It’s after lunch and the girls can barely flex their biceps for the photo shoot. They beg to be let off. Wrestlers? You wonder… while their physiotherapist is busy ordering a variety of Indian mithai on the phone. It’s not the Delhi heat that’s got to them. It’s weigh-in day, held a day before the competition, where members are weighed according to the category they play for.
Later at night, they’re looking forward to celebrating with their favourite mithai. And to make sure they pass the grade, the girls have completely stopped eating and drinking almost two days earlier — the dehydration cuts kilos, and they’ve doubled their practice hours wearing shiny ‘sauna suits’. “These make you sweat, you can end up losing some three to four kilos a day,” explains Nirmal Devi, neatly folding her suit into a duffel bag. Catching the interested gleam in my eye, she cautions me not to try it. “It’s not healthy this way. Though we all do it and it’s an open secret.”
Nirmal, a chirpy 25-year-old who represents the 48-kg category, is from Bhiwani and works in the Haryana police. Besides being the tough cop, she says she enjoys practice matches with boys because it makes her feel powerful. “But I make sure it’s someone who weighs less than me!” she says. So, does she plan to continue wrestling? “I’m not sure, let’s see,” she says. “Nirmal is engaged to a boy back home,” explains Dr Perivinkel Kaur, the team’s physiotherapist. Is he a wrestler too? “No, he’s a cop,” the young wrestler blushes, not wanting to say more.
That’s when the Kumari sisters Geeta and Babita walk in, looking forlorn. “We were trying to sleep off the hunger,” they say, smiling weakly. Aged 21 and 19, both are in their final year of BA at Bhiwani Government Girls college. Incidentally, six of the seven members in the team are from Bhiwani in Haryana, with the exception of Alka Tomar from Uttar Pradesh. An Arjuna awardee, Tomar represents the 59-kg category.
The Kumari sisters come from a family of wrestlers in Balali in Bhiwani. Geeta, who represents the 55-kg category, says that their father was inspired by weight-lifter Karnam Malleswari’s win at the 2000 Olympics and wanted his daughters to join the sport.
But isn’t wrestling largely perceived as a man’s domain? “Papa never made that distinction, it was always the people in the village and relatives who would taunt him saying kaun se shastron mein likha hai ke ladkiyan wrestling karti hain (Nowhere do our scriptures say that girls should be wrestling). Then when we started winning the medals, they started telling him you have five sons,” laughs Geeta, pushing back her wavy hair, revealing extremely swollen ears.
“All wrestlers have ‘broken ears’, it’s their mark of distinction,” explains the tomboyish but shy Babita, whose short hair often leads to mistaken identity. Her sister Geeta recalls an incident and says “A boy came up and put his arm around her, thinking she’s my brother. She slapped the daylights out of him.”
“That’s the great thing about wrestling, we are never scared unlike other girls. We have no problems going out at night. We can always take care of ourselves,” chips in Alka, who’s from Sisauli in UP. This 22-year-old also comes from a wrestling family, which includes two elder brothers. Alka started wrestling at 11 and won a bronze at the Doha Asian Games in 2006 and another one in the same year at the Senior Wrestling Championship in Guangzhou in China. Yet, the government support for this sport is almost negligible, she says. “The attitude till date is like ladkiyon ko ladkon se peechhe hee rakhna hai (Girls should always follow the boys). We have been able to come this far with our family’s backing. Girls from poorer families can’t afford things like badam (almonds) and juice, which are essential for training,” she says.
Eventually Alka plans on becoming an instructor and teach young women. But for now, her sight is firmly set on the upcoming Commonwealth Games, the Asiad and then the Olympics in 2012.