February 7, 2015 4:24:15 am
There were moments when Pawandeep Kaur would tremble in her sleep, the thunder of mortars and artillery ringing in her ears. And there were times when she would wake up in middle of the night, gasping.
“It feels normal now,” says the 15-year-old, about growing up in a village along the Line of Control, barely 4 km from the border. “Of course, it’s not safe. But those sounds, men in uniform, everything feels normal now,” adds the rising star of Indian gymnastics.
Once again, Kadyal, a border town in RS Pura, was among the worst-hit during the recent firing between Indian and Pakistani forces. But this well-known rice-growing pocket on the outskirts of Jammu is also gaining prominence because of Kaur’s sensational exploits on the mat.
Last Wednesday, Pawandeep teamed up with three other girls from the state —- Palak Kaur, Mitali Dogra and Mridul Gupta —- to win J&K’s first-ever team medal in rhythmic gymnastics at the ongoing National Games in Kerala.
She is among the youngest medallists at the multi-discipline event. “This one is for my father (a labourer), who has sacrificed a lot for me. And most importantly, for allowing me to travel to Jammu daily and pursue the sport,” she says.
The familiar, dreaded sound of bullets still forces several families out of their homes in Kadyal and other neighbouring villages, she says. Pawandeep recalls that she was only nine when, on a chilly winter evening, two BSF men came to her house and asked them to shift to a safer location immediately.
“My father’s sister lives in a village that is 25 km from our home. That day, we packed a few clothes and my school books and rushed out. I did not know what was happening. It was for the first time that we were asked to leave… but it became a norm after that,” she adds.
With nothing else in the village to keep her distracted, Pawandeep was enrolled in a gymnastics academy at the indoor stadium in Jammu when she was just seven years old.
“Yeh bas aise hi ghar pe chalaang maarti thi (She used to jump around in the house),” says Swaran Kaur, Pawandeep’s mother. “A couple of people from our village suggested that we take her to the stadium. We didn’t know what gymnastics was. But this way, she stayed away from our house and the border for most part of the day. She was safe at the stadium,” Swaran adds.
Every day after school, Pawandeep used to take a bus from her village to reach the stadium 25 km away. She would return late in the evenings, when her father Balraj would pick her up from the bus stand.
Yet, meeting the demands of the “expensive” sport turned out to be a challenge for the family. The costume itself cost between Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 while the apparatus added up another Rs 5,000.
“We are below the poverty line,” says Balraj. “I don’t have a steady job so I couldn’t afford it. But my brother Bhupinder stays in the US and he sends money every month,” he adds.
A part of that money is kept aside for emergencies such as renting a house in nearby villages when they’re asked to leave during cross-border firing. But a major chunk is for Pawandeep’s training.
Last December, Army trucks ferrying soldiers occupied her village once again. There was heavy firing from across the border and her village was an easy target. And once again, Pawandeep had to leave along with her parents and two siblings, not knowing if they would return again.
“Since December, we’ve been staying at our aunt’s place. I hated the fact that because of the firing I had to leave my house and skip my training (for the National Games),” Pawandeep says.
Although the National Games was Pawandeep’s first senior competition, she reached Kerala with a rapidly-growing reputation, having conquered the junior and sub-junior national categories over the last two years.
In 2012, she had created history by becoming the first gymnast to win all six gold medals on offer at the national sub-junior gymnastics championships. “Her talent is undisputed. She is extremely dedicated and passionate which is a positive sign. But having a smooth transition from the junior to the senior level is important. That’s our main target with her,” says S P Singh, her coach.
For now, though, Pawandeep is just excited to return to her home in Kadyal after nearly three months. “I left amidst the bombing and firing. I am returning to my village with a gold medal. Hopefully, I’ll be able to enjoy this moment with my family at my home,” she says.
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