Date published: October 4, 2010
New Delhi (Women's Feature Service) - The sporting arenas are alive; the players are in the hunt for medals; the spectators are eager to cheer their favourites, as they catch all the live action... In Delhi, the XIX Commonwealth Games, pegged as India biggest sporting extravaganza yet, are underway. But even as the nation trains its sights on stars like badminton champion Saina Nehwal or tennis star Sania Mirza or Richa Mishra, who is leading the women's aquatics squad, we present from the WFS archives, stories of the invisible heroines of Indian sport. Away from the spotlight, these girls and young women are also pursuing their dreams of sporting excellence despite the hurdles of extreme poverty, family and community biases, and religious traditions.
Meet the water babies of Saraunjha, Bihar's state champion swimmers Payal Pandit and her friends, Savitri and Baby; the 'hijab' (veil) sporting teenage rugby players of Kashmir; the conservative Muslim champs of Kolkata's boxing ring; and the proud women wrestlers of Padamshri Chandgiram's 'akhara' (wrestling arena) in Delhi.
Making a Splash: Saraunjha's Water Babies
As Payal Pandit, 12, a state swimming champion in the Under-19 category, practices her butterfly stroke in the River Balan, curious villagers stare at the girl, clad in a swimming costume moving effortlessly in water. After an hour-long session of free style, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly stroke, Payal is out of the water and in no time changed and ready to walk home - about four kilometres away - back to homework and household chores.
Payal's is no ordinary story. Born into a lower middle-class family, she is one of the five children of Rajkumari and Madhusudan Pandit. Despite the odds, Payal is a three-time state swimming champion and dreams of crossing the English Channel one day just like her idol Bula Choudhury, the first Asian to cross the Channel twice.
Even though Pandit found it difficult to cover her training costs, he tried to give whatever he could afford - swimming gear, training equipment and the opportunity to travel to national-level competitions beyond Bihar. But now the harsh voice of reality hits Payal as her dejected father says, "I can't afford it any more." Petitions to the state government for assistance, of course, fell on deaf ears.
But perhaps Payal is better of with her poverty - when pitted against her swimming cousins and state champs, Savitri, 14, and Baby, 12, who have had to bear the consequences of their families' Naxal leanings.
While once the villagers of Saraunjha had pooled in to send the girls for a national competition, most families - including their mentor Pandit - are reluctant to associate with them. Baby seems to be losing her hopes to insurgency and certainly not because of an absence of talent.
Remove the poverty and political tangles and these girls have shown that they can make a mark for themselves. Perhaps, it's time society took the plunge for them.
(Text by Manisha Prakash)
Sporting Hijab And Playing Rugby In Kashmir
"I feel I am doing something great... This challenge has been the best experience of my life," says Saliah Yusuf, 18, a Class 12 student and a national rugby player from Srinagar.
In a state torn by violence for the past two decades, women have been the worse victims of the diktat of terror groups. Given this scenario, it is nothing short of amazing that there are 450 registered rugby women players across Kashmir since 2004, when the sport was first introduced to women here.
Today, it's not out of the ordinary to see Kashmiri girls dressed in T-shirts and track pants - some even sporting the 'hijab' (head scarf) - jostling with each other on the field.
"In traditional Kashmiri society, a career in sports and that too for a girl is still a distant dream. That my family is allowing me to play outside the state is a big thing," acknowledges Sajida Yusuf, Saliah's younger sister. Both sisters give credit to their mother - a widow - for encouraging them. "My mom says, 'You are my sons, go and face the world'," says Sajida.
The Yusuf sisters are lucky to have family support. Ask Salma Akhtar, 17, (name changed), who despite being selected to play in the nationals in 2009 was not given permission by her parents as they did not want to send her outside Kashmir for the matches. But with steely determination she declare, "My coach says I am a talented player but my parents think that rugby is only for men. Despite their objections, I do play local matches."
(Text By Prakriiti Gupta)
Muslim Girls: Champs Of The Boxing Ring
Zainab Fatima, 14, shocked an eve-teaser at the Khidderpore market in south Kolkata by knocking his teeth out with a mighty punch. The eve-teaser was unaware that Zainab is a trained boxer, spending hours in rigorous training at the Khidderpore School of Physical Culture.
Ainal, the eldest of threee sisters, Zainab, Sougra and Bushra, was the one who started it all in 2004. "Ainal (then 14) wanted to learn boxing. She collected admission forms and approached 'Abbu' (father). He was furious but after days of persuasion, he finally relented," says Bushra, 15.
For young Muslim girls in the area, boxing is not only a means to earn recognition, it is a source of income - besides being a way to overcome social restrictions and fulfill their aspirations.
"Between Zainab and myself we win enough money each year to take care of the education expenses for all of us," says Bushra, who also has three younger brothers.
But there are hassles, too. Mehrajuddin Ahmed, former boxer and Secretary of the West Bengal Amateur Boxing Federation, admits that the socio-economic condition of his champion boxers is extremely saddening. The Fatima sisters live in a one-room hovel. "The nutrition they get is meagre. They do all the household chores, attend school and then train for about three hours every evening. It's a hard life but sheer willpower sees them through."
(Text By Ajitha Menon)
Ladies of the Ring Wrestle For Fame
"Are the girls coming?" one man whispers. "Yes, they come every Sunday," another answers surreptitiously. And just then in walk a bunch of girls, teenaged and shorthaired, dressed in track pants and T-shirts emblazoned with the word 'India'. They are wrestlers from the 'akhara' of the late Padamshri Chandgiram, the man synonymous with Indian wrestling.
Neelam Lathar and Rekha Kadyan, 20, shake hands and the match begins. Allocated time: five minutes. The girls slug it out on the mat. The crowd is cheering and the commentator keeps egging on the girls. Rekha wins. The head of the local wrestling committee pulls out a twenty-rupee note from his black bag and hands it over to the winner.
As the two head back to the benches, Poonam Pawar, 17, and Jeetu Sharma, in her late 20s, take to the mat. Not to fight but to act as referees for the little boys who wait their turn to wrestle. They count the points and declare the winners. Nobody challenges the decision; their word is final.
In a world where wrestling was always a male preserve, these girls have come a long way. The 'akhara' is home to around 15 girls in the age group of 14 to 20. Most of them hail from Haryana and belong to the lower middle class.
Sitting under a berry tree in the 'akhara', they chirp on and on about their unusual career choice and the dreams that stem from it. Nothing else matters to them, for they are ready to wrestle all odds to fight that one big bout.
(Text By Preeti Verma Lal)
(© Women's Feature Service)