The first time Divya Tomar stepped into the wrestling hall, she hid behind the other girls for as long as possible. She was 13, and for the first time, she was doubting her decision to become a wrestler. The enthusiasm she had felt when she first told her parents that she wanted to try wrestling had faded bit by bit. She had not expected the week leading up to this day to be so stormy.
Her parents, both farmers in the village of Mau Khas, roughly 16km from Meerut, had agreed readily. But then others in the family began objecting. Divya could only hide in a corner of the house, listening to the shouting match—her parents on one side, grandparents, uncles and aunts on the other. “Don’t listen to them, they will change their view soon enough,” her parents told her.
But this day, her first day at wrestling school, had begun horribly. When she walked out of her house in her T-shirt and shorts, her neighbours had stared at her. Men from the village passed the lewdest of comments: “Do you know what your old coach will do to you? Where he will touch you?” they had said. “Here goes one more girl to Meerut, to be turned into a prostitute.” On her way to the Chaudhary Charan Singh University in Meerut, where the wrestling school is located, she had cried bitterly.
And now she was hiding. She did not want the old coach to look at her. But he did. He called out her name, introduced her to the rest of the wrestlers—both boys and girls—and paired her with a more experienced girl. “Let’s see how you move on the mat!” the coach said.
By the end of the training session, Divya had forgotten the jibes, the fights, and the lewd remarks.
“I liked it so much!” Divya, now 18, says. “All those thoughts went straight out of my mind. I fell in love with wrestling.”
In five years, Divya went from strength to strength, winning national tournaments at the junior level. On 26 August, she will be part of the team flying to France to represent India at the 2016 Junior World Championships in Mâcon, starting 30 August.
“Divya!” coach Jabbar Singh calls out, shuffling towards the mat, a little bent at the waist from stiff joints. He points to the centre of the mat. “I want to show everyone this move. Pay attention. Divya, let’s show them the gitta.”
Divya, her short hair spiked with sweat, her lips drawn in a thin line, takes her stance. Singh shoots down for her legs, knocks Divya down by the ankles, grabs her immediately by the waist and twists her around so she is lying flat on her back (in freestyle wrestling, as in local kushti, if both the shoulders of your opponent’s touch the ground simultaneously, it results in points, or even a win).
When Singh first taught a girl how to do the gitta, he was racked by guilt, shame and all kinds of confusing thoughts. It was 1999. Singh had been coaching at the university for 16 years with distinction—only boys of course. Two years earlier, women’s wrestling had been included in the Olympic programme. In seven years, at the 2004 Games in Athens, women would compete in wrestling for the first time since the modern Olympics began in 1896.
In India, women have never had a place in wrestling, a deeply rooted traditional sport. Wrestling is regarded not only as quintessentially manly, but the very definition of manhood. Women were—and largely continue to be—barred from entering an akhada, or wrestling school, or watching dangals, local wrestling tournaments.
But India’s Olympic body as well as the government had reacted to the news of the sport’s inclusion by ordering government-run sports centres to bring women into the sport.
“When the news came to us, we thought, impossible, a girl can’t be allowed to wrestle!” says Singh. “A lot of us coaches and senior wrestlers, we would discuss how bad the situation can get: If they force this down on us, how exactly will we teach a girl? Wrestling involves body contact!”
Soon after, Singh was singled out by the sports authorities of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and told to promote women’s wrestling. Reluctantly, he sent out word to the villages—send your girls for wrestling if you want. The first girl who came, in 1999, was Alka Tomar, then a slightly built 16-year-old, accompanied by her father, who was once a wrestler and was thrilled by the idea that his daughter had a chance to carry on the family tradition.
“At first, I told her to just sit and watch, hoping that would be the end of that,” Singh says. “But then, when she came every day, did all the exercises, and then sat on the side of the mat watching all the boys wrestle, I started feeling bad for her. I could see that she could be a very good wrestler.”
Warily, Singh called Alka to the mat one day. He showed her the gitta.
“I could not sleep that night,” he says. “I felt I had done a great sin. To touch a girl. To teach her to wrestle. But something made me continue to do it. And a few months later, looking at Alka turning into a wrestler, I realized what I was doing was good, there was no sin in it at all.”
Alka became the most decorated woman wrestler in India, the first to win a medal at the World Championships and again at the Asian Games, both in 2006. In 2010, in her own backyard, Alka won a gold at the XIX Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
“Alka didi started it all,” says Divya. “I first saw wrestling when I saw her win the medal at the Commonwealth Games. That’s when I, and many of the girls here, we really wanted to become wrestlers. That’s what made our parents think that girls should be in wrestling!”
It took a whole year after Alka joined Singh’s school for the next girl to come in. What happened outside the university was out of Singh’s control, but if he saw or heard reports of any boys harassing his girl students, he would force those boys to come to the wrestling school and try their strength against one of the girls on the mat.
“Those boys lost, obviously,” Singh says. “They could not stand on their feet for a minute before they were slammed on the mat. And once that happened, all their jeering stopped.”
When Alka started winning medals, the tide turned further. With the money and awards she won, she changed the fortunes of her family. They were poor, landless farmers; she bought them land, built a house for them, bought them a bike, and then a car.
People were dazzled by the success. Singh’s school filled with girls. After the 2010 Commonwealth Gold, there were more than 50 girls at the centre, and more had to be turned away.
At Alka’s village Sisauli, 5km from Divya’s village, the annual local wrestling tournament added women’s wrestling to the programme.
“I want to be like Alka didi,” says Divya. “To earn money, make my own life, and be a great wrestler.”
Divya is catching her breath after a strong half-hour tussle with her training partner. The bright yellow mat is crowded with girls practising moves.
“Are you watching the Olympics?” Divya asks. “I am so excited about Vinesh (Phogat), Babita (Kumari) and Sakshi (Malik)”—the three women wrestlers representing India at the ongoing Rio Olympics. “I think they will all win!”
“If even one of them wins a medal,” Singh says, “women’s wrestling in this country will change forever. No one will taunt them.”