Girl with dream to wrestle

Sudesh Malik had done a little jig in front of the TV set. Her husband was more matter of fact.

By Arnab Ganguly in Rohtak
  • Published 19.08.16
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Sakshi Malik’s mother Sudesh and father Sukhbir show her medals at their Rohtak residence. Picture by Prem Singh

Rohtak, Aug. 18: Sudesh Malik had done a little jig in front of the TV set. Her husband was more matter of fact.

He had not forgotten those years when fellow villagers would stop him on the streets, a sneer on their lips.

" Ab beti bhi kushti ladegi kai (will girls also wrestle now), I was asked 12 years back. Today, the same people are congratulating me," Sukhbir Malik told The Telegraph, switching from one camera to another at their Sector-4 residence in Rohtak, around 80km from Delhi.

Every available space in the house has been turned into a makeshift television studio since his daughter Sakshi Malik ended India's long wait for a medal in Rio.

A wait has ended for Sudesh, too, nearly two-and-a-half months early. "This is an untimely Diwali for us," said Sakshi's mother, who couldn't help shaking a leg after her daughter's triumph.

But the journey for the wrestler from Haryana has not been easy. In the tiny hamlet of Mokhra, some 25km from Rohtak town where the Maliks trace their roots to, women still move around with their faces covered in a veil or at least their head.

Sakshi had spent the first seven years of her life in this village and may have travelled down that beaten path had it not been for her parents.

"Yes, there were people who objected to a girl learning to wrestle," said Sudesh. "But she wanted to be a wrestler and we did not want to come in the way of her dreams."

Sudesh also had a word of praise for Dipa Karmakar, the gymnast from Tripura who missed a medal by a whisker.

The house at Mokhra where Sakshi got the first glimpse of wrestling. Picture by Arnab Ganguly

"Dipa performed so well. First time in an event like gymnastics. It was a stroke of bad luck that she missed out," she said.

The Maliks have not slept since Sakshi won the bronze in the women's 58kg freestyle, while the main door of the house, named after Sakshi's grandmother Chandravali, has remained open. And the phones have not stopped ringing.

"I spoke to her this morning. She said the gold will be hers in the 2020 Olympics," Sudesh said.

While President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi both congratulated Sakshi on Twitter, some didn't miss out on the chance to point a finger at the young wrestler's native state, often in the news for the wrong reasons.

"Haryana is famous for killing its baby girls (gender ratio 873:1000). #SakshiMalik beats those odds & more to teach India, #BetiBachao !" tweeted singer Sona Mahapatra.

Haryana's sex ratio has marginally improved since the last census and crossed the 900-mark in January this year, the first time in over a decade.

Honour killings, ordered by khaps, village kangaroo courts, are also rampant.

Years ago, Sakshi, then not even into her teens, had held her mother's hand as she walked into the training centre at Chhotu Ram stadium and was picked by the wrestling coach, Ishwar Singh Dahiya.

"Boys who came to the centre had some other motives like getting a job in the forces through the sports quota. Some wanted to wrestle to get a good physique but Sakshi came to be a wrestler. That is why she stood at the podium last night," Dahiya said today.

Dahiya said he had a tough time convincing wrestlers and other coaches to open up akhadas for girls.

Sakshi was only the fourth girl in Rohtak to enrol for coaching in the sport. The number is around 30 now.

Medals Sakshi has won over the years. Picture by Arnab Ganguly

Sudesh and Sukhbir, a conductor in the Delhi Transport Corporation, had only a cursory interest in sports. So where did Sakshi's sporting genes come from?

Possibly her grandfather, Chaudhary Badru Ram, a known pehelwan in Mokhra, where the villagers would often come down to meet him. "She saw how our father was respected by everyone else in the village and she took to it," said Dev Pal, Sakshi's uncle, who stays in the village home.

Haryana's BJP chief minister M.L. Khattar called up Sakshi's family to congratulate them. So did sports minister Anil Vij, now in Rio to inspire the Indian contingent.

The Haryana government has announced a cash award of Rs 2.5 crore for Sakshi and a government job. The wrestler is a railway employee.

Her mother has other plans. "She has completed her bachelor's and master's in physical education. I want her to do her PhD. For a year, I allowed her to focus on wrestling as the Olympics were due. She will continue to wrestle but studies also have to continue," Sudesh said.

Uncle Dev Pal is busy planning a grand reception in Mokhra.

"I will take my daughter to Mokhra. She is my message to the people," said Sukhbir, before turning to speak to a TV channel.