THERE is Zen, and then there is Haryana Zen. And it was this Zen, of the ‘Rohtak-Sakshi Malik variety’, that finally fetched India its first medal — a bronze at the Rio Olympics.
One of the few things she told herself — because cluttered minds rarely win medals — was that there was no pressure because if she lost, all hell wouldn’t break loose. “Yahan mujhse zyada bade-bade player haar gaye the. Toh ye nahin sochna tha ki haaregi toh kya ho jayega. Yeh socha, jeetungi toh kya ho jayega (Here, much better players have lost.
So, I did not think about what would happen if I lost, it was about what would happen if I won)?” Sakshi says, her big black button eyes lighting up after she’s settled from her medal celebrations.
It was this refreshing way of thinking that finally worked in her favour as she fought five bouts in the 58-kg freestyle category and came back from trailing margins in almost all, to win India its first bronze. India has now never lost a repechage bout — when the pressure is off, Indians go out freely and fight their best was the neatest conclusion from it all. “Even when I was trailing, I knew I would win,” she says.
Sakshi sends pictures to her brother who manages her Facebook page. She says she’s never herself opened the page. She also admits she’s never really been kicked about status updates or particularly interested in social media. That’s as close to modern Zen as you can come in a 22-year-old.
Bubbling and excited talking about her medal, Sakshi though seeks and craves quiet. Quite far from the stereotype of Haryana — loud, boisterous, itching to be in the thick of things — Sakshi chased her medal in silence, her head not dinning with the noise of hype, expectations, pressure, future or the past.
“Mujhe party, shor-sharaba pasand nahin hai. Bheed mujhe kha jaati hai (I don’t like partying or too much noise. I get swallowed up in a crowd)… I want to run home, sit quietly, watch late-night TV, maybe some time on my phone,” she says.
Ask her if the medal opens up doors for big police postings and high-status paraphernalia that Haryana’s sporting successes usually lead to, and she talks about going deeper into a happy shell. “Mujhe aisi job chahiye jahan shanti ho (I want a job in which there is peace),” she says. She’s worked hard for 12 years and wants a calm post-sporting life, though she is focussed on another go in Tokyo 2020.
“Shanti ki life,” she repeats. “I don’t like going out, sight-seeing, movies,” she says. Her idea of enjoyment is sitting at home — sleeping, perhaps, because wrestling drains and tires you out. Sakshi Malik sounds exactly like Saina Nehwal of 10 years ago. And now both have bronze.
Sakshi has called home, and the family is obviously crying in joy. “I told them, ‘I’m not emotional after winning a medal, why are you being emotional? Medal ki khushi manao (Celebrate the joy of a medal)’.”
Those who have watched her recall her as silent in training, though she could string more than one funny line until it became a hysterical gag. Yet, expectations from her were few, and she’s made quite a few chomp down humble pie.
She was a good steady wrestler, who won qualification at the first opportunity. Yet, she wasn’t a Phogat — India’s first family of women wrestlers.
“Haan, ajeeb hota hai (Yes, it is strange). When we go to camps in Bulgaria, Spain, they make us line up and it’s all Phogats. Aur uske beech mein khadi main (And in between them, I stand),” she laughs.
But it wasn’t about feeling left out — she got along well with most of them and was good friends with Vinesh, closer to her age. But she explains what’s it like to not be a Phogat: “Their father knew wrestling. He could tell them this is what’s to be done, this is where you’ll reach. I knew nothing.”
All she knew was she wanted to sit in an aeroplane, and she knew international athletes sat in planes and flew high. Ask her if she’s ready to start a dynasty as India’s first woman wrestler, and she deadpans: “But I’m the youngest in the family. Maybe, when my brother (two years older) has kids, I’ll drag them into wrestling.”
Her grandfather wrestled briefly, she read abut the sport in papers, and then Geeta Phogat went to the 2012 Games.
Sakshi is aware she is a Haryana daughter, with all the accompanying presumptions. “I think I realise the Haryana significance because my family never stopped me from doing what I wanted to,” she says.
And she’s real about pure ghee and butter (she likes a generous blob of it on aaloo paratha, besides kadhi chawal).
“It’s not like wrestlers eat it all the time. Closer to competition, we have to make weight, so we hardly touch ghee.”
She also makes light of all the famed physical workouts that male wrestlers talk of. “If I’m doing push-ups, and I forget the count at 25, I just tell myself I must have done 35-40 and resume,” she giggles about shortcuts.
Life has changed. Though it would mean interviews and eating into her sleep.
And she’s resisted the deepest desire, that supremely trivial temptation that’s a rage among youngsters now. The Haryana Zen is back again. “My brother keeps talking about Pokemon Go. He says he can’t play at home, he has to sit on his bike and go find Pokemon. Ye hai kya cheez (What is this thing)?” she says, derision dripping in her voice.
“Sab pakadne ke liye bhaag rahe hai (Everyone is running to catch it),” she laughs.
Everyone else chasing Pokemon Go. Sakshi Malik, alone in a billion, chasing an Olympic medal. Chased and found.