There are no women in the heaving crowd watching the dangal, a traditional wrestling tournament. It is being held in a large bowl-shaped clearing, surrounded by the village of Salawa, vast fields of ripe sugarcane and the Ganga canal that runs along the Doab plain of western Uttar Pradesh. The dangal has been organised by Salawa residents although the 10,000-odd spectators could be from any of the nearby 24 villages, referred to collectively as the chaubisi.
The area is brimming with men, with more arriving by foot and on packed autorickshaws and tractors. The organising committee, comprising politicians, a few holy men and police officials, sits in a tented bandstand, sipping cold drinks. Others — moustachioed old men in turbans, teens watching through smartphones — squat on the fringe of the wrestling ring. Inside a circle marked in white chalk, the men slathered in mitti — the driven earth on which kushti is fought — grapple, to the rhythm of beating dhols.
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The women, meanwhile, are to be found at the mela nearby. They shop for clothes and trinkets and watch over the children. A curious few glance across the invisible gender line but stay on their side.
As far as anyone can remember, that’s how it has been. The Salawa dangal, held to mark the full moon of the lunar month of Kartik, isn’t the biggest or the richest dangal around but it is old. Perhaps not as old as the village itself, which locals reckon dates to the time of the Jain tirthankaras, but certainly older than the Ganga canal which the East India Company built in the first half of the 19th century. “The kushti would take place here when I was a boy. And my grandfather told me that it was held in his time.
Divya strides forward self-assuredly. She has broad, powerful shoulders, like the dust-coated men in the ring. Her face, despite its baby fat, is framed by black hair cut short at the nape
In all that time, kushti has always been a man’s business,” says Thakur Vikram Singh Rathore, a white-bearded politician who is sponsoring the tournament. “But times change,” Rathore says. That’s why Divya Kakran will be wrestling in Salawa today.
Divya strides forward self-assuredly. She has broad, powerful shoulders, like the dust-coated men in the ring. Her face, despite its baby fat, is framed by black hair cut short at the nape, the way a wrestler’s face must be framed. She has no doubt she belongs here.It is late afternoon when the crowd parts to let the 17-year-old girl through. Her elder brother, Dev, follows with three other girls — Megha, Neena and Geetanjali. They have all made the four-hour journey from Delhi in order to wrestle here. The three shuffle forward cautiously, without a word, as they take in the multitude.
The announcer introduces the girls and the prize money the committee will offer for Divya’s match with Megha: Rs 2,100. The crowd marks the change in tradition with a few good-natured hollers and a couple of less supportive whistles. The announcer then asks how long the fight should last. Between the crowd, the announcer and the
committee, it is decided that the kushti will go on for five minutes. It lasts less than a minute before Divya flips her opponent, pinning both her shoulders to the earth. “Chit!” declares the referee by blasting a whistle in the middle of the ring. He raises Divya’s left arm.
In a dangal, rewards for a good wrestler are instant. As matches end, fighters walk up to the row of spectators, who show their appreciation by stuffing money into their favoured grapplers’ hands. Divya first collects the prize money from Rathore and goes to the crowd, who proffer cash of various denominations. At the end, she hands a chunk of notes to Dev, who stuffs it into a trouser pocket. For the spectators present, a girl wrestling in the dangal is nothing short of revolutionary.
Divya, though, isn’t done just yet.
With the sun dipping over horizon, there is time for one last kushti. The announcer picks up his microphone and declares Divya will be wrestling again. But this time, she will challenge a male wrestler. The prize is Rs 3,100. The announcer calls for any 16- or 17-year-old who’s up for the fight. In an instant, a parade of challengers sprints towards her, their hands extended. They are kicking off their shoes and vying with each other to reach her first.
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Divya isn’t the first girl to wrestle in India. Chandgi Ram, one of India’s most decorated wrestlers and one of the first advocates for women’s wrestling in India, introduced his daughters to the sport in the late 1990s. Sonika and Deepika too fought at dangals with other girls. The Phogat sisters, Geeta and Babita, made tentative forays in kushti before they achieved more mainstream success on the synthetic mat of Olympic-style freestyle wrestling. Their achievements are soon to be immortalised in a film co-produced by Aamir Khan.
As a junior wrestler in the 72 kg category, Divya has had plenty of success on the mat, although not near the level of these pioneers. None of the latter, though, has the reputation in the kushti world that she has: of fighting and beating boys.
