She must be a model, they whisper. A fillum actress, even. But, when people find out that Sonika Kaliraman Malik is a wrestler, they gape unabashedly. And you can’t blame them, because it’s hard to get over how attractive the brown-eyed, 5’9”, 26-year-old is. As she talks, she frequently breaks into giggles, at her own expense. “People often look at me and say that if a girl who looks just like a doll can wrestle, so can our daughters. And that’s exactly the kind of role model I want to be,” she says.
The first woman to win the Bharat Kesari award for wrestling, Sonika will now be seen on TV. Not in a fight, but on the second season of the reality show Khatron Ke Khiladi on Colors. As the only sportsperson to appear on the show, she believes her participation will help promote her sport. “I want to be associated with women’s wrestling just the way Sania Mirza is with tennis or Sachin Tendulkar is with cricket,” declares the national level wrestler.
The fourth child of international wrestler Chandagi Ram, Sonika says that wrestling was really her father’s idea. “Main sabse hatti-katti aur ladaki thi, isiliye Guruji (that’s what she calls her father) ne mujhe bahut push kiya. (I was the biggest and strongest of the lot and was known as a fighter, so my father pushed me into wrestling.).
That was in 1995. Since then, there has been no looking back. Despite all the criticism she and her family faced when she entered a sport essentially meant for brahmacharis (celibate men), Sonika has been representing India for the past 10 years and has won several medals at the Asian level.
“It’s really hard to follow a sport in India, because you have no government backing. They (the authorities) tell you very bluntly — win an Olympic medal and we’ll give you a crore. Otherwise, we’re on our own,” she says. “Which is why I thought the best thing I could do was to glamourise my sport by joining a television show.”
To her credit, and despite her struggles, Sonika remains grounded and sensitive. And she calls herself the biggest darpokilal (coward) that ever existed. “I’m scared of heights, of water, of icky insects... being on the show was very hard for me,” she says. Barely married for two months when she left her sasural in Rohtak for South Africa to shoot for the show, Sonika is, however, glad she did. “It made me stronger and I faced my fears completely,” she says.
Yet, she wept at the beginning of every task. So much so that the show's host Akshay Kumar had to take her aside and say, “Dekh, tu bhi pehelwan, aur main bhi. Ab tu meri naak na kaat aur at least paanch episodes kheench le. (Look, you and I are both wrestlers. Don’t embarrass me now. You have to shoot at least five episodes.)”
Sonika smiles, “With every stunt, I felt like I do at the beginning of a fight, so nervous that I had to rush to the toilet 10 times.” So did the ‘pehelwan’ last five episodes? She isn’t telling, but having had a taste of her spirit, our guess is that she did.