As driven as he was by the patriotic yearning to see his country’s flag being raised the highest at the Olympics, the resistance from his family and the ridicule from his fellow villagers also made it a matter of honour for Mahavir to produce a world-class wrestler at any cost.
However, defying his family was easier said than done. ‘Since I was a young boy, I had not cared about what anyone had to say about me, especially outsiders. So the jeering villagers did not bother me in the least. But convincing my family was much more important for I had to face them every day and going against their wishes would make my life difficult,’ Mahavir reminisces.
Among the biggest detractors of his mission was Mahavir’s father, who had no interest in his family’s girls bringing about a revolution in the world of sports. Despite being an accomplished wrestler himself, the patriarch – who had spent the major part of his life in the village – had little exposure to ways of life outside his community and was vehemently against Mahavir pursuing his new-found passion for coaching the children in wrestling.
‘My father was himself adept at wrestling and had made a name for himself during his sporting days. Even today, locals talk about his prowess in the mud pit and often attribute Geeta and Babita’s achievements to the genes of ‘bogarh pehelwan’, as he was popularly known. Had he got any exposure or opportunity during his wrestling days, he could have easily represented the country globally,’ explains Mahavir. ‘It’s no secret that it was due to my father’s love for wrestling that I was sent to Master Chandgi Ram’s akhada in Delhi to make a mark in the sport. If it weren’t for him, I would have pursued kabaddi, which was my favourite sport in school. But even though I could not excel beyond the national level, the idea of living our dreams through our girls did not excite my father.’
‘Women considered a threat to the wrestler’s self-control’ۙ
He lived in a community that was tight-knit but lacked diversity, and as such had a skewed view of women’s life goals. ‘Also, though women’s wrestling was introduced in the country in mid-90s, my father never got a chance to see women grappling in the pit. Besides, no girl in our entire extended family, or even in our distant relations, had pursued sports professionally. For that matter, no girl in our village or its periphery had ever set foot into a sports ground. As a result, the idea of his family’s girls breaking new ground found no favour with my father.’
‘Mahavir‘s decision did not make sense to me either,’ says Sajjan Singh, Mahavir’s youngest brother. ‘I told him that wrestling was not a woman’s business. I believed that he was acting foolishly and would ruin the girls’ future. As is common knowledge, wrestlers acquire cauliflower ears due to tugging from holds and frequent blows. While they are considered a badge of experience among male wrestlers, a girl having them would only jeopardize her marriage prospects.’
There were other factors, too, that had the family up in arms. According to a basic tenet for professional wrestlers in India – which Mahavir too had been taught at Master Chandgi Ram’s akhada – wrestling not only demands physical prowess but also the observance of a chaste brahmachari lifestyle, involving celibacy and self-control, just like that of its patron deity, the Hindu god Hanuman, who never had a consort.
‘Owing to this tenet, women have been traditionally considered a threat to the wrestler’s self-control, and have largely been excluded from the sport. Since young wrestlers are disciplined to stay away from women, my father and his peers were naturally averse to the girls doing sit-ups and push-ups alongside boys in the akhada.’
‘Will the girls be able to handle the toil of the sport?’ۙ
No matter what his family’s objections were, a determined Mahavir had made up his mind to stick to his decision. As the tussle between him and his family grew, with neither side ready to give in, Mahavir’s father decided to call in his elder son, Rajinder, then posted in the Churu district of Rajasthan, to weigh in on the matter and perhaps persuade Mahavir to give up on his dream – one that, they felt, had made the family the laughing stock of the village. Being the eldest son and the most educated member of the family, Rajinder normally had the final say in any conflict and nobody challenged his word. With him having contributed significantly to Mahavir’s wrestling career, his father imagined Mahavir would not think of defying his elder brother’s decision.
But much to Mahavir’s delight, and contrary to his family’s expectations, after giving the matter some thought, Rajinder did not oppose the decision. He did not subscribe to the idea that girls could not join the world of wrestling merely because they were not boys or that they should not be allowed to set a precedent for other girls.
‘Initially, Rajinder was also singing the same tune as my family, stating that I should limit the training to boys. But being an educated man, my brother never discriminated between boys and girls. His only worry was whether the girls would be able to handle the toil of the sport, which demanded physical strength and tough workouts,’ says Mahavir.
‘It took me some time to assure him that girls were not weaker than boys and only needed equal opportunity, encouragement and support to excel in anything they chose. I pleaded with him to give me just two years to show him results, else I would pull the girls out from the sport,’ Mahavir adds.
Unlike others in his family, Rajinder saw a glimmer of hope in Mahavir’s mission and conceded to his request for two years’ time to train the children to produce results.
‘Having him on my side closed the deal. The rest of the family who were against me saw reason when my brother joined my chorus,’ he chuckles. Mahavir finally heaved a sigh of relief – he had weathered the first storm and could now focus on training the children.
From there on, there was no looking back.
Excerpted with permission from Akhara The Authorized Biography of Mahavir Singh Phogat, Saurabh Duggal, Hachette India.