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Geeta, Babita and the great sister act

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FIRST OF A KIND: Geeta Phogat is the first Indian woman wrestler at the Olympics

This is a story of how a father braved village elders to make his daughters wrestlers. Being pummelled by the girls is now family tradition for the Phogats.

A group of men play cards in one corner of the Phogat courtyard. A hookah quietly does the rounds - even those stopping by to watch the dealing, the hand and the arguments, distractedly mouth the bronze pipe to take a drag. An elderly patriarch - his crisp starch whites in complete contrast to the dishevelled, rough-mouthed lot - sits nearby, overlooking this all-male daily afternoon ritual.

Whoops of joy and shouts of disagreement from the card game punctuate the air. Nearby, two buffalos with glistening black hides look on. They have no names. Haryana has no room for such sentimentality. Even the pet, a young German shepherd, probably has none. The cattle are tended to by Geeta Phogat's mother Daya Kaur, who was sweeping the path outside their house road when we arrived. She is tirelessly preparing the 'formula' for the buffalos when she is not ferrying water to the animals.

Daya Kaur is also the sarpanch of Balali village. You'd never know it as she goes about the day's chores of the average Haryanvi village woman. You wouldn't know she is the sarpanch if her husband Mahaveer Phogat hadn't announced it. Proudly. "Jan seva. Jan seva kar rahi hai, " he says of his wife.

Balali is a tiny village in Haryana's Bhiwani district. Only 500 houses, a population of just over 5, 000. There are more men than women here too. Haryana's sex ratio is dismal and female foeticide rampant. According to the 2011 Census, it has the country's worst child sex ratio - 830 girls for every 1, 000 boys as compared to the national average of 914. Bhiwani is no better at 831.

But there's a kind of revolution inside this courtyard guarded by an un-named German Shepherd.

A group of 'boys' - sturdy, stolid, closecropped hair and male in a back-slappy way - is training. Look closer and you'll find they are actually teenaged wrestler girls training under the eagle eye of their father, the sometimes grumpy, sometimes strangely-affectionate Mahaveer.

A mission undertaken a decade ago - spurred by the promise of a Rs 2 crore bait announced by the then CM of the state - is finally yielding dividend, in the form of his eldest daughter Geeta, India's first female wrestler at the Olympics.

It is a unique victory for one man's tireless single-mindedness in the face of local resistance in a state known for its historically step-motherly attitude towards women. Four of his daughters, and two adopted ones, are today the pride and joy of the village. The boys step aside when the bunch go on their warm-up run on Balali's dusty, brick-laden tracks each morning.

But, ask the local men whether they will continue their card-game even on the day of Geeta Phogat's opening bout in London (August 9), and they distractedly reply, "Nahin, uss din TV dekhenge, " and promptly return to their daily ritual.

Bluntness in Haryana is a virtue, albeit a downright un-endearing and far from charming one.

The subject of their minor distraction for the coming week, 23-year-old Geeta, is currently in the finalminute training camp in Belarus. She is accompanied by her sister Babita, 21, who is there as her sparring partner.
Both head an impressive line of talented siblings pushing and shoving their way to be the best. There's Ritu, so tiny and shy that you are scared to speak to her lest she doesn't know how to handle your sudden intrusion. But she packs a punch, her cauliflowered wrestler's ears bear testimony to her already much-travelled resume.

Her father does not say it in as many words, but he believes she is the most talented. Four international medals - in the world and Asian junior and cadet categories - is a record unequalled by any Indian wrestler, he claims.

Then there's Sangeeta, younger to Ritu's 17 by three years but heavier in weight to her 48 kilos. Twelve-year-old son Dushyant completes the line-up. In typical Jat-boy style, he is already a champ at the wheel of their rickety SUV and is currently eyeing the swanky Maruti SX4 that Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda gifted his eldest sibling.

When not doing that, he doesn't mind being flung around the mat by Sangeeta. Being pummelled by the girls is now acquired family tradition for the Phogats.

The striking Vinesh, 17, serious Priyanka, 18, and Seema, 15, are the cousins in the tightly-knit sibling melee. Mahaveer, self-styled coach and disciplinarian, asserts there's no discrimination when training the lot. "That's the only way you can become a top wrestler, and get a medal in the Olympics, " he states. An old Englishspeaking associate vouches for it. "He would make me sit and watch him train. Apart from imparting techniques, he'd brandish a slipper at his waist, ready to wield it when his instructions were not met. I couldn't sit through it. Just got up and left, calling him mad and obsessed, " says the friend.
For Mahaveer, it is not new. Being alone in his strange pursuit is now an everyday passion for the man who zealously took it up with zeal a decade ago. The trigger may have been a Rs 2 crore purse, but somewhere along the way it became his calling.

"Ladkiyon ko kuch banana tha, so woh kiya, " he says, slouched in his wicker easy chair, feet up and with a satisfied resignation that comes with a job well done. He has scarce regard for the all-male poker club, and the father in him is ever-vigilant as he keeps an eye from a distance when we speak to his daughters.

He is the male mother hen to his brood. He tells us of how he spurned any advice - even threat - from the village elders as he trained his daughters. "Pehle bahut virodh tha. Gaon ke bade buzurgon ne bada aitraaz kiya tha. Mujhe bula kar bolte, 'Besharam ho, apni ladki se kya kara rahe ho?! Inke haath pair tooth jayenge, toh shaadi kaun karega?'

"Par manne bhi nahi suni. Jab meri ladkiyan Geeta aur Babita Commonwealth Games mein gold aur silver le aaye, toh sab ne kahi, 'Pehelwan, bada achcha kaam kiya hai. Agar aisi ladki jo hamari hoti, toh hum bhi aisi hi karte. ' Aaj bada pyaar, bada samaan mil raha hai. . . "

You could argue there is a twisted chauvinism to Mahaveer's ways. Like all sporting parents, he can be obsessive and controls things. Like any normal teenager, the girls too secretly yearn to grow their hair or pierce their ears, but they seem to realise there is only the hard way to achieve anything. "Jo Papa bolte hain, " they chorus happily, till one of them chirps up, "I have a Facebook account, but please don't tell him. . . "

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