At the end of the serpentine maze on Google Maps, Goria village in Haryana's Jhajjar district is a tiny red dot. Colour it black, paste it at the centre of ten concentric rings, aim at it from 32 feet and you have the blur that Manu Bhaker, India's 16-year-old sensation shoots at from the sight of a 1.5 kg-4.5 calibre air pistol. For Bhaker, the journey from that red dot - her home - to the 0.5 mm black one — her destination — has been a bit like the smooth curves of the highway that connects her world to her dreams.
Zoom past the West Delhi flyovers, beat the hordes of kanwariays, leave behind the slew of coaching centres and hardware stores on Rohtak Road, and the left turn from the Tikri border opens to a different world. Cooler air, open spaces, mustard fields. It also opens a world of familiar tropes one associates this wonderful state with – falling sex ratios, killings of young couples for supposed honour, violent agitations, religious orthodoxy, sights of men huddled over a hookah while women tend to fields and cattle. All this, while almost every truck, every wall, and every overhead hoarding shouts Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save Daughter, Educate Daughter). It might be a simplistic representation of these lands, but not unreal. Manu Bhaker is a proud resident of these areas, and this is her world.
This is also the world of Sumedha and Ramkishan Bhaker, her parents, and importantly, their parenting. While they are not really trailblazers in standing up for the dream of their girl child – something they graciously acknowledge – they claim to have imparted two most important things a parent could to their child: roots and wings.
"When Manu was born, I vowed that I will give her all the freedom she wants in life. I always wanted her to be independent. I knew that as a girl child, things are not really easy here, but I wanted our daughter to live the way she wants," says Sumedha.
The day Manu was born, Sumedha recollects, was also the day she had to write her Oriental Training Exam that would qualify her as a teacher. So five-and-a-half hours after giving birth to Manu, Sumedha found herself at the examination centre, much to the horror of the examiner.
"He wouldn't let me in because of my weak physical condition. My elder sister, who had accompanied me, had to actually beg to let me in. I was always an independent person, and I wanted to tell the world that being a mother is no reason to stop dreaming and stop trying."
Sumedha, of course, cleared her exam and is now the principal of Universal Senior Secondary School in Goria. The school was started by Ramkishan's younger brother Mahender Singh in 2005 with a view to grant affordable education to the children of Goria and neighbouring villages. The cause moved Ramkishan enough, a chief engineer in the merchant navy, to pump in his life's savings towards building the infrastructure of the school.
Locally, it is also known as Manu's school, and not without reason. The Class 12 Biology student pops out from each corner of her school - through giant posters and cut-outs, through newspaper clippings and trophy collections, through photo collages and standalone clicks. Bhakers have forgone subtlety to let the world know that this world belongs to Manu.
"The entire school knows her, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that a lot of these children want to be like Manu," says the beaming father.
Ramkishan though insists that this stardom comes without any star-treatment. "The treatment," he says, "is same for Manu and other students. She is required to complete her homework like any other child studying here. She is punished like any other student too. We make sure she is rooted."
Chaudhary Rajkaran Bhaker had a mean talent and a great eye. Every time he sighted a target, he hit it. Those who knew him, swore by his clinical, error-free rifle shooting. Rajkaran's playing field though was not a shooting range; he strutted his stuff for the Punjab regiment of the Indian Army, on the India-Pakistan border.
"He was like a sniper," Ramkishan says of his father, who retired as a Naib Subedar. "His colleagues and seniors always told me that he never missed a target in his life. Every time he pulled the trigger, he shot the enemy. And those were the days when the bullets were rationed, so you couldn't afford to waste many bullets."
Rajkaran fought two wars in his life and survived both. In 1965, he was posted in Kashmir and was even hit by enemy fire.
"My father had some important army documents, and he was determined not to let the enemy get their hands on them," Ramkishan remembers. So Rajkaran threw himself off a cliff into The Jhelam. He was found after two days, alive and unconscious.
During the 1971 war, Rajkaran was posted in the Jaisalmer-Barmer sector in Rajasthan and fought the legendary Battle of Longewala. Widely regarded as one of the best land combats in modern history, it had 120 Indian soldiers, commanded by Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri, against 2000 men of the 51st Infantry Brigade of the Pakistan Army, backed by the 22nd Armoured Regiment.
"My father was a survivor. He fought and won two wars for the country, though he never got a medal. He was very fond of sports too," remembers Ramkishan, himself an NCC 'C' certificate holder.
"That desire to do well for the country, whatever field you choose, runs deep in our family. It has carried over to Manu as well. She is very happy when she beats a foreign shooter. Beating an Indian shooter doesn't give her that joy. She likes to win, but she also believes in fair play."
That Manu played a variety of sports before settling for shooting has been documented enough, but it really was her desire for fairness that prompted her to take up an individual sport.
"She was very good at boxing, skating, kabaddi… always a natural athlete. But the sport that really caught her fancy early was thang ta," Ramkishan says.
An ancient Manipuri martial-arts form, thang ta has three stages of progression. In the first stage, the participants use their hand and feet to fight – a bit like kickboxing. In the next, they are armed with a sword and a shield, and in the third, they are required to fight with two swords. Manu quickly progressed to the third stage and started winning local competitions.
