In the Indian national football team, they call 26-year-old Mehrajuddin Wadoo ‘The Truck’ for his strength. When he plays, his parents in Srinagar are proud. So too are his friends, many part of the Kashmiri ‘intifada’. His team-mates — from Bengal, Kerala, Manipur, Sikkim — do not dwell on his religion, his origins or his inner conflict. As a Kashmiri Muslim with obvious sympathies for the anger on his home streets, Wadoo is certainly conflicted. But when he takes the field for the Commonwealth Games, his brothers in arms will spur him to rise above that conflict.
Geeta, 21, and Babita Kumari, 20, have lived through another, far older, Indian conflict. Burly yet elegant, the sisters faced jibes and open hostility when their father, Mahabir, trained them as wrestlers in a corner of India where oppression of women is as common as breathing. Their grandfather called their passion for wrestling shameful, the villagers of Ballali, their Haryana hometown, said no man would want them and their muscles. Today, Geeta is an Indian champion; Babita a junior world champion runner-up.
With his Harvard degree, hard body and steely nerves, 25-year-old Siddarth Suchde is India’s second highest-ranking player in squash, a game that puts immense strain on the joints and mind. Suchde grew up in Mumbai, lives and trains in England, has friends across the globe, and he plays for India. He could have been an economist but he would rather hone the art of smashing a ball against a wall.
With less than 72 hours to go for the inauguration of the 19th Commonwealth Games, it really is time to get to know India’s new athletes; to explain how a sporting meet first held in 1930 as the British Empire Games to celebrate a now-lost dominion is relevant to the rise of new India; to explain why you must cheer the men and women who will make it so.
We know thousands of irate, frustrated Commonwealth Games volunteers still don’t know what’s expected of them, that sundry members of the Games’ organising committee signed on their own relatives, that many dubious contracts need to be investigated, not forgotten, after October 14.
We also know most of the Games’ venues are world class — even if they lost a few tiles now and then. We also know that after much last-minute stumbling and shouting, the Games village is not as disastrous as we and everyone around the world thought it might be.
So, focus now on the glories of sport. This is particularly important to India. We are not a sporting nation, but in the stories of the emerging generation of Indian sportsmen and women you will find a common thread: a previously un-Indian determination, which defines today their individual character and that of their emerging nation.
Since the splendour of the Spartans, the arrogance of Nazism and the triumphalism of the modern Confucians, sport has always been a test and reflection of national character.
The Indian sports fan has always revealed that character through cricket, an obsession that mirrors our larger, lopsided approach to progress and passion. We celebrate our IT, Bollywood, business and cricket prowess. We revere a handful of icons, celebrating who they are, not how they got there. For most of us, that’s good enough. It shouldn’t be.
Cricket itself has revealed the epochal change upon us. Once India idolised its Pataudis and Gavaskars, from elite and middle-class India. Now, as India changes, it is learning to celebrate its Dhonis and Pathans, from lower-middle-class India. And so, it is time to learn and appreciate how, beyond cricket, the Wadoos, the Kumaris and Suchdes reflect their rise from conflict zones, repressive societies or globalised elite — the diverse realities and possibilities of emerging India.
Indian sport, like everything else, isn’t even strictly a national enterprise. A crusty Briton coaches Wadoo and his football team. Geeta and Babita are coached by a Georgian, who knows no English or Hindi but speaks to them in sign language and old Raj Kapoor songs. A Spaniard coaches the national hockey team. An Egyptian coaches squash hope Dipika Pallikal. The list goes on.
Do not expect India to sweep these Games. In the swimming trials, for example, only three swimmers qualified. The benchmark: the eighth place finish at the last Games. The qualifying norms were relaxed to accommodate 11 more swimmers. Old failings will persist for many years.
But pay attention to the stories, and you will discern another quality that propels the new generation of athletes, and India, forward: fearlessness.
That is how an assembly line of boxers and wrestlers — mostly small towners or village boys and girls who stumble over English, even Hindi — strides today over walls of adversity and boldly faces up to world champions. They know they may lose, but they do not think of it.
A boxer explains how he often saw fear in the eyes of his compatriots when they faced international opponents. He hasn’t seen that fear in a while. When I was a boy, I watched a lot of wrestling. I remember often seeing hesitancy in the eyes of our national champion, Satpal Singh. Today, he’s the coach of Sushil Kumar, the cauliflower-eared, tree-trunk-like Olympic bronze medallist. Like his mentor, Kumar learnt his craft in North India’s mud-wrestling pits. Like his mentor, he worships the same ancient deity of Indian wrestlers, Hanuman. Unlike his mentor, Kumar successfully made the transition from mud to mat, from fear to fearlessness, from the old India to the new.