The setting is typical rural India. A few senior members of the community in Talegaon Rohi, a small village 80km from Nashik, were standing around the sarpanch, complaining about the load shedding.
Power outages are routine in rural India, but Tuesday saw serious arguments. They were angry because rower Dattu Baban Bhokanal, a local hero, was competing in the single sculls quarterfinals in Rio at 5pm, when the power cut is scheduled daily.
Across the village of around 7000 people, the talk was only about Dattu, the 25-year-old armyman who has done them proud by making it to the biggest sporting stage on earth.
Dattu had overcome many setbacks in life to make the cut for Rio. After he lost his father to cancer, Dattu, then 18, enrolled in the army, where his strong physique caught the eye of the coaches. It didn’t take long for the non-swimmer from a parched village to be initiated into rowing.
Since he took up rowing in 2012, his rise has been rapid. But the success hasn’t translated into financial gains. Dattu is the sole bread-winner for his family of three, including two brothers. His mother recently woke up from coma after a serious head injury suffered in an accident.
Hospitalised for over three months, she is back home, but bed-ridden and incoherent. She needs more treatment, but the family cannot afford it.
The Bhokanals live in a dilapidated house. One wall is missing and the others are made up of bare bricks. “Our father’s treatment left us with little,” said Dattu’s brother Gokul, 23. “We made the house to the extent we could afford. Dattu worked as a labourer, digging wells in the village. He also worked as a petrol pump attendant.”
The brothers are school dropouts, and do odd jobs and tend to the family’s small patch of land.
The family claims it has received little help from government organisations. “The only financial help he has got so far is the R5 lakh he received from the Maharashtra government a month before leaving for Rio,” Gokul says. That was spent on hiring a foreign coach to train for the Olympics.
The only support is their uncle Balasaheb Bhokanal, who lives down the road.
It was at his house that the brothers, their cousins and other members of their extended family gathered to watch, like the rest of the village, Dattu compete for a spot in the semifinals. Dattu’s house has no TV.
His uncle has procured an inverter to avoid disruption to the telecast. Balasaheb has spent the entire day warning local electricity officials of his Olympian nephew’s ‘match’. He told them repeatedly that the “entire country will be watching.”
At 5.20pm the power does go, but the inverter saves the day. A livid Balasaheb still calls and gives a mouthful to the lineman. As Dattu takes position at the starting point, the din in the room reaches a crescendo.
But he finishes fourth, missing out on a semifinal spot. The room falls silent. The power comes back soon after, but there is little energy left in the room.