Amid miles of sugarcane shoots, trucks emerging from brick kilns and the odd bullock cart, you can easily miss the road to Johri, an inconspicuous village that connects the western Uttar Pradesh towns of Baghpat and Baraut.
But in the last few years, politicians, sports scouts and journalists have been thronging the village to visit a shooting range made famous by a pair of grandma sharpshooters. "Tomar dadiyon ka gaon? Just drive four kilometres and take right," is the advice from one in a group of people waiting for a UP Roadways bus.
"Prakashi dadi is at the gher (barn)," says her grandson Gaurav Tomar, as he ushers us into a modest living room where a black-and- white picture of Sonia Gandhi with two pistol-wielding women clad in ghagras and shirts takes pride of place next to a handwritten note from actor Aamir Khan and hundreds of medals, mementoes and assorted memorabilia.
We follow Tomar into the barn where four buffalos chewing on cud make nervous noises as they see journalists walk towards an elderly woman plastering cow-dung cakes onto a wall. She may have hit bullseye and helped change attitudes in Uttar Pradesh’s feudal villages with her shooting exploits, but back home
Prakashi Tomar, 74, is just another country woman tending to buffaloes. "When the men are away working in the fields, women of the house have to look after the animals. I am not any different, beta," says Prakashi Tomar.
Don’t let her smile and her simple manner mislead you. Prakashi and her sister-in-law Chandro Tomar, 79, have helped usher in a sporting revolution. They’ve inspired three generations of women shooters to make their mark in Bollywood’s Desi Kattey territory, the Meerut-Barot belt, infamous for youngsters whipping out country-made pistols at the slightest provocation.
Cult of the Dadis
In the courtyard of an old house made of burnt-clay bricks, a group of trainees is busy aiming at 10 cardboard targets operated by hand-drawn pulleys. The house has arched doorways and a tin shed where monkeys often create a racket and have to be driven away by firing pellets in the air.
When Prakashi makes her way to the Johri Rifle Club’s thatched-roof 10-metre shooting range located next to a mosque, a gaggle of girls gawk and giggle, giving ‘Prakashi dadi’ a reception generally reserved for actors and cricketers.
As is expected of a rural champion, Tomar’s fame isn’t built on Olympic medals or TV commercials. Her legend finds root in the anecdotes that resonate across the sugarcane belt.
"She once defeated a deputy superintendent of police and he refused to come for the presentation ceremony saying he’d been slighted by an old woman," says Neetu Sheoran, 34, the Sports Authority of India coach at the range, as she helps a girl take aim at the target.
Success in their cross-hairs: Coach Neetu Sheoran with her girl trainees
The range was launched in 1998 by Dr Rajpal Singh, president of the Johri Rifle Club. He says the emphasis gradually shifted to teaching girls once enrolment rose after the Tomar grandmothers began practising there. "We launched the range to harness the energy of Baghpat’s youth. My son [Commonwealth Games medallist] Vivek Singh and I donated our own pistols to the trainees so they could stay away from crime and not get involved in land disputes that often end in gunfire."
Prakashi’s foray into shooting at the age of 60 wasn’t planned, she says. One summer afternoon in 1999, she was chaperoning her granddaughter Shefali to the shooting range.
Out of sheer boredom, Prakashi borrowed her granddaughter’s pistol and let fly. "Maine ghoda dabaya, aur charra lag gaya (I pulled the trigger and the pellet hit the target)," recalls Prakashi. "Bas, Rajpal told me that I’d do well in shooting and I should form a team," she says with a smile.
In close range
When she began, says Prakashi, none of the other women in the village wanted to join her in her new pursuit, except her sister-in-law Chandro, five years her senior. Among Singh’s famous students are former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, who reportedly took shooting lessons at Singh’s south Delhi farmhouse.
In 1999, the sexagenarian sisters-in-law began practising with pistols borrowed from village kids. "Shooting came as just the catalyst that women in Johri needed to break free from the diktats of patriarchal village elders," says Prakashi’s daughter Seema Tomar, 31, the first woman shotgun shooter from India to clinch a medal at the International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup at Dorset, UK, in 2010.
The 10-metre range at Johri, Baghpat that has produced more than 40 international shooters
Seema, who joined the Indian Army in 2004, has won 32 gold medals at the national level and five international gold medals, since she first wore India colours in 2005. "Till my mother began shooting in her 60s, I wasn’t encouraged to learn shooting. But I persuaded my parents to allow me to compete," says the champion shooter.
"Even after I got married in 2011, although I was competing at the international stage, my in-laws took time adjusting to my routine. I wish I had received more support from them. But then, most families share the same thought: women should stay home and do the housework. They want them to earn but still don’t want them to step out of the house. Shooting is helping change these mindsets."
Initially the response of the men in Johri, inhabited by about 5500 people, wasn’t encouraging, says Prakashi Tomar. "They used to make fun of me and joke that I should go to Kargil and send my army-man son home. But after Rahul gifted us two Pardini pistols worth one lakh rupees each, they began to take us seriously."
For the first few months, Prakashi didn’t let her family catch a whiff of her secret passion. Her neighbours didn’t mind sending their daughters to the shooting range as long as a village elder was keeping an eye on them.
