It is August 17, 2016, and two women in wrestling costumes eye each other warily. In a few moments, they will grab each other and start grappling. Both women have waited for this moment all their lives—this is the Olympic Games. Six minutes later, one of them will have a bronze medal, and be a hero to millions. The other will be disconsolate, the dreams of a lifetime crushed.
Wrestling seems simple, involving strength and power, body against body, but actually requires enormous finesse and intricacy. “It is a sport that needs brain, not brawn,” the woman who wins this fight later tells me. Sakshi Malik, 23 years old, from Rohtak, Haryana, needs more than brute force alone to win. She and her opponent, Aisuluu Tynybekova from Kyrgyzstan, are almost playing chess with their bodies, trying to induce small errors from their opponent: errors of balance, movement, emphasis. It is a game of small margins; if Malik steps a millimetre in the wrong direction, or shifts her weight a microsecond too early or late, she will lose.
What is in her head at a time like this? Elite sportspeople have told me how they try to make their mind as blank as possible, banishing all unrelated thought to achieve maximum focus. Is it like that for Malik? “That is impossible,” she laughs. [We are speaking in Hindi, so I am translating throughout this interview.] “At least for me. See, I can sit here and talk to you, and my mind can be blank and I can focus. But not there—not at the Olympics, fighting for a medal. My mind was the opposite of blank that day. I thought about how my life would change if I won. I thought about how I would cope with losing, what people would say, how they would criticise me. I thought about my parents, my coach, my friends. I thought, the Olympics come once in four years, I can’t let this chance go by. I thought of all of India watching me on TV. I had one billion voices inside my head.”
And of course, she also thought strategy. “I knew what I was planning against my opponent. I knew her strengths. I knew her weaknesses. I had a plan. And then I fought.” As she had in previous matches, Malik fell behind. “But I never give up.” She kept going, and turned the match around in the last five seconds. Until that moment, her life had consisted of approximately 75,59,13,600 seconds. All of it was backstory now. All of it had led to these five seconds.
The first sport
The history of Malik’s triumph at Rio is much older than Malik herself. No one can say for sure what the oldest human sport is, but wrestling is a reasonable guess. It involves nothing more than the bodies of the contestants, and simply requires one wrestler to pin the other down. Even toddlers grapple, and it may not be farfetched to say that the sport of wrestling is an elaboration and formalisation of some of our most basic instincts.
In his magisterial book, Enter the Dangal, Rudraneil Sengupta traces the history of the sport. A wrestling scene is carved on the handle of an Egyptian knife from 3450 BCE. Wall paintings in a group of tombs in Beni Hasan in Egypt have been dated to 2100 BCE. The mythologies of the world, often as sure a guide to antiquity as archaeology, are full of wrestling stories. The Greek hero Herakles was a wrestler, and wrestling played a key part in the stories of Krishna, Bheema and Hanuman.
In India, wrestling flourished in the Mughal courts, and was encouraged by Hindu kings as well, most notably the Marathas. Wrestlers commanded such respect that the sport became a means of social mobility, a way out of the trappings of caste. Gender, though, was another matter. In India, certainly, wrestling was an exclusively male pursuit—until the end of the 20th century.
Girls in the ring
Here’s the bizarre thing about women’s wrestling: while the sport has a serious tradition across India, in states like Maharashtra, Bihar, Bengal and all of central and northern India, it is the state of Haryana that pioneered the entry of women into wrestling, and dominates it today. Now, Haryana is famously misogynistic, with a sex ratio of 879 women for every 1000 men (as per the 2011 census). So how did women’s wrestling take off here, of all places?
For that, we must give credit to a man called Chandgi Ram. Ram came from a village called Sisai in Haryana, and is one of the great modern Indian wrestlers. He excelled in dangals, the traditional Indian wrestling competitions fought on mud, winning coveted titles such as the Rustom-e-Hind and Hind Kesri. He also represented India on the mat, winning an Asian Games gold medal in 1970, and taking part in the 1972 Munich Olympics. He won the Arjuna Award and the Padma Shri, retired as a legend, flirted with Bollywood, and eventually started his own coaching centre, the Chandgi Ram Vyayamshala, as many retired wrestlers tend to do. For 22 years, he taught only boys.
In 1997, everything changed. The International Olympic Committee announced that starting 2004, women’s wrestling would be an Olympic sport. Ram, who had won everything in his career except an Olympic medal, saw this as an opportunity. He started training his daughters, Sonika and Deepika Kaliraman, even though he was met with great resistance. Once he and his students were attacked at a dangal in Haryana, and had stones thrown at them. On another occasion in 2000, some coaches and students at his own Vyayamshala attacked him, breaking one of his coaches’ legs and beating up Ram as the girls hid in a locked room. But he would not back down.
