By Deepika S
Sakshi Malik turned around her freestyle wrestling match against Kyrgyzstan's Aisuluu Tynybekova in the last 15 seconds and won a bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and everyone just lost it. Star Sports' Hindi commentator went from excited to shouting with joy; the coach accompanying Malik jumped onto the stage, dashed across the wrestling mat, tried to lift her, and eventually started running around the stage, while Malik waved the Indian flag in excitement and disbelief.
Malik's parents, watching TV with friends and family at home in Rohtak, Haryana, screamed incoherently as the house erupted in roars, her mother jumping up and down, arms flailing, overjoyed at her daughter's success. Malik, interviewed shortly after she came off stage, breathless and with the Indian flag still around her shoulders, rattled off at top speed that she'd worked for this for the last 12 years, that being the first Indian woman to win a wrestling medal at the Olympics kept running through her mind, that she loved wrestling from the moment she first saw it.
With Malik becoming the first Indian to win a medal at Rio 2016, and also the first female wrestler from India to win an Olympic medal, but her triumph shows India may just be discovering its own love for women's wrestling. Malik's victory supplied plenty of feels, but so did the fact that Babita Kumari's run at the Olympics didn't make it beyond her first match against Greece's Maria Prevolaraki, or that Kumari's cousin Vinesh Phogat sustained a heartbreaking, devastating injury in her match against China's Sun Yanan and had to be carried off on a stretcher. You may never recover from Phogat's tweet afterwards.
If I tel u that I m ok it wud b lying to myself n all of u. Right nw I m hurt; both physically and mentally. I ll recover soon. Thank u all
— Vinesh Phogat (@phogat_vinesh) August 17, 2016
But in Haryana, the home state of all three women who've qualified for the Olympics this year, love for women's wrestling has been growing for nearly 15 years. Kumari and Phogat themselves come from the famous Phogat family, which has six international-level women wrestlers — four sisters and two cousins. Kumari's sister Geeta Phogat was the first female Indian wrestler to ever qualify for the Olympics, in 2012.
Malik began her training under Ishwar Singh Dahiya, a former wrestler and former Haryana Sports Department official said to be instrumental in bringing women's wrestling to Rohtak. At the National Women's Wrestling Championships held in 2014, one in four medal-winners was from Dahiya's Rohtak centre. There is a hilarious story around how his training centre for girls, which was set up in 2002, began.
"Sunita (his first female student) came to me with her elder brother to seek permission to join the centre. She was around 14-15 years and had short hair. I mistook her for a boy and gave the nod. In the evening when she came with her friend Kavita, I realised she was a girl. As I had already given her permission, there was no question of backtracking and that's how the girls' centre started," he told the newspaper.
Malik's win provides us with a great opportunity to talk about the much-documented resistance to women's wrestling in Haryana — the opposition to women wearing short or tight uniforms, to practicing with boys in a sport that requires intense physical contact; supposed "concern" that wrestling would alter their appearance and ruin their marriage prospects — as well as the lack of even basic facilities like toilets for women wrestlers.
In his recent book on wrestling in India, Enter the Dangal, Rudraneil Sengupta says no village in India has a wrestling school in which women are allowed to train, except for Balali in Haryana, where Mahavir Singh Phogat, who has been its sarpanch, began training his six daughters. Sengupta also records a conversation with former Olympian, Kripa Shankar Patel, who used to coach the national women’s team.
"We have a very small talent pool to pick from... Maharashtra, which produces hundreds of male wrestlers, has nothing for women. Madhya Pradesh has very little, Jabbar Singh is alone in Uttar Pradesh. Only Haryana is really trying. Women's wrestling is still new to the world, and we could have stepped ahead, taken the lead and dominated it for years. But no, we are stuck being backwards, judgemental and idiotic," he told Sengupta.
Perhaps Malik's medal, won so dramatically in the repechage, will give women's wrestling in India a turbo boost. Perhaps the fact that technical terms like repechage are already entering our vocabulary is a sign of it. Earlier this year, women's wrestling edged its way into pop culture with Anushka Sharma's role as a female wrestler in the Bollywood blockbuster Sultan, and later this year comes another wrestling blockbuster, Dangal — based on Phogat and his daughters. Perhaps this historic wrestling medal means that more women like Malik, in Haryana and in other states, will have the chance to excel at the sport they love.
The Ladies Finger is a leading online feminist magazine.