In the sombre glow of the drifting sun, a few septuagenarians in crumbled white kurtas are crouched around a hookah, blowing fumes that blend with those spat by the minar-like cooling towers of the thermal power plant a few miles off in Jharli, 50-odd kilometres from Jhajjar. Hugging their twilight rendezvous is a splintered road, a drivable path rather, where a bunch of women, while straddling bundles of hay on the head, pull down the pallu of their sarees on the face when spotting a stranger.It seems like a dated intro-frame of a kitschy 80s Bollywood movie, usually to depict the heroine’s rustic forbears before she’s glam-brushed into an urban chic. All shops, except a few videshi-sharab thekas and mobile recharge outlets, are shut by six.
Between ingesting smoke and sipping tea from an earthen pot, the hookah-men rattle out the directions to reach the Universal School. Everyone suggests a different route, before one them intervenes, “Woh Manu ka school hai na?” The seemingly eldest of them, shoots on inquisitively, “Bhaker saab ki beti? Usne aur padak jeeta kya?” but quickly gets down to the business: “seedhe jao, doosre mod se left, aur teesre mod se right.” Navigating, though, isn’t straightforward, for there are far too many turns and cuts at each corner. You miss one and you’re barging straight into somebody’s farm. Forget GPS, mobile network is wobbly. But then suddenly, from the grey skies descend a massive billboard of Manu Bhaker, perched so high that it seems hanging from an invisible ceiling up the sky. At the entrance, an elderly guard with a thinning grey crown is pushing a few other smaller billboards to the car porch. The notice board is a clumsy collage of black-and-white paper clipping on Manu’s feats.
The school, perceptibly, is basking in the new-fangled identity of the school, and its most famous student—Manu, who in March alone has claimed multiple gold medals at the World Cup and Junior World Cup, besides being in contention for another in the Commonwealth Games. Nobody, these days, knows the school by its proper name, but as Manu’s school. Nobody, these days, knows Sumedha as the Sanskrit and Hindi teacher, but as Manu’s mother. Every passerby drops in to enquire about Manu. “Sometimes, it’s a distraction, but you can’t help it,” she says. Her own world has changed in a year, it’s increasingly oscillating between that of a world champion’s mother and high-school teacher. But she doesn’t seem to mind it either.
The sky-blue paint on the door is peeling off. Manu’s father Ramkishan reminds the painters to put a fresh coat of emulsion. You’d almost miss the words on the mast of the wood — shooting range — scribbled in thin slanting block letters, probably with a black sketch pen. The makeshift range itself is oddly located—tucked in a corner on the second floor of the school. With a firm push, Ramkishan swivels the door open to a barely-ventilated, dimly-lit room — the size of two classrooms — strewn with all the shooting paraphernalia, target papers, pistols and motivational couplets on the walls. “It doesn’t look that modern, but the facilities are more than adequate, especially considering the expenses outside. Some of the ranges are not even accessible for ordinary people. Even now, when she is here, she trains here. We have produced other shooters too, who got picked for a junior Asian championship, but couldn’t go,” he says.
The range had sprung long before Manu chose shooting. He opens a window and points to an elevated platform on the compound boundary, where a lone punching bag is swinging mildly in the breeze. “This was her favourite place. After school, she would straightaway run to the boxing ring and begin punching the bag. She was so fond of boxing and won a lot of medals that we all thought she would turn out to be a boxer,” he says. That was around the time Mary Kom had won the Olympic bronze and women’s boxing was busting perceptions in the country. Moreover, the hub of Indian boxing, Bhiwani, is just 50km away from Goria.
But it all changed one day when she returned home with a swollen, red eye. “She was playing volleyball as a warm-up routine for boxing. She knelt to retrieve a ball and her teammate’s knee crashed into her eyes. She came home crying and angry, and said she was quitting the sport,” he says. Sumedha was relieved more than her, for she had never seen, before or after, her daughter weep so much.
Her relief, though, was temporary. She switched her attention to Thang Ta, a popular martial art form of Manipur, where the physical contact isn’t as pronounced as it’s in boxing, though fiddling with swords is not without chances of bodily harm. Like when she began boxing, she seemed to thoroughly enjoy it before she was robbed of a medal during a tournament in Delhi. “She would have won the match by a handsome margin, but the referee declared her opponent as the winner. As soon as she learned the verdict, she began shouting cheater, cheater,” remembers Ramkishan.
He felt like punching the referee himself and uploading the recorded video on the web. But almost three decades of sailing around the world had made him worldly-wise to foresee danger. “It was organised by a former wrestler and coach, who’s quite famous in Delhi, and I’d seen a lot of wrestlers prowling the arena besides the guards. If I were to do something silly, they would no doubt attack us. So I said nothing,” he recounts. Later, he learned that the bouts were rigged in such a manner that Delhi hoarded all the medals. But try selling this to Manu. She quit Thang-Ta then and there, without nursing second thoughts.
The next day she enrolled at a judo academy near Dadri, closer to her home. But somehow, it didn’t excite her as much. Then one day, she stepped into a hitherto unexplored quarter of the school, the shooting range. She casually took a pistol lying asunder on the table and straightaway shot 7.5. “The coach was stunned. He told me that normally a shooter takes six months to a year to shoot so accurately. She did it with her first,” Ramkishan gushes with a sudden surge of excitement, as if the action was unfolding right in front of his eyes.
