It’s rare that a child gets excited about receiving hand-me-downs—certainly not if she is the youngest and all her clothes are those her siblings have grown too old for. Until a few days ago, that’s how Mansi and Khushi Ahlawat felt about the clothes they got from the senior female wrestlers, who practised with them at Sir Chhotu Ram Stadium in Haryana’s Rohtak district.
There was a certain awkwardness about the way the two teenaged sisters talked about receiving these clothes when Mint profiled them in December as part of the series Aspiring India. The discomfiture was not a result of shame; rather, it was a manifestation of their aspirations, of their desire to be better off one day and wear their own branded clothes and shoes—Nike for Mansi and Reebok for Khushi.
The black slacks Mansi wears today belongs to Suman didi (Suman Kundu, who won bronze medal in the 63kg women’s freestyle wrestling at the 2010 Commonwealth Games). The crew neck, short-sleeved T-shirt and wrestling gear she wears is what Sakshi didi (Sakshi Malik, who won a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics) gave her.
Khushi is lean and shorter—shorter than her older sister, shorter than Sakshi didi. Most borrowed T-shirts that she wears, do not fit her well, but at least they serve the purpose.
Things are different now. The clothes are not clothes anymore. They are part of a legacy that Malik, 23, who became an overnight sensation after becoming the first Indian to win a medal at the just-concluded Rio Olympic Games, has handed to them.
“It seems so doable now. We wear her clothes, we will also do what she has done. It will just take a little more time and a lot of hard work,” says Mansi, 15, in a phone interview.
It has been less than a week since Malik won the first Olympic medal by an Indian woman wrestler. When the two young aspiring wrestlers from Rohtak heard the news about Malik’s feat, Mansi and Khushi literally jumped and ran to their father’s grocery shop near their house to tell him the big news—just in case he hadn’t heard about it.
But obviously he had, and so had every parent in Rohtak whose children aspire to be Olympic wrestlers one day.
Malik’s success just reinforced their belief that they had been right to let their daughters to pursue the sport they wanted to.
The news triggered an outburst of joy and pride in Rohtak and Haryana. Malik’s bronze-medal finish followed a 12-year struggle in Rohtak, a district of 143 villages, with a gender ratio of 867 women for every 1,000 men; it is worse than even Haryana’s already abysmal sex ratio of 879/1,000. Of the 15 districts in the country with the worst sex ratio, Haryana accounts for nine. Rohtak has one of the highest rates of reported crime against women, of 75 per one lakh population in 2014, compared with a national average of 52.2.
Malik and the 78 aspiring wrestlers training in Chhotu Ram Stadium, counter the narrative of oppressed women in Haryana. In this stadium, the signs of camaraderie are everywhere—in the clothes and the dreams they share. Everyone is ready to help the other as long as they are not fighting each other on the mat. Mansi, who has won several state wrestling championships, has a shoulder sprain which she got while practising two months ago. Injury or not, practice has to go on for the sisters.
“It just gets less intense when we hurt ourselves. We don’t stop,” says Mansi.
Now they have several reasons to continue the struggle. The target for Pawan Ahlawat, the father of the two teenagers, are the 2020 Olympics, which will be hosted by Tokyo. “I will do whatever it takes to feed them well. I will try giving them all the support they want. No one here has ever done what Sakshi did. If she could, coaches say, my daughters will as well. It is just a matter of time now,” says Ahlawat.
Haryana, where the practice of female foeticide has been well documented, might have a bad track record when it comes to gender ratio, but for the women from the state, straying from societal norms through sports is nothing new.
The state has also produced the champion discus thrower Krishna Poonia and the famous Phogat sisters in wrestling, besides Malik.
The first national women’s wrestling championship was held in India in 1999. It was at the 2004 Games in Athens when women competed in wrestling for the first time since the modern Olympics began in 1896. In 2012, Geeta Phogat became the first Indian woman wrestler to qualify for the Olympics.
In 2002, when women’s wrestling was introduced in Rohtak, former wrestlers and coaches questioned Ishwar Singh Dahiya, the then Haryana sports department coach at the Chhotu Ram Stadium, about the wisdom of letting “goats stay among lions”, according to a 2014 Mint article.
No such questions will be raised now, for sure.
“Our girls are doing as much if not more than what our boys are doing,” says Ahlawat.
The evening after Malik’s Rio triumph, Mansi and all her wrestling friends went to her house— there were mediapersons all around, members of Parliament and state legislators gathered in her house along with local residents.
“I kept looking at everyone... everyone was so proud of Sakshi didi. One day, when I come with my medal from the Olympics, I will also get this kind of a welcome. People will wait for me as eagerly as we are all waiting for the 23rd of this month, when she will arrive,” says Mansi.