The Kaliraman girls had moderately successful careers, but Ram’s legacy reached well beyond his family. Some of his wards started coaching girls as well; one of them, Mahavir Singh Phogat, trained his daughters and nieces, and made the Phogats the most accomplished family in Indian wrestling. And women’s wrestling gradually began to gain acceptance in Haryana, especially as the medals came in. One of the centres where girls were allowed to train alongside boys was the Chhotu Ram Stadium Wrestling Academy in Rohtak.
Ticket to anywhere
One day a young boy came to the Academy and asked for the coach, Ishwar Singh Dahiya. He wanted to be coached by him. Dahiya said okay, the kid looked enthusiastic. But later, Dahiya realised that this boy was actually a girl with short hair, by the name of Sunita. There were no girls at the centre. What was Dahiya to do now?
“As I had already given permission,” Dahiya told the Indian Express, “there was no question of backtracking. That’s how the girls’ centre started.” Sunita brought with her another girl named Kavita, who went on to win a medal in an Asian junior competition. And one day Kavita sat down to chat with a 12-year-old visiting the academy and told her about planes.
“Mujhe plane ka bahut craze tha,” Malik tells me. “Kavita didi told me about flying on a plane on her way to wrestling competitions, and I thought, ‘Even I want to sit on a plane.’ I would see them going overhead and wonder, when will I get to fly?”
Malik enjoyed sports, and had played basketball, table tennis and badminton in school. But wrestling was special, partly because her paternal grandfather practised the sport. “I was also attracted to the costumes,” she says. “And within a couple of days of wrestling, I just knew, this is it. This is what I want to do. This is my sport, my passion, the love of my life.”
Sport at its most beautiful feels like art but has the mechanics of science. Before Roger Federer hit his first beautiful forehand, he hit thousands of ugly forehands, embedding the movement, the timing, the mechanics into his brain till it was second nature to him. All great batsmen will tell you that they are great not because of what they do on the field, but because of what they do in the nets. The buzzword in sport these days is ‘deliberate practice’, but you don’t need a sports scientist to tell you that it takes years of repetitive hard work to get to the point where you can make the sport look easy. The excellent is always carved out of the mundane. And so it was for Malik.
“I would wake up at 4.30 in the morning,” she says, “and work hard for three hours. Then I would rest during the day. Then three more hours in the evening—training, training, training. There are so many aspects we have to focus on to be a wrestler. Stamina, power, endurance, flexibility, speed. There is so much work required for each of those. Our coaches plan sessions so we can be all-round wrestlers. There is no time for anything else.”
She continues, “We can’t eat before training, either. So we are fighting our hunger too. We can’t do the normal things other girls do. My brother would say, ‘Hey Sakshi, eat this’ and I would say ‘I can’t, I have to go for training now.’ My friends would go out on weekends, maybe to watch a movie, and I would be training. If I had a day off, I’d just rest, so that I could be fresh for the session the next day. Training, rest, training, so jao. Every day.”
Malik doesn’t say this in a tone of complaint, though. “People used to tell me, what kind of girl are you, you don’t pray to god. And I would tell them, but I do puja every single day. Wrestling is puja for me. Three hours in the morning, three hours in the evening, I am praying to god. In fact, if you ask me what the best day of my life is, I will say it’s any day that contains do time ki training, aur din mein rest.”
Malik sometimes jokes that she became a wrestler because she wanted to fly in an airplane. What might once have been a goal was actually the first significant mile-stone in her career. “In 2008, I went to the Children’s Cup. That was the first time I flew in a plane. The whole plane was full of us Indian kids going to the event. And we were so well looked after. We got a full kit, coat, pant, trolley—it felt amazing to represent India. And then I won the gold! I was on the podium receiving the medal, and I could see the Indian flag, and the national anthem was playing. I can’t describe that feeling. There is nothing like it.”
It was an important year because in 2008, wrestler Sushil Kumar won a bronze at the Beijing Olympics, and a whole generation of kids began to believe that they could do it too. Malik was inspired by ‘Sushil Pahalwan’, as she calls him, and by Geeta Phogat, who won gold in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. “Geeta didi was an early inspiration,” says Malik. “Whenever we were practising together, I would always go up to her and ask if she already had a partner. [Wrestlers train in pairs.] I always wanted to be her partner. I would learn all that I could from her. She was so aggressive. She always fought to the end.”
She was close to all the Phogat sisters, having travelled a lot with them for tournaments. Her fondness for Geeta is evident—and ironic. Geeta fought in the same weight category in which Malik found herself. Geeta had participated in the London Olympics, but only one of them could go to Rio.
By the time the trials for Rio came around, Malik had established herself as a serious contender. She had won the silver medal in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and the bronze in the 2015 Asian Games.
