Words could be as scarring as a limb seared by a live wire, and coach Ripu Daman Singh — R D Singh to his wards — understood the enormity of the challenge of coaching Devendra Jhajharia when a pair of coaches threw a nasty line at him back in 2000.
He was at Gwalior’s Laxmibai National University of Physical Education with his boy, Devendra, after three years of training the then teenager, and came face to face with two other athletics coaches at an open inter-university meet.
As an eight-year-old, Jhajharia had lost part of his left arm after contact with an electric wire while climbing a tree in Rajasthan’s Churu district. But he found some succour in school and college athletics, participating alongside able-bodied sportsmen in javelin throw.
R D Singh knew a few boys from the two universities and they respectfully spoke to him before the two coaches turned up. “Kyun R D Sir? Poore Rajasthan mein aapko do haathon wala athlete nahi mila? Kahan se langda-lula utha ke le aaye? (Could you not find an able-bodied athlete in all of Rajasthan that you picked a disabled boy?)” they had said.
The lines singed through his body, R D says, and he stood shaking for a few minutes, not daring to look at Jhajharia’s face. Nothing was spoken between the two, the incident seemingly blocked out, though four years later, Jhajharia would bring home a Paralympics gold medal from Athens.
An Arjuna Award would follow — though the coach jokes that he was more a Dronacharya to Nakul, the fourth Pandava in the Mahabharata who aced spear warfare. Before leaving for Rio for his second Paralympics, R D Singh sat with Jhajharia for five hours in a Gandhinagar sports hostel room and traded tales of the tough old times, though this time the Padma Shri athlete bared his soul about how that vile remark strengthened his resolve many years ago.
“It’s not that he wasn’t hurt because he might have heard such lines before — that’s what happens in India. But he was focused on winning,” R D Singh, now 62, says proudly on the day Jhajharia became the first Indian to win two gold medals at Paralympics, hurling the javelin at 63.97m.
Competing in the F46 category of disability for athletes whose shoulder or elbow joint of the arm is impaired on one limb, Jhajharia broke the Paralympics mark with a projectile pathway of 63.97 at Rio.
“If the F46 category had been there in 2008 and 2012, this could have been Devendra’s fourth gold,” the coach said.
But it was a bittersweet day for him as his second ward, Sundar Gurjar, missed his registration because “his coach Mahavir Saini did not ensure that the 20-year-old was present at the call-up desk”, Singh said.
“Otherwise it could have been gold-silver for India because Sundar was throwing 72m in training. This is a scandal, but the country’s powerful officials were never sensitive to the disabled — whether it was fellow coaches who laughed at us in 2000 or this coach who ruined a boy’s four years of hard work,” he said.
Nineteen athletes have been accompanied by 18 officials to the Paralympics.
Still, Jhajharia ensured the top spot was taken by India and R D Singh promises that Gurjar, too, will bring home a medal four years from now.
On Tuesday, Jhajharia was the star, though. Kitted in sharp black and blue gear with shining red shoes, he took three deep breaths, exhaled, and built up a launching momentum of 13 steps with two skips, the javelin poised for flight. He threw a distance that saw the judges jog back 20 yards, with the javelin traversing past all expectations.
“Nobody will even know names of those coaches; everyone will know Jhajharia,” R D Singh said, adding that his charge had called up and repeated what he’d said in 2004, “Sir, jhanda gaad diya (Our flag has been planted).”
When they started in 1996, they didn’t know Para Games existed. But the coach liked the determination of the boy he first saw at an inter-school in Ganganagar, and whom he later listed with the Government College in Hanumantgarh.
The coach and athlete would travel to meets for able-bodied athletes, though by the 2002 Asiad, the two were ready to hit international headlines. Still, it was a lot of hard work to take a boy throwing 47m up to 62 in the next 15 years.
“His hand is amputated, but few people know that the electrocution also burnt his thigh and lower leg. The doctor had said it will be hard for him to even walk,” Singh says. Though the throwing right arm is healthy, the left arm is important in javelin because it offers the last instance jerk — power and force — before the javelin is sent into flight, and with a severely weakened left arm, that force was missing from the technique. Weight training was also next to impossible.
But Jhajharia has come a long way since he took his first few steps at a meet in Madurai, winning at shot put and javelin, before travelling for the World Para Championships. He was fourth at Rajasthan’s inter-university in an able-bodied open event, but later took off owing to his focus.
It was difficult to draw him out of his town, though. “I told him to come train with me, but he was shy and scared of being alone and stared at. So he brought along three of his friends, who were hammer throwers,” said his coach.
He recently travelled to Finland for specialised javelin training for two months — this time confident of his training plan and assured in his position as a defending champ.
Gurjar’s was a case of bad luck, though sketchy reports emerging from Rio point to the boy being missing at the time his name was announced five times on the PA system.
Jhajharia had first spotted the boy after a tin sheet sliced his hand at a friend’s house. A vegetable seller is said to have paid Rs 30,000 for his immediate treatment, and Gurjar returned the money recently. He was a shot putter in school, but turned to javelin under R D Singh, though the coach claims that Saini — also from Rajasthan — snared him away after the boy started hitting 70m in practice.
“After his accident, his haemoglobin had dropped drastically. But he recovered, and was throwing 72m — it could have easily been gold-silver for us,” R D Singh says.
The coach hardly ate the entire day, saddened by what Gurjar had gone through. But he is keen to celebrate Jhajharia’s win once he returns. “He loves non-veg food. Lots of food and old stories when he returns,” he says, adding, “It was a routine — I’d tell him, ‘Beta, meri izzat ka sawaal hai (It is a question of my respect)’, and he would say, ‘Aap chinta mat karo (Don’t worry)’.” The coach had also taken the lead when Jhajharia was to meet a girl to get married to. “It was tougher to teach him to talk to girls than to throw a spear. He was too shy,” says the coach.