When her daughter was barely nine months old, Shailaja Jain abruptly weaned her from breastfeeding to take up a trial posting as a district kabaddi coach at Ichalkaranji in Maharashtra. Two years ago, “Mrs Jain”, as the Iranians call her, distanced herself from the idea that her Indian nationality should restrict her career ambitions. “Once you decide to take a leap, you shouldn’t think too much,” she says.
On Friday, the Indian coach of the Iranian women’s kabaddi team achieved the colossal: An astounding 27-24 victory against overwhelming favourites India to ring in Iran’s emergence as the Asian Games champions.
”If they had asked nicely, I might have even helped the Indian men’s team with insights into the Iranian opponents they lost to yesterday. But their attitude makes me feel like I am a criminal for coaching outside,” says the 61-year-old tactician.
In the women’s final, she spotted a glaring hole on India’s right flank and sent two of Iran’s best raiders to wreak havoc. “Within 2-3 minutes, India’s morale was down after our raiders attacked that right corner. Their defence crumbled, and we took advantage,” she says, describing her plan with relish.
India’s shaky right wing was always going to collapse at the Garuda Theatre — but Iran’s capabilities had needed bolstering, and it was for this that Jain was roped in by an insistent Iranian kabaddi federation.
“I was not only reluctant but worried about going to Iran,” she says, recalling how within a week of a one-month trial in 2016, the Iranians sped up her visa formalities and had her on the first flight out to Tehran. “I’m a pure veg-eating Jain. And you know how some of us think about Islamic countries. So, of course, I was wary of the dressing laws and how women are treated, and whether I’d be able to get vegetarian food. But many things are misconceptions. There are certain restrictions, but not all of them are bad,” she says.
”Plus, if I hadn’t taken this up, people wouldn’t be so interested in my life story. It’s because I won the Asian Games with Iran beating favourites India, and I am a successful coach,” says Shailaja, adding that she had refused an Iranian offer in 2008 because they weren’t paying her enough.
Iran never compelled her to wear the head-scarf, she says. “There are certain rules of that country, and I took it positively and would wear an odhini, like we do on a salwar kurta. I could not be stuck because of these things,” she says.
Shailaja was born in Nagpur and grew up watching her mother play kabaddi. “I played all sports — kabaddi, langdi, kho-kho, running. I followed a friend who was selected to the Maratha Lancers club and stuck on while she left,” she says. Playing at the national and university levels, she agreed to a marriage proposal from a man who hailed from a rural background in Jalgaon but encouraged her kabaddi, marrying in 1980.
”He didn’t earn much, but my father-in-law sent me money to complete a course at NIS (National Institute of Sports). The Jain samaj isn’t always very forward-thinking but my in-laws were, despite coming from a village,” she says. This burning drive would see her leave a three-month-old daughter in the corridor of a school where she was interviewing for a coach’s post. After coaching around 300 players to top-level kabaddi, she retired from the NIS job in 2014. But Iran had been watching, keen on hiring her, impressed by an interview from a decade ago.
”I love the Iranian girls because their fitness is excellent. They played all sports, football, rugby, karate, taekwondo and martial arts, before coming to kabaddi,” she says. It’s why she knew that when the finals’ star Khalaj Ghazal was struck on the head, she didn’t need to be taken off. “I knew she was tough,” she says.
What “Mrs Jain” brought to the table was technical basics. “I took time to fix their technique. How to fall back after grabbing the ankle, not fall in front. If you’re catching the thigh, not to move the back leg in front, stay where you are. Fundamentals,” she says.
She reckons that India’s selection controversies and favouritism did them in. She would love to coach in India “but without interference”. “In Iran, I had control. The list of the last 12 players was approved with only my signature,” she says.
Shailaja also refused to accept the simplest of gifts. “I didn’t want to feel indebted to anyone and be coerced into selecting them. I told them, ‘everything after gold’. I told them only gold was my mission as coach. Your winning is secondary,” she says, laughing. “It obviously meant several sleepless nights because I was under pressure to deliver.”
At the same time, she was brutal in pruning the squad from 42 to 12. “I wanted a winning team. I created a WhatsApp group. I’d usually put inspirational messages. But in the lead-up, every day, I would trim the group. Removing them from the group meant they hadn’t made the team,” she says.
While she had no issues with dressing rules, discussions on food often got interesting even as she lugged packets of khakhra, pickles and papads. “I love their preparations, only if there wasn’t meat in it. So I’d make them find veg substitutes. Even in their raita, they’ll sneak in meat,” she says.
As ambitions go, it has been a lifelong dream. “I wanted to do something different in life. Now I’m Asian Games champion coach,” she says. And while she has achieved the unthinkable in Jakarta, she adds that she’s not averse to coaching India. “I love India, India is my country, but I love kabaddi also.”