You burn through 6,000 calories a day sweating it out in a place with a table top fan that barely works. The bathroom hasn't been cleaned since you last scrubbed it a couple of days ago. The flush isn't always as compliant as you'd like.
Your coach has reached peak cynicism, but she sees just enough potential in you to keep it aside. You're her passion and you're the reason she wakes up in the morning. She's not been paid for a couple of months, but her husband's salary as a ticket checker keeps the fire burning at home. Of course, she'll have to go home and light it. Her husband is supportive of her efforts on most days. Yet, every now and then, he'll have a night out and then she'll turn up wearing a jacket in 40 degrees Celsius heat to cover the welts on her arm that you and your team mates know mark her arms.
You can't remember the last time you slept not having to worry about whether you have enough money to keep training. You can't remember the last time you didn't have to ask your coach for advise on how to buy cheap protein.
Your regular store has stopped giving you goods on credit a couple of weeks ago. You didn't go for your cousin's wedding when your whole village turned up because you didn't want to spend money on the train ticket or on the clothes that go with the territory. Your superiors at the bank vacillate between being supportive of an aspiring Olympian and derisive of a woman trying to fight in a man's sport.
Your parents are probably the only silver lining in this story. Yet sometimes, even though you'd never openly say it, you wish that instead of their blessings, you had some more money to tide you over your next financial crisis, which is always just a few days away.
Through of all this, one thing has never wavered: You've never given up your dream. You've never had a second thought that you might want to do something else. Sure, you've had days when you wanted to throw it all away, but you've never really considered doing it. That time when you didn't get the state scholarship, that time when you heard that your brother didn't openly tell people at his office what his sister did, or the time when you had to explain to the federation why you needed a dietary cash allowance.
You and your friends all know of the TOPS scheme that the government has. You laugh at it, often, because you haven't been able to understand how someone can actually qualify for that honour. It seems like a bridge so far that a lot of you have doubts whether you'll ever actually reach the edge of the chasm it spans, let alone walk across it and be recognised as one of the nation's leading athletes.
Your federation usually says the sports ministry isn't approving any request for funds, but that doesn't seem to affect their own education trips to different parts of the world.
Every time you travel to represent the tricolour, they follow you around but always seem to have the funds to pay for meals that probably cost more than one month supply of your khurak.
But none of this bothers you. All that matters is that you get a shot to compete, continue to believe that you can be the best and constantly improve. That's your life's mission, your raison d'etre.
But for all your lifeblood, your country has never understood you. You don't expect them to. They don't understand why you’ve spurned a life of comfort as a homemaker, or a government official or in corporate services and spend your time in the ring, on the mat, on the court, on the field. Why you choose cuts and bruises, endless 4 am runs and years of missing Diwali at home to a life of recipes, long weekends, and office gossip.
To their credit though, your countrywomen and countrymen get behind each time you excel in a world championship or the Olympic games. Each time you're in sniffing distance of a medal, they become an expert in your sport. You have to admit, it's better than them interminably discussing the goings on of a cricket field. For no matter how fleeting a moment, you hold a country obsessed with the gentleman's game and overzealous rhetoric in the palm of your hand. You have that power.
What they don't realise is that as an Indian woman, you've always had that strength inside you. You've risen to the elite level of the world's best 30 odd athletes from a country where the girl child is still largely undesired. You represent a country where mothers still won't allow their daughters to go swimming because of what they must wear to enter the pool. You have overcome odds that most of your country folk will never be able to imagine.
Yet, they talk of your strength as if it’s something mystic. Your country chooses to let you struggle in dimly lit sports hostel dorm rooms, sometimes supervised by tharki men, and then they wonder where your reservoir of resolve comes from. You've survived odds they haven't even begun to draw up in the illegal betting shops of Benaras.
You have fought tradition, politics of every sort, defied the system and risen to the pinnacle of your sport. Fight is in every sinew of your being.
And yet, if there was one thing you could tell the nation, it would be that you don't want to be the only one. That you don't want to be the pioneer, that you've never wanted to be the lone ranger. That you want us to become a nation of doers and not merely the largest cheering squad standing on the sidelines.
Maybe they'll listen, maybe they'll actually honour your sacrifices by making some of their own for their sons and daughters, and maybe they'll realise that women athletes, and all non-cricketers, aren't just meant to be celebrated every four years.
First Published On : Aug 20, 2016 12:03 IST