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Poverty weight in podium quest

A humble mud hut in Roynagar village of Nadia district is now the proud address of five international medals. Sixteen-year-old Chandrika Tarafdar, the youngest daughter of the peasant family, has brought home two bronze medals from the IWF World Weightlifting Championship, Slovakia, in September and three silvers from the Youth Asian Weightlifting Championship, Myanmar, earlier in November.

Chandrika follows in the footsteps of her senior clubmate Rakhi Haldar who, as reported in Metro in June, won gold in the Oceania & Commonwealth Junior Championships. Both practise at the railways-run DL Roy Institute, popularly known as Harvey Club, in Ranaghat, 75km from Calcutta.

Chandrika’s success graph traces not just a village girl’s rise above poverty to the podium. It is also is a testament to a family’s long struggle to keep their heads above water. Chandrika is the youngest of Gyanoda Tarafdar’s seven off-springs — five girls and two boys. Their father died struck by lightning 15 years ago.

Chandrika was then one. The oldest, Jogamaya, had just passed Madhyamik. “Those were the darkest days of our lives,” says the widow with a weather-beaten face which seems to have forgotten how to smile. “All we had was a two-bigha plot. I had no money to employ farm hands. The two eldest daughters and I toiled on the field — sowing and harvesting paddy, carrying the stacks home, threshing, winnowing….”

Jogamaya is the one who started lifting weights, paving the way in the sport for all her sisters. As there were no schools or rail station nearby, she would walk for an hour to Punyanagar School three miles away. “I was into martial arts. A boy in school suggested that I try weight-lifting as it promised a better future.”

She joined Harvey Club under coach Shibshankar Mallik, and went on to win silver twice in the National Championship and a bronze in National Games. He is now her husband and coaches all her sisters, including Chandrika. “Jogamaya had great potential but with a struggling family to support she could not devote herself to sport,” Mallik laments. “Now all our hopes rest on Chandrika.”

Weight-lifting has earned jobs in the police for the three eldest Tarafdar daughters. “Their salary took care of their wedding expenses. I had no money to marry them off,” says Gyanoda.

The two sons now struggle to make ends meet for the 10-member family. One works for a goldsmith, another as a mason in Dubai. So the women still have to work on the field. With the mother out of action after a recent tumour operation, responsibilities weigh heavily on the shoulders of the fourth daughter Soma, a gold medallist in the recent east zone weight-lifting championship. At the crack of dawn, she has to take the crop of marigolds to the rail station to sell. “By 6am, flower sales get over,” says the dour girl as she sorts the blooms with Chandrika. She has deep cut marks on her feet, proof of spade blows fallen off-target.

Hens and chicks dot the courtyard. “We rear them for eggs. That’s the only protein I can give my girls,” says Gyanoda.

Except one, none of the girls made it beyond Madhyamik. “Sports is more expensive than studies. I cannot afford both,” the mother adds. Chandrika too plans to discontinue school and take her board exams next year as a private candidate.

She sleeps on the ice-cold mud floor in the three-roomed hut. One of its walls is plastered with posters, including two of actor Dev. “She is a fan,” laughs Jyotsna, another sister. “No, no. This is just to cover the crack in the wall,” a blushing Chandrika protests.

A flood in 2000 had dented the mud wall. “The government babus gave Rs 1,000 as compensation and asked me to rebuild the wall lest it collapses. The repairs would cost at least Rs 50,000. So I have left it standing in god’s name,” sighs Gyanoda.

The club is seven kilometres away, reachable by train. “We have 20-25 lifters training here. Five girls and a boy have qualified from our club for the upcoming national meet. No club in Bengal produces as many lifters as we do,” says Mallik, who earns a monthly stipend of Rs 1,200 for coaching.

Success in three international meets this year have pepped up the members but there has been no improvement in the facilities. Six months have passed since Rakhi had told Metro of the defective and risky lifting rods. The nursery of Bengal’s lifters remains as ill-equipped.

But Chandrika is bubbling with confidence. The square-shouldered soft-spoken girl, who will compete in the youth national meet in Delhi starting December 12, is working hard to excel in her category (under-44 kg) in order to earn her passport to more international meets next year. “I want to go to the Olympics,” she declares.

“We want our sister to go as far as she can. Her success would be the best balm for all our sacrifices,” says Jogamaya, tears welling up in her eyes.

Do you know of any talented sportsperson struggling to make ends meet? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com