The first tell-tale sign that you’re nearing Lalita Babar country comes some 25 kilometres before her village. You ask a traffic cop for directions, and he exclaims with a beaming smile, “Mohi? Lalita Babarcha gaon? Ti shambar per cent jhinknaar (She will win 100 per cent).”
Then as you enter Mohi, having driven uphill past fields of jowar and bajra and the holy town of Shikhar Shingnapur, you are welcomed with a banner of a blown up image of Lalita from her 3000m steeplechase heats at Rio, hung conspicuously outside the village temple.
Like it says in the banner, you soon realise it is a village united in support of their ‘suvarna kanya’ (Golden Girl). This morning, they tell you, the customary Independence Day flag hoisting ceremony was followed by another important event – they went around the village chanting ‘Gold for Lalita, Run for Lalita.’ From mosque to temple, each of the 12 castes that call Mohi their home, have been directing all their prayers and blessings towards Rio, for their beloved daughter. “Even some of the nearby villages have been performing havans,” you’re told.
Locals fall over each other to personally take you to ‘Babar Vasti’. You get off the main road and onto a four kilometre long cobbled road. It was this very same stretch that Lalita would cover barefoot as a child, unintentionally taking her first strides towards becoming a world class athlete.
From a distance, you see the uncorrupted and tranquil greenery soiled by a slew of white cars parked in a jumbled mess. Outside the three-room single-storey house – that was incidentally constructed to deal with the growing attention coming Lalita’s way – OB vans and mike-toting journalists are already catching hold of anyone who has anything to do with Mohi’s most famous resident.
Every relative or neighbour present is soaking in the media glare, and has a Lalita story to tell. Probably buoyed by the media experience, there a buzz that their ‘golden girl’ will surely get a bronze.
All except her parents, that is.
If anything, Shivaji and Nirmala Babar are oblivious to the noise around them. They are busy tending to their daily routines. After two years, Mohi has received a decent monsoon, and Nirmala is occupied with cutting and carrying as much corn from the family farm as her frail arms can manage. Shivaji, meanwhile, is tending to the cattle — around 12 cows and buffalos in all — tied up outside the thatched-roof hut where Lalita began her life. The two then get down to milk the cows. The television cameras continue to follow them incessantly.
Other media personnel saunter in and out of family’s rooms, filming the trophies and even moving around her medals. . Ganesh Babar, Shivaji’s youngest brother and Lalita’s lifelong mentor, reveals that her parents are equally unaware of what their daughter’s event is all about. They simply clap and cheer when they see everyone else doing the same. For now they just can’t wait for the media circus to leave them in peace.
The rest of Mohi though seems to have received a crash course on the nitty-gritties of the three-kilometre event. “We know exactly how many hurdles she has to jump over during a race, and also the water pit she has to jump into,” says cousin Gaurav Salunkhe.
Nivratee Babar, Lalita’s doting paternal grandfather, sits quietly holding his neck-brace in his hand. He waits for whenever Lalita visits, since she makes his bhakris just the way he likes it. He attributes her calm demeanour to his insistence on reading the Bhagwad Gita from a young age. But ask him about steeplechase, and he shoots: “What kind of a silly sport is this? Why does my granddaughter need to jump into water while running?”
It’s less than an hour for the race, and cars keep plodding in even as the Babar family performs their final puja.
Elsewhere in the village, two big screens have been put in place to ensure nobody misses out on seeing Lalita run for glory. But at Babar Vasti, the 21-inch flat-screen is good enough for the hundred-odd who have assembled on the verandah outside. As they wait for Lalita, they whisper personal prayers while trying to make something of the women’s hammer throw that’s in progress.
And when their girl dressed in blue starts walking out onto the track, the clapping begins. They’re slightly bemused about why the camera doesn’t zoom into Lalita when the introductions are made.
Soon the atmosphere is dominated by deathly silence with faces steadily growing glum, as Lalita fades into the background. Teary eyes and silent sobs receive the news of Lalita finishing tenth.
Now they have to face the cameras once again, this time as part of an inquisition for why Lalita failed them. By now, on a day that Lalita put her non-descript village on the map for nine minutes and 22 seconds, Mohi had had enough.