It takes Khaleda Bano more than 10 minutes to change from her hijab and tracks to a red body armour and headgear. To knock out her opponent takes her just under 20 seconds.
“When I get inside the ring I don't think of anything else but how to eliminate my opponent as soon as possible,” said the 25-year-old who can stun you by the intensity with which she rains blows and kicks in next to no time.
But three months ago, Bano was just another Kashmiri girl confined to the interiors of her Kupwara home along with four younger sisters trying to figure what to do next. Marriage was an easy way out.
Instead, she took up wushu, a Chinese martial art form, hoping to inspire her siblings and an entire generation of girls from her village to take the road less travelled.
Already in the title round of the shanshou category in a three-day national senior meet here, Bano dreams of taking home a medal and vying for a place in the national camp. But it wasn't the lure of the sport alone that made her take up wushu.
“The heinous incident in Delhi last winter made us realise that women had little protection from such assaults,” said Ajay Paul Gill, a senior coach associated with the Jammu and Kashmir wushu team.
“We figured wushu would not only provide women an alternative sport but also provide a means of self-defence. We held a workshop on Women's Day and a lot of girls have responded so far,” said Gill. “Right now it's the most popular form of sport in Jammu and Kashmir,” said Gill.
The self-defence aspect apart, wushu has also helped shed a few inhibitions. “We are from a very conformist background. But I have learnt that when we are with the boys you can't be judgmental.
We have learnt to eat, train and travel together. It has armed us with a new outlook, one I feel will help our society as a whole,” said Bano.
A natural choice
The taolu category of wushu involves exhibition with long weapons and short weapons with bare hands and is a popular option in the northeast where people are more fleet-footed.
Shanshou, however, is a sparring form of wushu that requires participants to be aggressive and physically imposing. Kashmiris score here, said Lalit Singh, a senior member of the squad.
“From a very young age, I was a very aggressive kid and used to fight with the local boys. My parents were afraid I was going astray. Taking up wushu has allowed me to channel my energy in a positive way,” said the 27-year-old.
It also allowed Singh to find a means of living. “The employment situation in Jammu & Kashmir is very fragile. The quota system accounts for most jobs. If I hadn't taken up wushu I would have been nowhere,” said Singh.
Now that he has got a job in the education department of Jammu & Kashmir, Singh isn't ready to give up wushu for anything else.