"Her grandfather was very happy with her choice of sport and used to take her to practice. I think it is important for girls in our country to learn some form of self-defence, you know."
Three years back, Manu went to Delhi to participate in a national-level thang ta meet and in the semi-final, despite leading 21-0 against a local girl, was adjudged the loser.
"She has always been a fiercely competitive kid and wants to excel in whatever she does. If the loss is due to her own mistake, she will happily accept it, but if it is due to some other factor, she can't stand it," Ramkishan says.
"It was blatant cheating there. Later, the referee told us that there were instructions to ensure Delhi bags all the gold medals on offer."
The same evening, Manu told the family her decision to quit the sport and concentrate on her Class 10 exams.
"We were not surprised. We knew she switches sports every one or two years, and also that she can't stand cheating. But I was of the view that she must still follow some sport, preferably a contact sport."
Manu's next stop was karate. Ramkishan found out a judo-karate academy in the adjoining Charkhi Dadri district and took Manu for a look-in. Coach Rajesh Taxak reckoned Manu might not catch-up with other girls, considering that she was joining mid-session. Six months later, after cycling for 12 kilometres-per-day for a two-hour karate session, she returned with a national-level silver medal.
"She told me that with a little more preparation, she could have won gold. Like I said, she is a natural at all sports," Ramkishan says.
Few days after her win, she realised that karate was not an Olympic sport and went to her father with a by-now familiar decision.
"What could I have done? I just smiled and took her to the shooting range at the school. I think she had tried all other sports by then and had won something in each of them."
Manu's first few shots were enough to impress coach Anil Jakhar, who told Ramkishan that his daughter was as good as someone who has trained for six months already.
For Bhakers, the next few months passed in a blur, as Manu aced one event after another. At the National Championships in December 2017, she broke the long-standing national record with a score of 240.5 en route a nine-gold haul. In the inaugural Khleo India School Games that followed, she broke the junior national records in qualifiers and the final.
In March 2018, she marked her debut at the ISSF World Cup in Guadalajara, Mexico, with another gold medal, beating local favourite Alejandra Zavala Vazquez and won the Commonwealth Games gold next month with a record score of 240.9.
"Frankly, we didn't expect this kind of success," Ramkishan says. "But the fact is, she has not returned empty-handed from any event she has participated in. So once she made it to the medal round at the CWG, we knew that she will win something."
"They make limits for me, like, 'Eat that, eat this, don't go there, do this, don't do this, don't use your phone, don't do this now, go to bed. It's a bit too much."
Those words, by Manu in her first media interaction upon reaching Palembang for the ongoing Asian Games — explaining why she has 'banned' her parents from travelling abroad with her — are revealing. They threaten to negate everything Ramkishan and Sumedha have said so far. They leave her prone to judgements, and they also show that despite her superhuman efforts, she is still a 16-year-old girl.
"Look, I think it's a matter of interpretation," Ramkishan clarifies.
"I am sure she didn't mean it the way it came across. We don't travel with her because we want her to have her time and space."
Sumedha, when asked if she would be accompanying Manu for the Asian Games before the shooting contingent had left, had this to say: "We always leave these decisions to her. If she wants to have us around, we go. It's more important that she shoots well. Even on phone, we don't talk much."
Coach Jaspal Rana, in a rare outburst after Manu and Abhishek Verma failed to make it to the final of mixed-team event, talked about his ward's temperament.
"She needs to control her temperament. The kind of attitude she has needs to be improved (sic). Anger will not help her in any way. She just gave up," he said. Manu didn't address the waiting media.
Before leaving for Jakarta, Rana, a four-time Asian Games medallist, spoke to Firstpost about the challenges of training teenagers.
"It's very different from seniors," he had said.
"It's a bit like parenting. You have to monitor their sleep-time, diet, phone, laptop, everything. If I take the phone away from a senior, he/she can snap back, but these kids follow what the coach says, which I think is nice."
"Every kid is different. Saurabh Chaudhary (who won the gold in 10-metre air pistol men's event on 21 August) is a bit of recluse, doesn't talk to many people, and that actually works for him. Manu likes to talk. She is happy-go-lucky, and that works for her. Even if I say a few nasty things to her, she forgets it in half-an-hour," he said.
Rana also spoke about his training methods and on the importance of giving space.
"On the shooting range, I don't believe in constantly badgering them with instructions. I don't talk to them between shots; it's important for them to be able to decide for themselves because it's going to be the same during competitions.
"For a young and upcoming athlete, the entire ecosystem matters. The friends, the coaches, family. As a coach, I try to give her the best space to perform. With all the medals and prize money that they win, it is difficult to stay grounded. I make sure they don't lose sight of sport," Rana said.
The coach also insists on the importance of processes. Following the right technique, according to Rana, is more important than gunning for medals.
"If the technique and basics are correct, medals will follow. So I never expect Manu and others to bring a medal. I only want them to better their score and shoot with the right technique."
Ramkishan and Sumedha Bhaker though would be hoping for another opportunity to distribute ladoos at the Universal Senior Secondary School. When the granddaughter of the man who never won a medal despite never missing a target takes aim at that 0.5mm blur, Manu ka school would hold its breath in collective anticipation, waiting for that message to flash on Ramkishan's mobile each time she wins gold: Papa, ho gaya!
Updated Date: Aug 22, 2018 09:57 AM