"When I told my sister that I got selected in the team, she couldn't hold back her tears," Deepak Niwas Hooda, an all-rounder representing India at the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, recalls the moment when several emotions, buried under the debris of their unforgiving past, gushed out, all at once.
"It's a dream come true for me," Deepak tells Firstpost over the phone, after completing a training session with the Indian kabaddi team in Ahmedabad ahead of the World Cup. It's a momentous occasion for the young Haryana all-rounder to be part of the Indian team for the sport's greatest ever competition till date.
More importantly, it's one of those moments in life when Deepak can afford a smile. Unfortunately for him, life has had them scanty in supply. Having lost his mother when he was just three years old, the sport enthusiast in Deepak had to take a back seat due to family responsibilities.
"I had a liking for kabaddi since I was a kid. But our financial condition wasn't great. My father was the only elderly member in my house. He used to work in the farm, so we couldn't afford the expenditure needed to develop my game," Deepak tells Firstpost in an exclusive chat.
Despite the tough times though, neither Deepak nor his family let go of his sporting ambitions completely. While there was no way to realise the dreams then, they could afford the hope that things will change in the future.
"When I was a kid, I used to tell my sister that one day I will play for India. I even told my father that. Our financial condition wasn't great at that time, but he always used to say that we will do something," he recalls.
A young Deepak lived on through the troubling times with dreams in his eyes, but fate had to deal another cruel blow. When Deepak was in the twelfth grade, his father passed away, leaving behind a sister plagued with marital problems and a family farm.
The weight of the household fell on his shoulders and Deepak had to quit his education. When everything seemed to be slipping away, he saw light. It was his dream, his passion, that he had somehow nurtured over the years, that showed him a way out of the misery.
"I saw many players from nearby locality get jobs by playing kabaddi, so I thought I should also pursue the sport, so that I could earn through a job. Initially my main thought behind playing kabaddi was to land a job," recalls Deepak.
His mind made up, the goal was set, but the path ahead was arduous. Kabaddi was all that was on his mind, but with a troubled sister and her two young children back home, Deepak had to find a way to survive, until his kabaddi could lift him from poverty.
"I used to wake up at 3 am in the morning, travel 28km on a bike to reach a neighbouring village for practice and train there till 6 am. Since we didn't have any source of income, I used to teach English and Maths in a school in my village. After my practice, I had to reach the school by 7:30 am," remembers Deepak.
"After leaving from the school by noon, I had to go to my farm sometimes, work there and go back to the neighbouring village for practice again by 4 pm. It was very difficult," he adds.
Just the thought of that daily routine can make one huff and puff, but for Deepak it was simply bread and butter. Taking care of his sister, educating her kids stretched Deepak to his limits, but love for kabaddi drove him on. "I wanted to send my sister's kids to school and hence I had to take a break from my own studies. I used to work in my farm, teach in the school, just to ensure my sister's kids get educated," he says.
Fate had to surrender before Deepak's toils, his passion and his drive. From crossing district hurdles, to crossing the state borders, the Haryana youngster made a name for himself on the national stage and was picked up for a whooping fee in the auctions for the Pro Kabaddi League.
Since then, Deepak has grown in stature with every passing season of the glamourous league, and in the latest edition, amassed 126 raid points playing for his Puneri Paltan side. With crucial contributions in the Paltan's mean defence, the 23-year-old was seen worthy enough to represent India at the World Cup.
He goes into the World Cup as one of India's most able all-rounders who could very well upset the pecking order in the side thanks to his excellent form of late.
"The main reason for my good form is that I'm a lot more focused now. I used to be focused before as well, but then I was slightly distracted by the family problems back home. But now my sister and her family is settled. her husband has returned and she is happy," reveals the self-made man.
However, Deepak still invests his time with his sister's kids and is keen on making then champions in sports as well. "I have started training my sister's son in kabaddi and her daughter is boxer. She's 14 now, but she has already won a gold medal in a competition," he divulges.
Talking of medals, Deepak has already won one gold medal for India at the South Asian Games earlier this year, but his hunger is for more, a lot more. "My aim is to keep playing kabaddi for another ten years and maintain my form. I want to try and win as many medals for my country as possible," he says.
"I hope that kabaddi someday becomes an Olympic sport, so that I would be able to help my country win an Olympic gold medal, and personally I want to win the Arjuna Award," he adds.
For now though, Deepak has his eyes set on what he does best – showcase his all-round kabaddi skills on the court. "My role in the team would be as a defender, but I am ready to do whatever that's asked of me, be it defending, raiding in a do-or-die raid. My job is to play and perform well and try to give it my all," Deepak tells Firstpost.
Life is finally smiling at Deepak. The days of his immense toil have yielded success so far. However, he still remains shuttling between roles. After a break for a couple of years, Deepak resumed his education. He now pursues a Bachelor of Arts degree from Rohtak University, and a semester examination of his final year of the course awaits him post the World Cup.
"The exams keep happening. There is one after the Kabaddi World Cup. Sometimes I have to skip my exams if there is a competition. In my second year I had skipped a few exams. So it isn't easy, but I manage it somehow," he says, proving why he's truly an all-rounder, capable of doing anything and everything at a time, both on and off the court.