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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Meet the Phogats

When Geeta,eldest of three wrestling sisters,took to the akhara,her family was ostracised for its ‘shameful act’. But a gold at CWG 2010 and a ticket to the London Olympics changed that for good

Written by Aditya Iyer | New Delhi | Published: July 21, 2012 12:30:54 am

Din raat ka farq,when Mahabir Singh Phogat states it,is not just the metaphorical difference between night and day or his life shifting from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other; the meaning is a lot more blatant. When Phogat claims that the farq,the contrast,in his existence has been the move from the dark of night to the light of day,he means it quite literally.

For years since he physically placed his daughters in the red-clay akhara in his backyard,the sun never rose over the Phogat home in Ballali,Haryana. He lived in the depth of darkness.

His friends abandoned him; his well-wishers didn’t wish so well anymore; even his family shunned him as the untouchable. The wrestling pit in the civilised world,let alone the rustic cow-belt of India,was no place for girls.

They toiled alone,Phogat and his three daughters,and toiled in spandex-clad shame. “ Mooh dikhane layak nahi tha,” he says. But then,just like that,a decade since the turn of the millennium,a decade since the toil first began,something very unexpected happened. His face was sprinkled with a stray torch of warmth. The oldest daughter Geeta had brought home some shine with the expensive metal at the Commonwealth Games.

Then she decided to fix the sun permanently above her damp thatched roof and make her father’s face visible again by qualifying for the Olympics. “And suddenly,everyone wants to touch the untouchable. And suddenly,everyone is my best friend,” says Phogat. “There are many things that money can buy,but respect,you have to earn it. Geeta has bathed my house with it.”

With a win at the Olympic Qualification Tournament in Almaty,Turkey,Geeta,23,did what no other female wrestler in the country had before,and is rooted to her quest to what just one other Indian woman had — wear a shining necktie at the big one. And for that,and her entire life based on a single decision taken by her stubborn father,she has the pioneer to thank.

Pioneering ways

“Karnam Malleswari,” Geeta says. “That’s who I want to be. That’s who I have trained to become all my life. My father watched the respect she earned at Sydney,and decided that he wanted his daughters (Babita,Ritu and me) to have that. Now I am nearly there.”

By just standing at that enviable edge,Geeta has earned something abstract she yearned for as much as the hard medal itself — the title of being a ‘role model’.

“It is just bizarre,” she says. “Until now,everywhere in India I went,the line of questioning was about me wearing a singlet,about me using my body in a man’s world,about my oddly shaped ears,about whether I would ever get married. It got a little tiring. Now,I’m asked if it feels nice to inspire girls. Of course it does!”

And inspirational,she has been. “The very same friends who had turned their backs on me now arrive on my doorstep with their girl child in hand and a request on their lips. ‘Can you make my daughters like your Geeta and Babita?’ they ask.

Pride & glory

“Nothing can be more satisfying than that,” says father Phogat,unabashed in his pride. “I tell them all the same thing,‘To become like them is one thing,to win an Olympic medal is quite another task.”

Geeta too knows that it is not going to be easy. In fact,as she puts it,the real challenge will begin only once she lands in London,next week. “In my category,the 55kg category,there is a great Japani wrestler,and another from Canada. I have been studying their tactics for a while now.” Saori Yoshida,the Japani in question,and Tonya Verbeek,the Canadian,have swept most podium medals between them since women’s wrestling was first introduced in Athens.

Says Geeta: “I know that it is not going to be easy. I also know that there is a big difference between my level and theirs.” But differences,or farq as the Phogats like to put it,are not something they haven’t bridged before.

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