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Fourteen-year-old Mansi Ahlawat flips her opponent soon after coach Mandeep (he goes with only one name) gives a signal to start. There are intermittent grunts but the two competitors don’t talk, till the opponent grabs Mansi’s neck in her arm, brings her down on the yellow wrestling mat, producing a large popping sound followed by a groan by Mansi. She writhes, the coach keeps shouting Mansi up, Mansi up, Mansi up; she struggles to push back, and eventually shoves her way out, taking the opponent down.

On the other side of the room, 13-year-old Khushi Ahlawat, as lean as a matchstick, is fighting her opponent—taller and sturdier. Unlike Mansi’s deadpan face, Khushi’s eyes are fierce, her teeth tightly clenched. She knocks down the opponent but the expressions on her face don’t change on the “small victory". It is business as usual for the two sisters and 78 other aspiring wrestlers at the training centre in Sir Chotu Ram Stadium of Haryana’s Rohtak district.

With 143 villages, Rohtak has a sex ratio of 867 females for every 1,000 males, below even the state’s already abysmal record of 879. Of the 15 districts in the country with the worst sex ratio, Haryana accounts for nine. The district has one of the highest rates of reported crime against women, at a rate of 75 per 100,000 women, compared with the national average of 52.2. On the bright side, the literacy rate in the region is 84.1%, one of the highest in the state. However, instead of following the conventional study-and-get-a-job route, the girls in this government training centre say wrestling empowers them, and is a relatively easy way for them to realize their dreams.

“I can do anything a man can do. Except physical appearance, there is no difference between a man and a woman. Can’t think of anything men do that I can’t," says Mansi, hooking her right hand deep in her pocket, and running her other hand through her hair.

Had it not been for the names, it would be hard to differentiate the sisters from the men and boys practicing in the room. Khushi’s hair is clipped short just like a teenage boy’s. Mansi has a slightly bushier head but can also be mistaken as a boy. In a state where the dominant media discourse is on how women are being suppressed under the ghoonghat (veil) and where wrestling was till recently considered a male sport, the families of these girls have given them the liberty to decide what they want to do or wear. The two sisters, dressed in loose track pants and T-shirts, say that the last time they wore a salwar kameez was when they were kids. Now, they only wear what they call “ladkon waale kapde" (boy’s clothes).

Interestingly, this centre, located in a state marred by caste discrimination, is full of surprises. Many families like Mansi’s and Khushi’s are Jats—a dominant caste in Haryana—and the coach a Scheduled Caste.

For Haryana women, straying from society’s norms to join sports is a long fought and won battle. Despite being a state with the legacy of sex selective abortions and honour killings, most Indian national women hockey team members, including the captain, come from Haryana. The state also produced the champion disc thrower Krishna Poonia and wrestling stars—the famous Phogat sisters. Khushi says the two sisters have grown up watching Geeta didi, Vinesh didi and Babita didi (the Phogat sisters) play on TV. “Very soon, it will be us," says Khushi.

In this rectangular room in the stadium, with nothing but two blown-up pictures of wrestlers Sushil Kumar and Sumun Kundu, stuck on the walls, the Ahlawat sisters, like everyone else, share the dream of making it big one day.

Every morning, the two wake up sharp at 4.15 and leave for the centre at 5. A wrestling match is exhausting for most, but for the two sisters, additional willpower is needed to not only fight on the stage, but also to reach the stadium—biking their way up and down, almost 10km each side.

“It is so early that first, it will be difficult to find an auto, and second, even if we find an auto, it charges a lot," says Mansi. The girls practise till 7.30am, bike back home, have breakfast and leave for school. As a rule now, they miss the first class every day. “We stretch classes or give these girls some extra classes. They are playing for the country, for Haryana, for our people…we need to give them this support," says Ashok Siwach, principal of Mansi and Khushi’s SD Senior Secondary School.

Mansi has won three state-level wrestling matches and Khushi stood at third position in 2012. As the school ends at 1.40pm, the girls go back home, rest for an hour and reach the centre at 3.30pm. Their work day ends by 6.30pm. Like many other sportspersons in Haryana, from as young as six years of age to around 30-year-olds, the day schedules are mostly the same— starting as early as 4.30am to 8pm.

