 22. She has recently won the gold in the National Games and silver in the world championship. The chirpy Geeta Phogat, 27, who is the first Indian woman wrestler to win the Commonwealth gold, and an Olympic qualifier, is all set to get married this year to the famous wrestler Pawan Kumar, but refuses to stop playing after.
Now fifty-something, Phogat has put on a little weight around his tum-tum and only oversees all the practice, with his trained daughters doing all the teaching. After the long round of running, jogging and stretching, the group of 20, aged five-22, boys and girls alike, is ready for the real deal—one-on-one wrestling. “We don’t distinguish between boys and girls, or age. Weight is the only criterion kept in mind,” says Dushyant Phogat, son of Mahavir, who is also training to become a wrestler. One thing all of them seem to have in common is at least one injured ear. “It is part of the game, and the ear is the most susceptible,” Geeta says, showing off both her injured ears. The ears can actually heal after an injury if rested, “but papa never lets us,” she laughs.
Phogat faced a lot of opposition when he first decided to make world-class wrestlers out of his daughters. Their mother was also irked by the idea, for those eternal reasons. “I told my husband not to push the girls into the sport. I was worried about how they will ever get married as pehelwans wearing shorts and cutting their hair!” says Daya Kaur. Phogat recalls a time when his daughters were the only girls in the akharas. “They would wrestle boys as there were no other girls,” he chuckles.
Things in the village have changed now. “When Mahavir started teaching, we were all against it. The girls’ place is in the house, not out in the field, we had said,” says Ram Kumar. Jai Singh, Virender Singh, Kartar Singh, all of whom are huddled around, sharing a hookah, nod in agreement. “After the gold in 2010, we believe anyone can do anything,” says a proud Kartar Singh.
And so it is that every girl in the village learns wrestling, many because of their own will, and others because of their parents’. “I am going for wrestling practice because my parents want me to. I am not very keen on it and would like to study alongside,” says Kajal Sanghwan. Some others like Kajal are also doing it for their parents.
So strict is the life of a trainee that there is little to no time for education. Most are home-schooled, and only appear for exams. All their prize money earnings go towards improving the facilities for the wrestlers in the locality. “Uncle himself has built the centre, paid for the mat and all the gym equipment; there has been no help from the state or central government,” says Phogat’s nephew Rahul.
The few times the girls take a break to go out, they go catch a movie: last month it was Sultan, in which, they say, the wrestling moves were faulty!
The story of the Phogat family is being documented in Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal, with Aamir Khan playing the wrestler-turned-coach who dreamt of throwing his girls into the muddy terrain of wrestling. The girls sure think the moves are going to be right in this one!