Whether it’s paternal exaggeration or not, there are reasons enough to believe that her first shot would indeed have been decent. For nearly two years since her first tryst with a pistol, she is raved about as next big shooting sensation from the country, not only winning medals in junior world championships but also beating experienced shooters around the world and the country. In the national ranking, she trails behind the seasoned Heena Sidhu by just .3, and in the recent meeting she had enjoyed a decisive edge over Siddhu — she beat her in the nationals in Thiruvanathapuram by a good 1.7.
When she started off, her biggest motivation was besting her peers in the tiny range in school. Then it was Muskan Bhanwala, but it took less than six months to upgrade her marker to Sidhu. The bar, her father says, will only get higher.
In a moderate-sized hallway full of women in futuristic clobber and ear-muffs wrapped around their ears like dumbbells tied at either end of a hair bow, Manu is a trance-like cocoon of concentration. Her body’s impossibly still and upright, right arm held out straight ahead at eye level, the index finger curled over the trigger of a self-loading air pistol that resembles a clunky gas-stove lighter than the sophisticated gadgetry in James Bond movies. Her breath is a bellow, a deep ingestion, a pause and a snap release, both the breath and pellet, the latter with a fluid thrust of speed and strength that slices through the trapped air of the hall to the tiny coloured circles of the paper target. The only time her fingers tremble is when the pistol recoils in the momentum of the effort.
The more Bhaker’s parents watch this snatch, shot during a recent event, the more they wonder how their restless daughter can be so statue-still and poker-faced, almost like she’s asleep between the shots. Ramkishan quickly flips through another video, of Manu bungee-jumping in Shimla, where she doesn’t even wait for the instructor’s advice to jump off the platform. Sumedha, like an angsty mother, lets out a nervous shriek. Ramkishan, a former merchant navy officer, is speechless. The phone almost shivered out of his hand, he says. But on the screen, Manu is squealing and squawking.
“Woh hamesha se aisi hi hai, bohot restless,” Sumedha quibbles, glancing at her husband, as if to suggest he’s the one who pampers Manu’s whims. “One day she said she wants to skate on ice in summer and he took her to an artificial rink in Dubai. For bungee jumping, she was taken to an island in Singapore. Suddenly, she’ll say she doesn’t want to do this, but that, then the next day, she wants to try something else.” she says.
One day, when Sumedha reached home from school, Manu gave her a couple of pillow covers. “I thought I had seen it somewhere, then I realised that she had stitched this from an old salwar of mine. The day after, the same pillow covers were restitched to kitchen towels,” she recollects, before she shows a handkerchief embroidered by Manu. The same restless streak runs in her choice of sports — Sumedha complains her house is a warehouse of various sporting equipment, from skating shoes to boxing gloves, and punching bag to Thang-ta swords. She doesn’t sell it as junk, for each equipment carries a strand of memory, an invisible connect with her daughter. “I feel she’s around somewhere.”
With a spate of medals jangling from the wooden ceiling of her trophy cupboard, shooting, Sumedha hopes, will be her last stop. But Ramkishan is not yet fully convinced that she will stick to shooting forever. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she tells me one day that she wants to quit the sport, even if she has won an Olympic medal. Woh alag type ki ladki hai,” he says. “Alag” here implies different than unique.
The ‘different type girl’ resonates even more in the context of Haryana. The pallu-pulling women straddling hay is a perfect metaphor to drill home this contrast.
Ramkishan rummages through a pile of WhatsApp messages and selects the one at the bottom of the screen. It reads: “Papa, don’t talk about medals. Heading to the airport.” It’s not like he’s a medal-obsessed, overbearing parent. “But she’s like that. She doesn’t like even us mentioning medals, even if we are not bothered about medals. That’s why she always looks to avoid the media. If there’s an article about her in the paper, we ensure that she doesn’t stumble on it. She doesn’t even celebrate victories,” he says.
She’s not a media-recluse, she is rather articulate, but choosy about topics. Medals, ranks and performances are a big turn-off. “But that’s what all journalists end up asking her about,” he says, half in jest and half seriously.
A day before she left for the Junior World Cup in Sydney, she was left fretting over incessant questions on medals at a function in Delhi, when the rest of her teammates seemed to glimmer in the after-glow of World Cup medals. She ends up repeating the same answers, though with a beatific, melting smile that seems to conceal all the nerves swimming beneath. But her father differs; he says they can’t imagine her being nervous, just like they can’t picture her standing still. “In Thiruvananthapuram, where I accompanied her, we used to talk random stuff till she got into the hall, and we’ll resume the conversations in the same manner when she comes back,” says Sumedha.
But that’s when she’s winning. When she loses, she bangs out of the halls and locks herself in her room for hours. Sometimes, she takes out all her frustration on the punching bag. “It’s very difficult to console her and she takes a lot of time to get over. She doesn’t even like us consoling her,” she says.
Not just in sports, but in academics too. “Once I slapped her for poor grades, when she was in fourth standard. Since then, she has never come even second in her class. The same mentality runs when she plays sports too, “ he says.
That’s why Ramkishan fears she would one day quit shooting as well. It’s a rare moment when the inscrutable veneer of his composure peels off. A sudden longing to see her clutches him. His fingers furiously type a message, which though conceals all his angst: “Papa ke liye kya laayegi tu?” The reply is prompt: “Itna luggage hai ki bag mein space bilkul nahi hai aur shopping ke liye time bhi nahi hai.” Her mom breaks into a giggle. Ramkishan shakes his head and mutters. Almost to himself, “woh alag type ki ladki hai!”
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