ON HER 14-hour flight back home, Sakshi Malik kept nodding off and waking up. Whenever her eyes opened, she reveals, the only thought that came to her mind was, “Is this real? Did this really happen?” And it was only when she landed in India that it finally sunk in that she was an Olympic medalist. That it wasn’t a dream anymore. Or as she puts it, “I realised how big the medal is for me and the country.”
The magnitude of her achievement only gets more vivid as she reaches her paternal village of Mokhra Khass. It’s a day when she would get named the brand ambassador for Haryana’s Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao and Beti Khilao campaign.
Also one where Khap Panchayats, known for their patriachal attitudes towards females, went on to bestow honours and accolades to the first female wrestler from India to win an Olympic medal. Not to forget local villages composing their own songs-Indian Olympic Wrestler and Haryana ki wrestlers to name a couple-and music albums about Sakshi in the space of one week since her Rio heroics.
It’s six in the evening now and Sakshi is ready to leave Mokhra Khass for her residence in Rohtak. A week after she stood proudly atop the podium in Brazil, she’s spent most of today on stages where she has been felicitated.
Two elder ladies of the village approach Sakshi and hold her hands for a few seconds as she prepares to descend from the stage. Through the tight security cordon, which is in place mainly for the many political leaders in attendance, Sakshi pauses to acknowledge them. She then calls around a dozen young girls from the village on stage. “Dream like me,” she says while showing them her medal.
It’s been a memorable yet hectic day, where thousands have tried everything they can to catch a glimpse of her with some fortunate enough to get close.
“Unknown people in the villages are coming and greeting me and giving me shagun (blessings). That’s what real support is, when people come and want to touch my medal. It was my dream over the last 12 years and this medal is for all the Sakshis in Haryana. I want them all to come and start playing and achieve this dream,” she says.
“I am also happy that Beti Khilao is now also included in the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme,” she quickly adds.
The scenes were no different when she arrived at her maternal village of Ismailla earlier in the day-her first stop. From there she moved on to Khrawad near Rohtak, one of the four villages that fall under Malik Khap. In these parts, Khap panchayats haven’t always made life easy for girls, advocating bans on everything from them wearing jeans to roaming with boys.
But on Wednesday, the entire programme is based around honouring Sakshi, the young girl who’s put the Malik Khap on the map and more importantly brought them never-seen-before prestige. Their members are in full attendance and you soon realize that Sakshi’s win is triggering nothing less than a social revolution, or so it seems. If anything, they want their girls now to follow in her footsteps, don the singlet and grapple, even if it means against boys.
Winds of change
“We have no problem in girls wrestling and training with boys and the number of people, who have come to bestow Sakshi the pride of the Khap award, have proved this. We want more and more girls to come and play. Sakshi’s medal is perhaps the biggest honour for all the khaps in Haryana. Most of the villagers from here are in the Army and Sakshi’s feat is equal to their feat of fighting in wars for India,” says Dada Baljeet, leader of the Malik Khap.
A few hours later close to 10,000 are present for Sakshi’s homecoming in Mokhra. And village panchayats are falling over each other to announce awards for their returning hero. If one is presenting her with a silver cow and a hanuman chalisa written in letters made of golddust, another is presenting her with the title of 36 biradari ratan, or the gem of the 36 castes that make up Haryana.
The same 36 castes were making headlines a few months ago during the Jat agitation here, but on this special day they were more involved with using their creativity in honouring Sakshi, the gifts ranging from silver maces, that weigh anywhere between 4 to 9 kg, to canisters of desi ghee, and even silver tiaras along with 51 Kg of dry fruits.
But it’s not just the who’s who from the Khap panchayats who are jumping on to the ‘honouring Sakshi’ bandwagon. Even some kids from the neighbouring villages have got around collecting money to celebrate their Sakshi didi’s Olympic moment.
“Two boys collected more than Rs 51,000 and presented to her today. It’s her homecoming and nobody in the village wanted to left behind. They have gone as far as Delhi to record the songs that they have composed. Sakshi might have won bronze, but for us she is as precious as gold and silver,” says a beaming Satyadev Malik, wrestling coach and former international-level grappler.
Sakshi isn’t the first Malik from her family to take to wrestling. There was Badlu Ram, her grandfather, who was renowned for his feats in mud wrestling and was one of the pioneers when it came to encouraging girls from the village to take up what previously was considered solely as a man’s sport.
And before the function at Mokhara Khass is about to start, Sakshi spots an elderly gentleman with the conspicuous cauliflower ears and invites him up on stage. Madia Pehelwan, now 80, trained along with Badlu Ram at the village’s vyayamshala and it was at the village akhara that young Sakshi commenced her eventual journey to the podium at the XXXI Olympiad.
“Sakshi spent her first seven years at the village and would see her grandfather Baldu Ram and me wrestle in the mud at the Shiv Shankar Vyayamshala. Balduji encouraged girls to wrestle too and right now also, more than 50 female wrestlers train here in the village,” Madia, who won a silver medal at the nationals in the 1950s and has trained over 200 wrestlers, tells the crowd.
“More than 10 male wrestlers from these parts have represented India at the international level but this girl has surpassed them all. Gaon ke sabhi pehelwano ko ek medal se hi chit kar diya (She has pinned all the wrestlers of the village with one medal),” he adds. And on a day, Sakshi opened her eyes to the life and trials of being a celebrity, she was to find out that in turn her heroics in Rio have opened the eyes of an entire state towards not just female wrestling, but women as a whole.