It’s hard to think of a more comprehensive subversion of the classical masculine hierarchy of the kushti and the dangal… At the very least, women are seen as a distraction
She’s definitely the outlier, says Deepak Anusiya Prasad, a former accountant who has an all-consuming passion for kushti. He is also the editor of Delhi-based Kushti Jagat, a newspaper dedicated to the traditional wrestling format. “Many girls have taken part in dangals. I have seen a few challenge men. But those were one-off cases. None of them have fought in as many dangals as Divya. Fighting boys isn’t just a gimmick for her. She beats them all,” says Prasad.
It’s hard to think of a more comprehensive subversion of the classical masculine hierarchy of the kushti and the dangal. In addition to its emphasis on physical prowess, the heart of the sport lies in a wrestler’s adherence to a chaste brahmachari lifestyle — in the manner of its patron deity, the bachelor Hindu god Hanuman.
At the very least, women are seen as a distraction. “A girl entering the ring and challenging and beating boys breaks nearly every possible rule there is,” says Prasad.
You needn’t just take Prasad’s word for it. Over the last five years, dozens of hand-held videos of Divya fighting boys have been uploaded onto YouTube. They are shot from obscure village dangals across the north Indian heartland — Karari near Jhansi in UP, Khedi Pul in Faridabad, Haryana, Banhore in Jammu, Ghumarmi in Himachal Pradesh. All end with a cry of “chit” — her male opponent sprawled on the ground, his shoulders flat against the earth. Most of the videos end here, at the moment of triumph. A few go further, recording the reward that follows. The blessings are welcome, the money more so.
Money is tight in the cramped family home Divya shares with her parents and two brothers. It’s all of two rooms in a four-storey brick building in the narrow lanes of Gokulpur, a hardscrabble working-class neighbourhood in east Delhi. On the wall near the family altar are Divya’s keepsakes from her wrestling career — on both the freestyle mat and mitti. There are medals stuck to each other like a hoard of coins, trophies of all shapes, and a pair of silver-plated maces.
Kushti runs in Divya’s family as it does for nearly all Indian wrestlers, male or female. Father Suraj, a heavy-set 47-year-old with a quick smile, has the trademark crushed ears of a wrestler. So did his father and his father’s father. Suraj grew up in Purbaliyan, a village just a few miles east of Salawa. He came to Delhi as a young man in the 1990s to make his fortune as a kushti wrestler. His dream faded rapidly. “Kushti is tough. I didn’t have a lot of support and I wasn’t very good either,” he says.
Suraj returned to Purbaliyan where he married, tried to make money selling milk, a business which also failed. With his wife and two small children in tow, he made his way back to Gokulpur, where he started another trade. Wife Sanyogita would stitch langots — the cotton loin-cloth that all kushti wrestlers wear — and Suraj would sell them at dangals.
One of those tournaments, back in the early 2000s, organised by Chandgi Ram, had hosted bouts between women wrestlers.
“Until then, I had never considered that women could wrestle. We had been taught that women shouldn’t even be seen at an akhara. But after I saw women’s wrestling, I realised this was a legitimate sport. I had thought only Dev would wrestle. But I felt that I could let Divya wrestle too if she wanted,” he says.
While the venerable wrestler, Rajkumar Goswami, tolerated her because she was so young, she was banished to a corner of the akhara, as out of sight as possible.
I remember she was able to do 2,000 baithaks in one session
So, as a five-year-old, Divya accompanied her elder brother to the Rajkumar Goswami Akhara, a few lanes away from their two-room home in Gokulpur. While the venerable wrestler, Rajkumar Goswami, tolerated her because she was so young, she was banished to a corner of the akhara, as out of sight as possible. But, even so, she stood out. “She would copy other wrestlers. Over time, I noticed that she was able to match and even exceed what they were capable of. I remember she was able to do 2,000 baithaks in one session,” says Ashok Goswami, Rajkumar’s son.
Having studied for a coaching diploma at the National Institute of Sport, Patiala, Ashok was more open to changes than his father. In 2010, he began training her seriously. “It must not have been easy for Ashok to agree to train Divya. A lot of pehelwans told him it was not acceptable. But he persisted,” says Suraj.
