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The Village Road that Led to Guangzhou

The village of Jansale near Mangalore has a hero: Ashwini Akkunji,the double-gold winner at the Asian Games. It was here,while herding the family’s cows and scrambling through the paddy fields,that she discovered the joy of running. Her father recalls how she outpaced boys her age. Her sister talks about a cool and composed girl and her Olympic goal. Run,run has now become the refrain of the place.

Written by V Shoba | New Delhi |
December 5, 2010 6:06:09 pm

The village of Jansale near Mangalore has a hero: Ashwini Akkunji,the double-gold winner at the Asian Games. It was here,while herding the family’s cows and scrambling through the paddy fields,that she discovered the joy of running. Her father recalls how she outpaced boys her age. Her sister talks about a cool and composed girl and her Olympic goal. Run,run has now become the refrain of the place.

Over 100 km from Mangalore,on a pothole-riddled road that leads to Siddapura in Kundapur taluk,a huge hoarding in Kannada congratulating Ashwini Akkunji Chidananda on her sporting feats,first at the Commonwealth Games and now at the Asian Games,marks a village hitherto unknown to the world. “The board was put up by proud villagers. Farmers,labourers,autowallahs — everyone contributed. They have also distributed pamphlets to convene a meeting to decide how best to felicitate Ashwini when she returns,” says Chidananda Shetty,the father of the 23-year-old athlete who won India a rather unexpected gold in 400 m hurdles and a second as part of the 4×400 m relay team at the Asian Games in Guangzhou,China.

A kuchcha road leads to Jansale,an agricultural hamlet with a population of less than 500,where Ashwini discovered the joy of running while herding the family’s dozen-odd cows and scrambling through their five acres of paddy and areca palms. The road thins out into a two-ft-wide lane bisecting the flooded fields,and even this grassy path winds up in a canal,which must be crossed on a precarious bridge made of wooden planks. “On Saturday,Lakshminarayana,the MLA of Byndoor constituency (in which Siddapura falls),came here to congratulate us and promised to build a road leading to our home. Our chinnada hudugi (golden girl) should soon be able to come all the way home by car,he said,” Shetty says,his voice tinged with pride.

It has been a year since Ashwini last came home — for her sister Deepti’s engagement on November 27 last year — but at Akkunji House,a modest three-room residence hemmed in by palms and pepper creepers,Shetty’s wife Yashoda,her aged father,a couple of cousins and some neighbours often relive her victories all over again. The family,whose only source of income is the 60 quintals of rice and 15 quintals of arecanut they harvest every year,could not afford to go to Delhi in October to watch her win the 4×400 m gold at the Commonwealth Games (CWG). But they have now got broadband for Rs 150 a month so that they can repeatedly watch her sprint over hurdles and step on the podium. There is something supremely athletic about Ashwini’s hurdling action — a quickness and elasticity that is better than anyone else’s in Asia now. She strides forward,left leg first,her eyes go wide on sighting the next barrier a few metres away,she leaps over it and then on the last flat stretch her well-toned limbs cut the wind.

“Ashwini’s goal is to break her idol PT Usha’s national record of 55.42 seconds for 400 m hurdles and to represent India at the Olympics,” says Deepti,an English lecturer and a long-distance runner in her schooldays till asthma got the better of her,pointing to a photograph of the younger and taller version of herself. It doesn’t seem all that inconceivable now,considering Ashwini miraculously improved her timing from 59 seconds at the CWG to a stellar 56.15 at the Asian Games just a month later.

***

like usha’s Payyoli over two decades ago,it is again the turn of little villages and small towns to unleash their golden girls on the athletics field. Like Ashwini’s Jansale. Like 3,000 m steeplechase winner Sudha Singh’s Raebareli. Like the village of Mullakkanam in the high ranges of Kerala where Preeja Sreedharan (who won the gold in 10,000 m and the silver in 5,000 m) trekked to her school.

When India’s big cities are seduced by tennis,and now badminton and squash,and the Wilsons and Princes and Yonexes that come with it,small-towners seem to care less about what is perceived as glamorous in the sweat-dripping,bone-hurting world of sport. Long-limbed Ashwini could have been a local star in a basketball team. “But athletics is more prestigious and has a greater scope,” she said after the win in China,recalling what was an obvious choice for her.

