It really was the summer of 69, when Indian gymnast Mantu Debnath won a gold medal for the first time in the India-USSR cultural exchange held in Russia. Debnath hailed from Tripura, tucked away in India's northeastern frontier. Back in Debnath's home town Agartala, 11-year-old Bisheswar Nandi couldn't hide his happiness, and started running and vaulting inside a shabby gymnasium, aiming to walk on Debnath's footsteps.
But his real icon was Aleksandr Nikolaevich Dityatin, a Russian gymnast and three-time Olympic champion. Dityatin had won eight medals, setting records for achieving the most medals of any type at the 1980 Summer Olympics. For Nandi in Agartala, an Olympic dream was in the making.
He was to become a national champion and is now a national-level gymnastic coach. He represented India three times as a gymnast, featuring in several national games and 10 international tournaments. However, he could never make it to the Olympics.
But what Nandi could never achieve, he trained his disciple to do. Dipa Karmakar, a 22-year-old Tripura girl, is now the latest sporting sensation in India. She has become the first ever female gymnast from India to qualify for the Olympics and is seen among the medal contenders at Rio come August. Doing so, Dipa also became only the third woman in world gymnastics ever to land a Podruvona, a rare feat in artistic gymnastics.
It was over a decade ago that acclaimed weightlifting coach Dulal Karmakar brought his daughter Dipa to Soma Nandi, a female gymnastic coach in Agartala and Bisheswar Nandi's wife. The Gymnast couple would spot the talent in the tiny tot and Dipa became their student. Nandi has spent hours training Dipa. "Dipa is not my student and disciple. She is my daughter. I toiled day and night training her to live my dream of making it to the Olympics one day. She had done it for me. I am hopeful she will also bring a medal for the country. My career as a gymnast has come to a full circle with her. She is not only talented and dedicated, she is also emotional about gymnastic. She has transformed the dreams of an entire nation and is making them believe in a gymnastics medal," Nandi told Firstpost from a tiring training session at the indoor gymnastics facility in Agartala.
Both Nandi and Dipa are back in Agartala for a week, before they go back to New Delhi for the final camps ahead of the Rio Olympics. The city has suddenly come out of oblivion with Dipa's success. Every day, thousands of fans are coming to the training facility to wish her luck. "I always wanted to participate in the Olympics, but destiny had some other plans in store. Now I know what it wanted from me," said Nandi, now 58.
For Dipa, her "Nandi sir" is the final word. "From childhood, I dreamt of going to the Olympics. I have made it now. I am very happy but I need to train hard and prepare myself for the final stage. I know the entire country is praying for me. Whatever I am today is because of Sir. He is like my father. I am a big naughty and often do things which are against my family, but I never oppose Sir. He is next to God for me," Dipa said.
Father Dulal also credited the work put in by Bishuda, as Nandi is known as in Tripura. "I am a sportsperson and a coach myself. So, I have always encouraged my daughter to take sports seriously. But her real inspiration is Bishuda," Dulal said.
For little Dipa, the task was difficult. She had to train with very poor infrastructure and support, both financially and otherwise. Her family wasn't able to spend as much money as was ideally required to give the girl the nourishment an international-level gymnast needed. But she did not browbeat. Nandi just kept fighting almost all alone, with the little girl under his wings.
Come rain or shine, Dipa would always reach her training session. Festivals, school vacations, general strikes all failed to stop their training. Between 2010 and 2014, Dipa won five national championships, winning five gold medals each at the two national games in Jharkhand and Kerala. "I am very happy to see how the people of Tripura and my nation are treating me. There is so much love for me and expectation that I'd do well. I hope I can live up to their hopes," said a confident Dipa on the sidelines of a training session.
At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Dipa won bronze. A year later, she won the Arjuna Award. However, this passion and indomitable spirit for gymnastics is not a one-off case. The story goes back to 1969, with the arrival of Duleep Singh from Haryana, who arrived in Tripura as a gymnastic coach. Duleep's hard work paid off in three years. At the national gymnastics meet in Agartala in 1968, Bharat Kishore Debbarman was the first tribal talent to emerge as individual champion in the junior category. He was also the first gymnast from Tripura to win gold in 1965 at the national championship. Duleep, subsequently trained Mantu Debnath, Tripura's first Arjuna awardee and the first gymnast in the country to get the prestigious honour.
At the 1982 New Delhi Asian Games, a six-member Indian gymnastic team drew applause though they didn't win any medals. Four of those gymnasts were Duleep's students from Tripura. "We can't forget the contribution of Duleep Singh sir, he will remain a legend in our hearts," Nandi added. "We started playing with very poor equipment; we used sand instead foam to land our vaults," recalled former national gymnast from Tripura, Joydev Saha. "But even in this difficult situation, players like Mantu Debnath and Bisheswar Nandi never looked back. Nandi too has inherited this quality from Duleep sir," Saha further added.
Singh was a national-level gymnast and an ex-army officer who came down to Tripura as a coach and later joined the state government and retired as sports director in the 80s. He was also the president of the gymnastic association in 1982. An infectious enthusiasm gave him an image similar to the pied piper of Hamelin. Local kids were attracted by his aura and dedication. He used to spend from his own pocket to build a basic infrastructure for the new generation of gymnasts. After Mantu and Kalpana Debnath — trained by Duleep Singh — became national champions.
But since then, Tripura has lost its pride of place mainly because of growing health problems faced by chief coach Duleep Singh, who passed away in 1987. "I can feel the pressure at times. My job is to revive the legacy of Duleep Sir. Dipa is going to inspire others. Tripura will once again become the gymnastic hub of India," said Nandi.
Landlocked Tripura has seen development only in recent times. Once infested by insurgency, Tripura is now among the fastest growing among small states. "Communication and infrastructure are still issues. I got equipment at par with international standards only after the 2010 Commonwealth Games," Dipa said.
"The region is backward and was not properly nursed to develop. As a result, there is a dearth of adequate sport infrastructure in the region. We want more funds be given to the region for building proper sports infrastructure," Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar had recently said at a sports event in Agartala. After Dipa's Glasgow showing, Sarkar took special initiatives to revive gymnastic legacy in the state.
Sportspersons from the Northeast had been brining accolades for the country for over a decade, but Dipa is the latest addition to that list. "Tripura has produced many young sensations — tennis star Somdev Devvarman, Sourabhe Debbarma, the first female Indian Idol winner, rapper Borkung Hrangkhawl, etc. But the rest of the country hardly knows about Tripura. The oblivion this small state experiences is enormous. With Dipa's success a bit of it will go," explained Ratnadip Choudhury, an award-winning journalist from Tripura.
It seems like Dipa's vault has already bridged the gap somewhat.