Every good story needs an interesting beginning. This was Mamatha Poojary’s: “When I was in school, I used to play lots of sports—kho-kho, volleyball, athletics. I started playing kabaddi in class XII. They were making a college team and were a player short, so I was called in. No one was ready to play kabaddi, because they did not want to wear shorts. It is a small village; people didn’t approve of it. The coach told me to just stand on the court because they needed seven players. He knew I was interested in sports. I was tall, had speed, athleticism, and used to get points regularly. I was really good at it.”
The girl from the small village of Hermunde in Karnataka’s Udupi district turned out to be so good that by 2006, three years into her tryst with the game, she represented India. In 2010, she took part in the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, and in 2012, she captained the national kabaddi team.
A veteran and stateswoman of the sport, hers was one of the first names to be put on paper when the popular Star Sports Pro Kabaddi decided to start a parallel women’s league—the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge that is currently on.
Though she admits to being shy of wearing shorts early on—“we used to train in salwars, and wear shorts only during matches or in out-of-state competitions”—Poojary now sits confidently in complete kabaddi gear. The 30-year-old looks bright in the pink and yellow jersey of her team, Fire Birds, her hair tied in a stylish braid.
Her journey could be a template for the hurdles young female athletes, especially in a contact sport, face in India. To begin with, her farmer parents, who owned a tiny plot in their village, weren’t too keen on her taking up the sport. “At that time, we used to play on a mud court, so I would return home all dirty and with scrapes. I am the elder of two sisters; my parents were reluctant to let me play and thought it could cause a problem for marriage. My coaches had to come home and convince my parents to let me play,” says Poojary.
It also got the villagers talking. After college and kabaddi practice, Poojary would return by bus, with the nearest stop a good 3km from their house. “I had to walk through the jungle to get home, so people in the village would ask my parents why they let me return home alone so late.”
But she found an ally in her elder brother, Vishwanath. To make sure she got home safely, he would meet her at the bus stop every evening and walk her home. “He even gave up his studies after class X and started working in a garage to support the family.”
In 2006, however, the entire village went to the bus stop to receive Poojary—that was when she returned from Sri Lanka after representing India at the South Asian Games. “They were proud of me,” she recalls. “After that they were the ones who used to encourage me and tell my parents that they should let me play.”
In the same year (2006), she also graduated with a bachelor’s degree and got a job through the sports quota with South Central Railway in Secunderabad. “It was a life-changing year,” she says.
A strong raider who uses every bit of the reach her 5ft, 10 inches frame provides, Poojary rose through the ranks in a set-up dominated by women from Haryana and Maharashtra. She was the captain of the victorious Indian team when the first women’s Kabaddi World Cup was held in Patna, Bihar, in 2012. Along the way, she picked up the nickname “kabaddi queen”.
“The job helped financially; kabaddi had given me a living,” she says, hoping to put to rest myths that the sport is not a viable career option here. “We used to live in a run-down house. But after winning gold at the 2010 Asian Games, I built a proper house for my family. I gave them everything they wished for,” says the soft-spoken player, with a hint of pride.
Her career could have hit another roadblock when she got married in 2013. “My parents had told me to give up the game, and I was prepared for it mentally,” she says. “But my husband (Abhishek Kotian) supported me. He said, ‘You have come this far because of your hard work. No one has the right to ask you to stop playing’.”
So she played—she was conferred the Arjuna Award in 2014.
Poojary has 11 international medals, but being part of the Pro Kabaddi extravaganza, which has catapulted not only the sport but also her male colleagues to a new realm of fame and recognition, feels like a different kind of vindication.
“Day by day, we were thinking, ‘The match is in two days, the match is tomorrow’; in the morning, we were thinking, ‘The match is in the evening.’ As we were taking one step at a time, our heartbeat was quickening,” she said in an interview to this reporter after the first Women’s Kabaddi League game between the Fire Birds and Ice Divas on 28 June in Mumbai. Poojary’s team won by 13 points.
“After working hard for 10-12 years, reaching this stage feels like a sense of achievement; all those years of hard work are finally paying off,” she said. “The girls are so confident, we just wanted an opportunity, and today we got that. For 2 minutes, we were thinking that we have to perform in front of so many cameras and show our skills. But once we were on the court, it didn’t matter.”
The court may have been bigger, brighter and louder than Poojary was used to. But it was still the space where she has written and rewritten her story.