Space is at a premium at the Rajkumar Goswami Akhara. It is a dank, dimly-lit room. A mud pit and a slippery yellow mat share the space. Divya learned her basics on the mud pit, but trained mostly on the mat, simply because there was no prospect for a girl in mitti kushti. Within a few months, Divya had won her first medal: a gold at the School Nationals in 2011. “I knew she had plenty of potential,” says Goswami.
But for a child with potential, there were few opportunities. Even today, there are limited freestyle wrestling tournaments in India outside state and national championships. Most young men gain experience by participating in dangals. For a woman, that is usually a closed avenue. Nevertheless, Divya began accompanying her brother to dangals by 2010. Her father’s job helped somewhat. “I would sell langots and Divya and Dev would wrestle,” Suraj says.
The dangal in Rampur Kasna village, Uttar Pradesh, in 2010 was one such tournament. Frustrated at Divya not getting a chance, Suraj asked the organisers whether she could wrestle any of the boys. They posed the question to the crowd. One boy, about the same age as Divya, accepted. While the organisers did not announce a prize, the
boy’s father, sure of his abilities against a girl, wagered Rs 500 on the contest. Entirely by chance, Anusiya Prasad was present at the venue. He shot a video of the bout, which he later uploaded on YouTube.
From the video we get to know the boy’s name: Shahabuddin. Wearing a white langot, he bounces with confidence, sure that this is a walkover. So much so that he has to be held back by the referee in the ring until the kushti begins. Once it starts, though, Divya is all over him. She quickly pushes his head down, then spins around onto his back. Her legs capture his in a vice-like knot and her hand pulls his head upwards. Drawn like a bow, Shahabuddin is forced onto his back to release the tension. It is the perfect execution of a kushti daav known as the Irani; 57 seconds into the clip, Divya has beaten her first male opponent.
The money won from Shahabuddin’s stunned father was multiplied by the gifts from the appreciative crowd. Suraj made an important observation. While Dev had wrestled in the same dangal, he had made a fraction of what Divya earned. “People like seeing new things. Boys have wrestled boys forever. But no one had seen a girl fight boys and beat them,” he says.
Where he had once taken Divya to the odd dangal as a form of practice, Suraj now began to actively scout for tournaments willing to let her wrestle boys. The obstacle he faced was similar to one that had been overcome by others like Chandgi Ram and Mahavir Phogat. But Suraj and Divya faced steeper odds and deeper prejudices. While Divya goes by the surname Kakran, most people know her as Divya Sain. Sains are members of the Nai or barber caste, categorised among backward castes in government records.
Where Divya comes from, says Anusiya Prasad, makes her achievement all the more remarkable. “Kushti is a rural sport. And there is still a lot of caste discrimination.
Guru Chandgi Ram and Mahavir Phogat had the advantage of being in positions of power. Chandgi Ram was a respected international wrestler and ran a famous akhara. Phogat was the sarpanch of his village. And they were both Jats, who had a say in the khap. If the khap decided to permit women’s wrestling, everyone would fall in line,” he says. As a Sain who sold langots at wrestling tournaments, Divya’s father had nothing he could barter for acceptance. “Many people mocked me. Others asked if I wasn’t ashamed that my daughter would fight men,” says Suraj.
Even where organisers decided to let her compete, there were challenges. Among the most visible was costume. In kushti, wrestlers are bare-bodied but expected to grab the langot to hoist opponents off their feet. Divya couldn’t wear a langot. Instead she wears a smooth nylon singlet over which she dons a T-shirt and shorts. It was one of the few concessions permitted to her.
But, initially, this was uncharted territory. Where should she change? Where could she wash after fighting on the loose earth? Moreover, grappling is an innately intimate sport. Between wrestlers of the same gender, if a hand reaching for a hold grasps another part of the anatomy, it is just a slip. The same equation was more ambiguous when Divya fought. “There were times when some of the boys would grab my T-shirt or my dress but I wouldn’t be bothered by such things. Being distracted means you lose,” Divya says.
Consequently, it was her opponents, scarcely believing that she was fighting them and fighting without a care, who were pinned. For many, the result was too much to bear. “I was in so many bouts where I should have won but the organisers said it was a draw. It becomes a matter of shame if a boy from their village loses to a girl. In one village in Bihar, a boy ran away from home after I had beaten him. I heard he returned after three days,” she says. Smarting from a loss, another boy trained for a year. He then traced Divya to a dangal near Palwal, Haryana. “He wanted to avenge his defeat. So he challenged her again,” says Suraj.