And in the trial for her weight category for Rio, she beat Geeta 8-1. Qualifying for Rio, however, was another matter.
There were three qualifying tournaments, and Malik lost in the first one. “I had a bad day. It happens. You can’t win every time.” Then the Wrestling Federation of India decided to send Geeta for the second qualification event, in Mongolia. She was a senior wrestler and they felt she deserved a shot at qualifying. As it happens, she failed, but had she qualified, Malik would have had to wait another four years. Now she had another chance, at the third qualifying event in Turkey. Her roommate for the trip was her close friend of many years and Geeta’s cousin, Vinesh Phogat.
“No matter what happens,” says Malik, “we told ourselves, we must qualify. Otherwise four more years would go by.” But there was the matter of meeting their weight first. Wrestlers often have to lose a lot of weight before the weigh-in for the bout, in order to qualify for their chosen division. Both Malik and Vinesh were struggling with it.
“Maybe it was because of the temperature in Istanbul, but we just weren’t losing weight. We didn’t eat for two days, not even a sip of water, and still training and sweating. It was pathetic, and I told Vinesh, ‘Kaise bhookhe pade hai. Isse achha tho apna normal life hai. Do time ka khaana jise mil jaaye, woh sabse achha insaan hota hai.’ The next day both of us qualified, and all the pain went away. We went out to celebrate.”
And how they celebrated tells you a little bit about the sacrifices they had made, and the things we take for granted. They went to a nearby mall and walked around.
Last one standing
August 17, 2016 was a bittersweet day. Malik and Vinesh had their bouts in the 58kg and 48kg categories respectively. “We kept telling each other,” Malik says, “one of us will win a medal for India.”
Malik lost in her quarterfinal bout. Phogat reached hers and was in ominous form, having won her pre-quarterfinal bout 4-0. She was confident, buoyant, the hard work of her whole life bringing her to this one inevitable conclusion, with her close friend nearby, willing her on. And then, in one heartbreaking moment, it was over.
Spectators mostly see the glory of the Olympics. The sportspeople on the podium receiving their medals, their eyes moist as the anthem plays. But sport is a zero-sum game: for one person to win, everyone else must lose. For every gram of glory at the Olympics, there is a kilogram of tragedy. The Olympics are where dreams come to die.
“One of us will win a medal for India.” Vinesh was carried off in a stretcher. But Malik was still standing. Wrestling has a unique procedure called the repechage that Indians especially must appreciate. Once the two finalists are decided, all the wrestlers beaten by them re-enter the competition and fight it out for the bronze. This is how Sushil Kumar in 2008 and Yogeshwar Dutt in 2012, both beaten in earlier rounds, had gotten back into the contest. And this is what kept Malik hopeful. Valeria Koblova, who beat her in the quarterfinal, was “a very strong fighter,” she says. “I kept myself mentally prepared. I knew I would get another chance to go for a medal. And now, with Vinesh injured, it was up to me.”
When Malik took up wrestling, the handful of girls in the sport came from wrestling families. But since the success of Geeta Phogat in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the appeal has widened. “There are so many girls at our academy,” says Malik, “that there’s not enough place on the mats for all of us. We have to train in shifts.” Let me remind you, this is Haryana.
“People would taunt me earlier, say that wrestling was only for boys, who would marry us after this, what kind of girls were we? Family friends would come home and ignore me, treat me disdainfully. Now they come home to ask for selfies. They tell me, ‘Beta, we are sending our daughter also for wrestling classes, do you have any tips?’”
What is Malik like when she is not in training mode? “Ekdum shaant,” she says. “I am not a party girl at all. I like to stay home and chill, just relax.” And what would she be if she wasn’t a wrestler? “I would study hard, get a job, then get married, I suppose. I had no special ambitions at all.” What are her classmates doing now? “Most of them are married, many have children also.”
We are a storytelling species. We make sense of the world through narratives. And we are bound to fit Malik into some narrative or the other. She is a woman from Haryana beating a patriarchal system. She is an Indian sportsperson rising to the top despite the system. She is beti bachao. She is achhe din. She is falaana, she is dhimkaana. But on some level, all these narratives are both lazy and condescending.
Sakshi Malik is a 23-year-old girl who found, early in life, something that she loved doing more than anything else in the world. It is a form of devotion to her. The best day is one where she does nothing but wrestle. It allowed her entry into a world where she made close friends, experienced heartbreak, felt the ecstasy of standing on a podium with her anthem playing. It made her fly, literally. It gave her joy—and sport is so wonderful, so transcendent, that for a few moments it gave millions of us joy as well. That is the medal.
Photographs: Sushant Chhabria. Styling: Surbhi Shukla. Make-up & hair: Devika Heroor. Production: Parul Menezes. Assisted by: Nikita Kat