When Olympian Harwant Kaur was five years old, she witnessed a curious sequence of events. Her grandfather Sardar Dalip Singh, an imposing man who had just returned after working for five years with the Indian Navy, was flattening out part of their 150-acre farm in a village called Sabhra bordering Pakistan, 65km from Amritsar. She saw him level the ground in the large clearing, helped by his three sons, and sow grass that they then carefully cut to form a flawless carpet. Then they used white chalk to make circular lanes. At the back of the house, adjacent to this track, Singh and his sons were simultaneously working on building a large shed with a tin roof, and filling it with strange rods and discs.
In a few months, when the construction was complete, Harwant saw her aunt, Singh’s daughter Gurmeet Kaur, training on the tracks, lifting weights, throwing large discs and balls, and even a huge stick that sailed surprisingly far through the air.
“Gurmeet still holds the national record for the javelin throw, which she set in 2000,” Harwant, now 30, says smiling. “Watching her train with my grandfather every morning while the rest of the family were out doing their daily chores on the farm was so thrilling! I wanted desperately to join her. So when my grandfather woke me up at 5 one morning and asked me to join him, it was the most exciting day of my life.” Harwant was six then.
Singh was turning his farm into a factory for athletes, culled from his own family, and building the necessary infrastructure himself.
We are family: Patwant and brother Kuldev warm up at NSNIS in Patiala; and Harwant (right) is aiming for a medal at the Commonwealth Games. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Sitting outside her hostel at the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports (NSNIS) in Patiala a month before the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Harwant, India’s top qualifier in discus throw for the Delhi event, recalls in detail how different and strange her world was compared with that of other girls in the village.
“My grandfather had seen the world when he was in the navy and he loved sports,” says Harwant. “I think he felt really trapped by the village and its social beliefs.”
Within the village, there was stiff opposition to Singh’s initiatives. Relatives and neighbours joined forces to criticize the former navy physical trainer, and ask him to stop.
“But he was totally focused on us,” Harwant says. “He knew that women have no real future in these villages. So he ignored all those people who taunted him and told him he was turning the women in the house into men.”
Singh, who played a variety of sports in school but had to stop after a back injury, could not train his sons because they were too old by the time he finished his stint with the navy. There was another reason for his focus on the women of his family. “Men get everything anyway, he used to tell us,” says Harwant. “They also inherit all the land. The women have nothing.”
In 1992, when Harwant was 12, she won her first gold medal at a national-level school competition in Delhi. By 1994, Harwant was training not just with her aunt Gurmeet, but also with her brother Kuldev, sister Patwant, and her cousin Rajwinder, who came from a distant village to stay and train under Singh. As the number of trainees grew, so did the criticism, which sometimes turned into threats.
“We even thought that our grandfather was wrong if so many people were against him,” Harwant says. “We told each other that maybe we should not practise. It was tiresome anyway, waking up at 5 every morning, practising for hours, and then going to school. Then practise immediately after returning from school, then homework, eat and sleep.”
Singh, of course, would have none of it, and by 1999, Harwant was winning medals at international junior competitions; a year later Gurmeet was making her way to the Sydney Olympics after breaking the national record in javelin, and Rajwinder was dominating 400m races at the junior national level.
In 2004, both Harwant and Rajwinder were part of the Indian athletics squad for the Athens Olympics. That’s three Olympians from one farm in a nondescript village in Punjab.
“Now I thank God I wasn’t allowed to give up,” says Harwant, “because most girls in my village got married early and have never been out of the village. I’ve seen the world, and no one can order me around.”
At 5.30pm, Harwant is joined on the practice track at NSNIS by her siblings, who are all part of the national athletics camp. The trio warms up, catching up on the day’s conversation, before heading off to separate parts of the field for individual training. Patwant works on her stretching. Kuldev does all-out sprints. Harwant is in the thrower’s circle, holding her starting position, and waiting for the right moment—before spinning swiftly on her toes, and channelling the force of her entire body into her throwing arm to hurl the discus with a heavy grunt.
Just a week earlier, at the Inter-State Athletics Meet in Patiala on 8 August, the three had walked up to the podium in the space of a few minutes. Harwant and Kuldev won gold in discus and 400m hurdles respectively, and Patwant won silver in shot-put. Harwant’s 60.66m throw was enough to put her on top of her field in India for the Commonwealth Games. Kuldev and Patwant both missed qualifying by one spot. Rajwinder will join Harwant at the Games, though, as part of the women’s 4x400m relay team that also won silver at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
Kuldev and Patwant have already turned their focus to the 2012 Olympics, trying to ensure that two more of Singh’s family become Olympians.
“This time we have promised ourselves that we will come back with medals,” Kuldev says. “People in our village still don’t understand the worth of what our grandfather did. An Olympic medal is the only way to change that.”
Kuldev tells us that Singh also turned to organic farming in the early 1990s, and their farm still continues that practice. “We had the best diet in the world. Everything was from the farm, everything was organic,” says Kuldev. “We still get loads of seasonal fruits from the farm to Patiala.”
Kuldev also remembers Singh’s improvised desi training methods.
“Any farm implement that could be used for training was used,” he says. “We would run with trolleys filled with wood to build strength and stamina. We would throw logs of different weights over a 20ft wall to build strength. Sometimes we had to do it 400 times a day.”
But behind the story of emancipation and athletic excellence, Patwant also remembers the hardships, and the long whip Singh used to keep his trainees in line.
“Most of my childhood, I was hurt, angry and scared,” Patwant says. “My grandfather was a hard man, and everyone, including his whole family, was scared of him. If he decided to do something, you could not oppose him.”
Singh’s recipe for realizing the Olympic dream called for an iron will, and sacrifices that his grandchildren felt were unfair and harsh. This included a complete ban on attending functions, holidays, weddings or festivals—so the training schedule could go on undisturbed.
“How do you think we felt as children?” asks Patwant. “I didn’t like sports at all because it was all too hard. But when he died three years ago, something snapped in me. I finally felt the drive to be a sportsman. To follow his dream.”
Kuldev and Patwant’s dream will have to wait. For the moment, they will focus their energies on cheering and supporting Harwant and Rajwinder at the Commonwealth Games.