Just to make sure he didn’t lose for a second time, the boy’s father had paid off the official, Suraj says he later found out. “Three times, it seemed as if Divya had got the pin, but each time, the referee said it wasn’t clean. After the third time, the boy was too tired to continue and the referee declared it a draw,” says Suraj.
Some did not let her win but Divya couldn’t lose either
Some did not let her win but Divya couldn’t lose either, the stakes were often too high. Two years ago, Suraj was returning home after several weeks on the road selling his wares. “It was just before Diwali and I was happy because I had made enough to tide over a couple of months and also something to buy gifts for the children,” he says. On the train ride back, the money was stolen. “I was broken. I had nothing left. At that moment, Divya insisted that we go out to as many dangals as we could and that she would win back the money,” he says softly.
Only 15 then, Divya delivered. “Over the next two months, we went from one dangal to the other. We didn’t have money, so we travelled ticketless in train compartments. She just kept winning. In two months, she had earned more than Rs 80,000,” says Suraj.
Divya’s earnings have undoubtedly been a necessary crutch for the family. But, equally, the family has backed her to the hilt. They have ploughed back the money, time and effort to her career. Dev dropped out of school and has wound down his own wrestling career, which showed plenty of promise, to focus on hers. He is now her key sparring partner at the Guru Premnath Akhara in north Delhi where she trains. “We didn’t have the finances to fund two wrestlers in the family. And it was clear that Divya had more potential,” he says.
A couple of years ago, Suraj felt that watching her old videos could help Divya iron out flaws in her game. She does so now on a PC, bought on instalments. Suraj has taken several loans — most frequently on near-exorbitant interest from the local moneylender — to finance the computer or anything else (diet, shoes, kit) that might help his daughter.
While he tries to ensure the loans never grew out of hand, often the ground seemed to slip from below their feet. “Towards the end of 2014, Sanyogita had to be hospitalised with an abdominal ailment. The treatment cost money and because I had to stay home, the business stopped and the debts kept growing. At that point, I was Rs 10 lakh in debt,” he says. Divya could have fought in the dangals once again but Suraj decided his daughter should focus on the upcoming National Games in February. Instead, he decided to pawn his wife’s earrings and her mangalsutra.
While kushti in dangals may bring fortune, the freestyle format has its own importance. Most Indian male wrestlers, especially those who want to make a name on the international scene — where only mat is permitted — find a balance between the two formats. Divya too had to find that mean. “If I didn’t fight in the dangals, I couldn’t provide for my family and pay for my own diet and training,” she reasons. Her wins on the mat, in turn, earned her the credibility she could leverage at dangals. In 2013, Divya was picked for the Indian team for the Asian Cadet (U-17) Championships in Mongolia where she won a silver. Now, she was an international wrestler who would bring a bit of star power to a dangal.
There is symbiosis in the techniques of two formats as well. On the slick surface of the mat, speed is key. Because a match lasts for two rounds of two minutes each, you can attack throughout the contest. Wrestlers have to pace themselves at the dangal. The soft mitti slows down all moves. The match is of a single round but goes on as long as the organiser chooses.
There is also the difference in scoring. While matches in Olympic freestyle can be won by pinning your opponent, most wrestlers prefer to accumulate points, which are awarded for a number of reasons — takedowns, reversals, exposing an opponent to danger or pushing them out of bounds. The only way to win in kushti is by forcing the
rival’s shoulder onto the mitti. “In kushti, you are always looking for a way to win by a pin. In international competitions, there have been times when I was trailing on points and I was able to pull off a pin and win,” says Divya.
The biggest takeaway is experience
“I don’t think any girl in Divya’s age group would have fought as many competitive bouts as her. The fact that she fights boys only makes it easier for her against girls. Her male opponents usually have a physical advantage. While fighting them, she has to improve her technique. When she steps on the mat, she has no fear because it’s just another bout for her,” says Vikram Kumar, who currently coaches Divya.
Divya is among the most promising Indian junior wrestlers. In July this year, she won a bronze medal at the Asian Juniors. She’s already made her mark at the senior level as well. At the Kerala National Games, the one that almost buried the family under debt, she picked up another bronze. Her biggest prize came at the Asian Cadet championships in Delhi in June where she was India’s solitary gold medalist. She is confident that one day she will be an Olympian.
