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Sports

String in their bow

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FIVE TO GO: Rahul Banerjee, Deepika, Chekrovolu, Bombayla and Tarundeep are gearing up for London in right earnest

In Hindu mythology, the mighty Gandiva was the bow that all warriors craved to own. And master. It was eventually Arjuna's privilege. Nobody craves Tarundeep Rai's Gandiva. The Arjuna Award winner is quick to dismiss any connection with Hindu heroes and their symbols. He simply, but fondly, calls his bow the 'Truck' for its weather-beaten and rugged qualities. "It's a 10-year-old baby, the oldest professional sports bow in the world, " he says beaming, as others at the national archery camp in Gangtok suppress a snigger.

Undeterred, Rai continues to explain to anybody who bothers to lend an ear how it has been his faithful companion during the ups and downs in his international career for over a decade, and that it has gained legendary status among his peers on the world archery circuit. Then, he turns to his fellow national campers and glowers. "If anyone of you makes the mistake of clashing with this monster, you'll go flying. This is the Truck!" he proclaims with a WWE-like flourish. And the rest double up, rolling in laughter.

Given the relaxed atmosphere, it is difficult to believe that archers at this national camp are slogging for the Olympics which begin in less than 50 days in London. The truth is that the hours of training in the high altitude of the Sikkimese capital have seamlessly meshed together without anyone noticing. Almost as a detached, passive bystander, chief coach Limba Ram watches the fun act of his team - Rai, Rahul Banerjee and Jayanta Talukdar in the men's section, and women's recurve team of Deepika Kumari, Chekrovolu Swuro and Bombayla Devi. Barely 18, Deepika is the youngest while the calm-looking Naga Chekrovolu is the oldest of the group at 30. Limba knows that these are grown ups, well-trained in the ways of their sport to be just rolling about in laughter. At some level, even if he only belatedly joins in, Limba knows the backslapping happy bonhomie is good for the squad. They have been hard at training and the fun and games is the muchneeded relief from continuously peering at a target 70 metres away. He watches, then taps his forehead with his stubby fingers and says, "If they can keep their minds, they can do well in London. They just have to remember to keep their minds in a good place. "

Limba should know. A hugely gifted archer belonging to the Ahari tribe near Udaipur in Rajasthan, Limba nevertheless led a troubled life and career. In 1992, only 20, he equalled the world record score at the Asian Championships and was immediately hailed as a medal hope at the forthcoming Olympics in Barcelona. He missed the bronze medal by a single point, but somehow has never been able to live that down. Blighted, thereafter, by injury, poor recovery, doubts, skepticism, administrative arrogance, run-ins with authority and a general inability to fit in, Limba did make Atlanta 1996 his third Olympics, but on the rare occasion that he was in the news, it was for the wrong reasons.

Being rewarded then, with the stewardship of the national team in 2009 was a belated recognition of arguably India's most gifted modern archer - whose skill with the bow and arrow was as sublime as his temperament was fragile. Today, as he watches over another bright, talented Indian generation as they prepare for the Olympics, you can immediately tell that they are very nearly the finished product, complete in themselves but they are not his brood, even if he may have sparked the archery revolution in a sense by being an inspirational story. For instance, Chekrovolu took to archery because her older sibling Vesuzolu had competed with 'Limba bhaiyya', but for these archers, their coaching go-to man is the Korean Lim Chae Woong. The former India coach who is now serving at the Tata Archery Academy, has the full confidence of his wards and they call him regularly for tips on rectifying technical problems. There is also a possibility that they could try to take him - by either convincing the federation or even contacting the Tata offices in London - to the Olympics as the archers' personal coach.

Escaping the sapping heat of Kolkata, where the original camp was scheduled, the three-week Gangtok sojourn has reaped benefits that would be hard to discern for the untrained eye. Morning sessions kick off lazily around 9, but stretch well past lunch hour. After an hour's rest they are back in the afternoon - shooting arrows and chasing targets till the evening mist to obscures their vision.

Rai and Rahul Banerjee - Dola's little brother - have a more immediate task at hand. Hence the modus operandi of their training differs slightly from that of the girls. While Deepika and Co. have mentally replicated Gangtok's Paljor football stadium with Lord's, London's iconic cricketing home and venue for the archery contests at the Games, the boys have to balance this with Ogden (USA), where later this month they will battle it out for one of the three team qualifying spots remaining for the Olympics. With greater immediacy at hand, they are shooting lesser arrows to maintain their muscle shape and composure. More arrow shots mean more core muscles expended and chances of lesser accuracy as the tournament nears, hence coaches limit the shot numbers and focus more on concentration and other qualitative aspects.

As the mental tremor that comes with approaching competition grows bigger, different folk have different ways to tackle it. In between keeping record of his scores in a tiny booklet, Banerjee chooses to be the joker of the pack, His jibes and one-liners come thick and fast and help dissipate the tedium of training. He is particularly cruel on women's coach Purnima Mahato and Bombayla, who don't seem to mind, but crack up each time he cracks one. Bombayla, on her part, takes it out good-naturedly on Ravi Shankar, the other assistant coach. All this while Chekrovolu and Deepika continue to be in a zone, ceaselessly shooting arrows by lots and trudging towards the target to assess their numbers.

In all this, one person somehow seems to bear a bigger burden than others. Jayanta Talukdar is the lone men's individual qualifier. He understands that the big task before London is the one at Ogden, where his scores can help Rai and Banerjee get the last two available slots for London. The thoughtful Assamese talks of how despite being in good form this season, Ogden could be tough. His answer is replicating - Sachin Tendulkar-like - the match scenario a night before. "I look at the central nozzle on the showerhead. That's the bull's eye and I imagine shooting it down. I call it Taratak. It works for me.

At London, or even before, Talukadar is keen to run into Abhinav Bindra, India's lone Olympic gold medal winner. He has never met the shooter. "I want to ask him how he manages the mental preparation a day before a final. He has done it before, and we could be following him. After all, our sports are similar - so much more mental than physical. "

Watching the Indian archers effortlessly go about their task could be as deceptive as the Bullworker ads we saw at the back of comic books as kids and wondered what was the big deal about squashing that set of springs. But it is not child's play. The sharp twang of the string gives you an early idea, and you soon realize that shooting arrows from a tightly-strung bow is no easy business. Only when you haul up little Deepika's bow - poundage 68/40 - and try to draw the string do you realize what an endurance sport the slight 18-year-old daughter of an auto-rickshaw driver from Ranchi has taken on and is excelling at. One unsteady haul then of her bow makes you realize what Tarundeep actually means when he tells us about his 'Truck'. Sensibly, you stay away from it and let this half-dozen Olympics hopefuls do their bit. They know what strings they are pulling.

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