“She is always cool and composed,” says Deepti. “When I worry about the Nigerians,the Chinese and the Japanese who could be snapping at her heels,she turns to me and says,‘Don’t worry akka,I’ll get the medal’.”

In the living room,over a modest meal of boiled rice,saaru and mango pickle served on banana leaves,the family jokes about how gold medals are never made of real gold. They talk excitedly in Tulu about Ashwini’s love of fish and crab cooked by her mother,of dressing up and concocting herbal oils for her hair,of dancing to filmi tunes and listening to Antony the cat meow on the phone. “We want to visit some temples with her when she’s here. She wanted to come by train,but I’ve told her to fly to Mangalore — she is famous now,it is safer that way,” says Shetty,who is now looking forward to adding another floor and a couple of rooms to the house,and driving a small car that his daughter wants to buy for him.

It wasn’t always like this. Despite the fact that she had represented India at many events,no one really knew who she was before the CWG,not even the villagers. When she won the hurdles at the Asian Games,it was as if the village was celebrating Diwali once again,says a cousin. “We are all so proud,but to qualify for the Olympics,Ashwini has to work on trimming her timing a little more,” says her father,a school-level swimmer with a deep fascination for athletics,who recognised Ashwini’s speed when she was a child,outrunning boys her age and older.

Shetty encouraged — almost incited — her to keep running,and against the advice of villagers who thought it unseemly to send one’s daughters to the city,sent her to Vidyanagar Sports School in Bangalore after seventh grade,where she trained under her first coach,Manjunath,and went on to join the Tata Athletic Academy in Jamshedpur. After four years in Jamshedpur,when she returned to Bangalore to train at the Sports Authority of India (SAI),Ashwini landed a job with the Railways as a ticket collector. “She worked for one day,but she continues to receive her salary every month. The Railways has given her a prize of Rs 15 lakh and a promotion after her CWG win,” says Shetty. However,without a trainer at SAI,she soon went to Patiala to train in hurdles for the first time. Competing in the event at the national level for the first time — at the 50th National Open Athletics Championship in Kochi in May 2010 — she won,setting the stage for her meteoric rise as a pro hurdler. Yet,true to the erratic ways of Indian sport,she had not been concentrating solely on hurdles. “It’s only been a month since I’ve been focusing on hurdles,” she says. “It used to be ‘let’s practise for 10 days and see.’ Now I want to do well in this,” she promises.

“Odi,odi (run,run)” is now a refrain in Jansale,where once athletics was unheard of. “My students say they want to run too,” says Deepti. “Parents have now realised that their children can be successful in sports,so they are encouraging them. If you notice,the women from Karnataka’s coastal belt are well-built and suited for athletics. It’s nice to see Ashwini become an idol for them.”

Ashwini has a compulsive drive for improvement,recalls Pravin Kumar,a former discus-throw athlete who went to a district-level meet with Ashwini while in school: “She was second in a 400 m event,but she wasn’t happy. I will come first the next time,she said.” This tenacity has been Ashwini’s trademark,says her father,recounting how,four years ago,she came home with a bad back,worried but determined to tide over the low. “She has completed junior college and is studying for a degree in the arts,but her schedule hasn’t allowed her to appear for exams. A few years ago,when her sporting career hadn’t really taken off and she didn’t have a degree or a job,I would worry,but I told myself to be patient. I’m glad I did that,” he says.

Subramanya Joshy,a retired college principal who tutored Ashwini in maths,says,“I used to call her jinkermari (deer). She’s a village girl at heart,industrious and dutiful,and she has stood on her own feet,backed only by her family. Most athletes have godfathers or sponsors; she had none. It’s a miracle she has made it big.”

Then Chidananda Shetty’s phone rings. It is Ashwini. A cousin cranes his neck for a snatch of the short conversation she has with her father. She is coming home,she says. For almost a minute,no one speaks. They are already with Ashwini,feeding her fish curry,trying to catch up with her as she sprints across the fields,and soliciting her style tips.

In Bangalore,her 26-year-old brother Amit,who works in real estate,says,“When I saw the live telecast,I remembered how when we were children,she used to outrun me all the time. When she comes home to Jansale,I will go too,I just have to be there.” They all have to make the most of the few days they will get to spend with a star of their own making.

with inputs from Shivani Naik

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