“In the 2010 Commonwealth Games, girls who won, received many medals and the Haryana government even gave them cars…in fact even jobs. You can study, work hard but that is a long wait to success. Sports in Haryana has become a stepping stone for success, particularly for women," says Sumun Kundu, who won bronze medal in the 63kg women’s freestyle wrestling at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

There are thousands of akharas in India, and almost all of them are meant only for men, including New Delhi’s famous Chhatrasal Akhara in Model Town, which produced world champion and Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar, Olympic medallist Yogeshwar Dutt, and world championship medallists Amit Kumar and Bajrang.

It started as a male-only game, but women’s wrestling was announced as a part of the Olympics in 1997. It was included in the Games in 2004, and the first national women’s wrestling championship was held in India in 1999.

In 2002, when women’s wrestling was introduced in Rohtak, former wrestlers and coaches questioned the then Haryana sports department coach at the Chotu Ram Stadium Ishwar Singh Dahiya on letting “goats stay among lions". Currently, 337 women wrestlers are registered with the Wrestling Federation of India; compared with around 3,000 men, a 2014 Mint article states.

For the initial 2-3 years, Pawan Ahlawat, their father, asked Mansi and Khushi to pretend to be boys, and if asked, tell everyone that they were brothers. “We used to read all those news items about violence against women. I wanted my girls to be so strong that no one could harm them," says Pawan. Pawan runs a kirana shop which he started two years ago. Before that, he was a farmer. “Preparing a wrestler isn’t easy, particularly if you are poor. You need a certain kind of diet. Just 1kg of almonds costs 400," says Pawan, adding that his children try as much as they can to stop him from spending more.

Sumun Kundu, who practises in the same stadium, says when she first met the two sisters, they were wearing tattered T-shirts and their shoes were worn out. Now, Sumun along with Sakshi Malik have been giving some clothes and shoes to the two sisters.

Generally, the Ahlawat sisters never miss the training, except when there is no one to sit in the father’s shop or at the time of harvesting, when more hands at work make things easier for their father. “So what if there are days when we have to contribute at home as well? That’s our life right now. But we will do whatever it takes it to qualify for Olympics…that will change our lives," says Khushi.

Many others share their dream, but Mansi says, “We will work harder and harder—more than anyone else does. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else."

Khushi and Mansi joined the centre in September 2013. Mansi wanted to do boxing. But a relative suggested they do gymnastics or yoga for two years to prepare the body for such a physically tough game. Every single day, without fail, their grandmother came along to the Sir Chotu Ram Stadium. While attending the gymnastics classes, Mansi used to watch girls wrestle in an adjacent hall. “I kept telling them I will come soon," says Mansi.

Many in their locality started going to the centre for 10-15 days but couldn’t sustain. “It isn’t easy but you look at all those girls on TV. They come from almost the same families…if they could, so would my daughters," says Birmati Devi, their mother. Devi got married when she was 16, and is sure she doesn’t want her daughters to do the same.

The persistence of the two sisters symbolizes the dreams and aspirations they harbour. “I have trained many girls and boys. Looking at the sisters…Mansi particularly, I know they’ll make it big," says coach Mandeep who has now been posted to Panipat.

Leaning on the lone jamun tree in their house, Mansi says in a breezy talk: I want to travel the world. I have never stepped out of Haryana. O wait, no, I went to the Delhi airport. That counts?

While it depends on the aspirants on how big they make in life, Pawan Ahlawat says a good coach is the most essential part of grooming a wrestler. There are some families in the area who have built their own akharas and training centres for their children, but for Pawan, a coach and these government-sponsored academies are the only way his children do anything. “If coach Mandeep really goes to Panipat, I will send my children there. I will do everything I can. I keep asking my children to not look at me, but look at the future they will have," says Pawan, puffing his hookah.

Wiping the sweat off their foreheads, the Ahlawat sisters quickly remove their second-hand wrestling shoes, to change into their running shoes. “If I become an international wrestler, we will also have a car, a big house…we wouldn’t have buffaloes. We wouldn’t even have to milk cows...and I will get to wear branded clothes that are my own," says Mansi.

This is the third in a five-part series that documents the changing aspirations of young Indians, the risks they are taking and the many dreams they are chasing. To read the first two parts, go to www.livemint.com/aspiringindia

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