"Little did they know that I had started pistol training too. Even my family didn’t have any clue. When everybody had gone off to sleep, I used to hold a jug of water in a closed room to enhance my grip and strengthen my wrists," says Prakashi with a chuckle.
Soon, the devrani-jethani team was winning tournaments such as the National Shooting Championship and in the process helping soften deep-set patriarchal attitudes. In 2001, Prakashi went on to win the national championships in the veteran category. And the next year Chandro stood second in the North India Shooting Competition.
"When I saw the two dadis and their family win medals, I decided to allow my daughter to train with them too," says Narveer Sheoran, 72, an ex-serviceman. "I hope Diksha goes on to compete at the Olympics. That’s why I sent her to Punjab for training," adds Sheoran about his daughter.
How have the menfolk reacted to women calling the shots in Johri? Coach Neetu Sheoran says the gender dynamic in the village is evolving. A few years ago, not many of the 25 girls training at the Johri Rifle Club range today would have been allowed to step out of home.
Staring into the barrel
"Girls who train at the range have got jobs with the Army, the Air Force and the Border Security Force. This has reassured the men. They understand finding employment for their children is easier because of shooting. So they no longer insist that they should just stay at home." Shooting is an expensive sport. For shotguns, each bullet costs Rs 45 to Rs 50. During a day’s practice trainees end up firing 150 to 200 bullets. Although bullets used for air pistols are not very expensive, each pistol costs between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 1.35 lakh. Except important competitions, trainees end up using locally-made dummy pistols costing Rs 3,000 apiece.
Many of the girls who train at shooting academies at Johri and other villages in Baghpat such as Ranchad, Dadri, Binauli, Chaprauli and Katha, are daughters of brick kiln workers, says Rajpal Singh.
"Children who stare down the barrel of poverty know that supporting a sport like shooting is an expensive proposition for their parents. So, they make the best of the limited resources they have," he says. "At our range, we don’t charge fees from girls and students from families which are not economically sound."
Double impact: Chandro Tomar (right) and her sister-in-law Prakashi are the poster girls for women shooters in Uttar Pradesh
Gulafsha Khan, 18, for instance, isn’t just the first person in her family to get sports training, she is also the first to complete school. Khan’s unlettered father Islamuddin Khan, in his late 60s, says the family wanted to ensure that Gulafsha got an education unlike her parents and brother Ekramuddin, 22, who drives a bus and earns just Rs 5,000 a month. "Gulafsha hamare budhape ki lathi hai. She was born late in our lives, but she’ll make our family proud by getting a job in the city," says her father.
The success story of the Tomar sisters-in-law is inspiring young girls to take up pistol shooting in other rural districts of Uttar Pradesh, too. Vartika Singh, 19, from the village Raichandpur Bhatti in Pratapgarh district, learnt shooting at Johri and went on to represent India in international meets at Germany and Singapore in 2013.
The daughter of a farmer father and teacher mother, Vartika says convincing her parents to send her to study at Delhi University’s IP College was easy once she started doing well in sport. "All that parents want are results. Although it was considered a big deal for girls in my district to even complete class 12, they were proud of me once I became president of the IP College students union. Now, I’ve got a scholarship from Air India and get air tickets free!"
She says the sight of grandmothers in their 70s shooting with perfection and the cult status that they have achieved is motivating girls like her. "Like them, we too come from rural families. They are our biggest role models."
Faces of the future
A couple of kilometres away from the Pathanon Ki Masjid complex – which houses the old shooting range which has helped Baghpat produce as many as 41 international shooters – a new 10-metre range has come up, thanks to donations from a local politician. It has better training facilities and 30 shooting pulley targets.
Practising here, 11-year-old Khushi Tomar, the youngest of the girl trainees, is a picture of concentration. At an age when most urban kids are busy playing Angry Birds on smartphones, this girl with a pixie-like hairdo and steely, unwavering eyes doesn’t flinch even as the report of gunfire booms across the hall.
“Looking at the dadis, my father and his elder brother encouraged me to take up shooting. If the dadis can feature in television shows and be honoured by the government at their age, what stops us children from doing it? After all, our eye sight and reflexes are much sharper than them,” she says with the poise of a grandmother.
The next generation of women sharpshooters from Baghpat has the future in its cross-hairs. And nothing short of bullseye will do!
A few gur men
(From the author's diary)
When my colleague Asad Ali came up with the idea of featuring three generations of women shooters in a UP village for the Brunch Women’s Day Special, we didn’t realise how much fun it would turn out to be.
For the assignment, our photojournalist colleague Sanjeev Verma, Asad and I set out towards Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh, about 70 kilometres from Delhi at the crack of dawn.
Apart from the pizzazz that the feisty sharpshooter grandmothers Prakashi Tomar and Chandro Tomar lent to the story, visiting the shooting range amid sugarcane fields and brick kilns, was a new experience for the trio of city scribes.
So, once the interviews and photo shoots were done, Sanjeev and Asad wanted to get a taste of Village India by plucking out sugarcane shoots and visiting a factory next to a field that makes unadulterated chemical-free jaggery (gur).
Once we were there, we turned into excited children and lived up our own Charlie and the Gur Factory experience.
Photos by Sanjeev Verma
@AsadAli1989 & @Aasheesh74 on Twitter
From HT Brunch, March 8
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