The Asian gold mattered in more ways than one. The North-East Delhi MP Manoj Tiwary awarded her a cheque of Rs 2 lakh. It went straight to the creditors. The Wrestling Federation of India too has started paying her a stipend. The Federation fears that the stress of fighting stronger boys could injure her. Their funding helps, but not quite. So Divya attempts to harmonise both worlds. While it is a lot more infrequent, she continues to fight at dangals.
‘Thanks for not beating my grandson’
Divya’s tale is an underdog story if there ever was one, and who doesn’t like to hear such a tale? Over the last couple of years, she has been invited to speak at various functions. “I didn’t know what to talk about. But my father asked me to try because they would help us out with some money. We can always do with some money,” she says.
Divya talks mostly at caste meetings of the Sain community but also to mixed groups. “I can’t talk about big ideas or use big words. I talk about things that affected me,” she says. At a recent function, when a previous speaker remarked that soon girls would be able to match boys, step for step, Divya corrected him: “Sir, I think I can walk ahead of boys if I want to.”
In one gathering of her community, she talks of self-confidence. “Why should you feel any inferior because you are a Sain? Yes, most girls in wrestling are Jats but if I can make it, why can’t your daughters?” she says. At another, she chides the listeners. “You people need to respect your daughters a lot more. You don’t encourage them to study nor do you let them play sports. You let them study till Class X and then get them married. How would you know what they are capable of unless you give them a chance?” she says.
There have been moments when she contemplates the life of the girl next door. She recently thought of growing her hair long. A few months ago, she begged her mother to buy her a pair of jeans ahead of the Asian Junior Championships. “ I wanted to look good at the airport,” she says. Although an irregular student, she says she enjoyed going to school. “It gave me a break. It was peaceful to meet my friends and not talk of wrestling.” But the distractions are swatted away quickly.
Indeed, the hair was cut short after it bothered her in the ring. The jeans, too, were discarded soon after trying them on and she wore her usual baggy track pants instead. “It isn’t as if I don’t know about movies, parties and dressing up. I also know how to have a good time. But that’s not what I want out of life,” she says.
What she wants on the evening of November 26 at the dangal in Salawa is simply to beat Anuj Rajput, who was the fastest to take her up on her challenge. He’s not the toughest boy Divya has fought but he’s not a pushover either. He’s about as tall as her. He says he’s 16 but looks older. He practises at a local akhara but has also fought bouts at Meerut University.
This time too, the bout will be five minutes long. The two wrestlers pick up a handful of earth from the ring, touch the other’s palm, letting the soil fall back onto the ring. With that, the match begins. Both wrestlers crouch, looking for an opening. Anuj thinks he spots it first, and he reaches low to grab Divya’s leg, while slipping his head under her shoulder. It’s the set up for a daav known as the nikal but Divya spots it and drops her knee to the ground, and pivots away. “Almost!” cheers the announcer, swiftly dropping the facade of impartiality. Anuj, who is from Akhepur, another of the chaubisi villages, is one of the boys. As he grows in confidence, Anuj gets careless. With his opponent on her knees, he reaches over her to try and grab an ankle. This allows Divya to hook his left leg.
She has caught him in the kushti daav known as the kalajang but he hasn’t spotted it yet. Divya lifts her back and Anuj finds himself trapped across her shoulders. As she twists backwards and across, her opponent is flipped over in the air, landing on earth. The move is executed in a fraction of a second and Divya springs up, her hand raised in triumph. The dhol players let out a celebratory drum roll. But it’s not to be, as the referee declares there’s no pin. “Not a pin,” says the announcer, somewhat relieved. The mitti catches the lie though, for Anuj’s shoulders are coated in it.
Divya has been in this situation before, so she continues as if nothing has happened. “I know I’m not going to get the win here, so I just ensure the crowd knows I am the better wrestler. I only need them to be on my side,” she says later. When the referee’s whistle blows, declaring the bout a draw, Anuj slinks away. “She’s a lot tougher than I thought she was. She has a lot more practice,” he says.
Divya, meanwhile, has begun her walk into the crowd again. Once more they reward her. Later, when the stack of notes is tallied, it stands at Rs 15,878. There’s a Rs 1,000 from the sponsor, Thakur Vikram Singh Rathore. An old man gives her a Rs 10 note and ask for Rs 4 in change so he can pay for a rickshaw ride home. Another old man, with a thick white moustache and a matching turban, stops Divya. “Thanks for not beating my grandson,” he says, even as he stuffs two 10-rupee notes in her hand.