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India’s most powerful woman

In the ring with India’s most powerful woman

Wrestling has long been a man’s sport in India. Now Vinesh Phogat is going for gold at the Olympics. Sonia Faleiro meets her as she trains for Tokyo

Wrestling has long been a man’s sport in India. Now Vinesh Phogat is going for gold at the Olympics. Sonia Faleiro meets her as she trains for Tokyo

Sonia Faleiro | October/November 2019

One brisk evening in January several thousand people, warmly dressed in jumpers and scarves, took their seats in a stadium on the outskirts of Delhi for the latest round of India’s Pro Wrestling League. The PWL is to wrestling what the Indian Premier League is to cricket: a jamboree of international athletes, bright lights and big money. Of all the wrestling stars out that night, one shone more brightly than the rest. At 8pm the announcer’s voice came through the speaker system to whip the crowd up for the next bout. Then, with the athletes ready backstage, he roared her name, “Viiiiinesh Phoooooogaaaaat!!!” Vinesh Phogat, a tiny woman of 24 with delicate features, perfect teeth and muscles as round and taut as fresh oranges, emerged from the tunnel in a red cape and strode towards the wrestling mat through an avenue of flames.

Phogat is one of the world’s leading freestyle wrestlers. She won her first gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2014, followed by another in 2018. Four months later, she became the first Indian woman to win a wrestling gold at the Asian Games. Phogat comes from a family of wrestlers: two of her cousins have won Commonwealth golds, and her husband, Somvir Rathee, is also a professional wrestler. But though her cousins have been derailed by fame or injury, Vinesh Phogat continues her climb to the pinnacle of the sport. She is now odds-on favourite to win at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

In wrestling you score points by pinning your opponent to the mat. During the three bouts that Phogat had fought in this year’s league so far, she had conceded just three points and won 28. Her opponent that night, another Indian called Seema, was the underdog. The wrestlers took up their starting positions on the mat, crouching low with their arms entwined and foreheads touching. For several seconds they were locked in this position, feeling for any loss of poise in their opponent that might give them an opportunity to take them down. Then suddenly Phogat pulled on Seema’s arms, knocked her off balance, and lunged at her like a cheetah attacking a stumbling gazelle.

On the mat, the cheetah became a boa constrictor. Phogat wrapped her opponent in her arms and legs, locking her there and squeezing the fight out of her. An apparently vulnerable position can be quickly reversed with a sudden surge of energy. With Seema trying to tug her down to the floor, Phogat ducked under her opponent’s outstretched arms to seize her around the waist. Then, bending her knees low to get her weight under her opponent, Phogat rolled backwards and flipped Seema over her shoulder. In the audience plump dignitaries in bright orange turbans sat comfortably on white leather armchairs, discoursing on the spectacle. Soon Phogat was leading 6-0.

Phogat’s success makes her a rarity twice over. Wrestling is hugely popular in India: millions tune in to watch live bouts on TV. But the vast majority of fighters are men. The average Indian woman makes less than 200 rupees ($2.80) an hour. Yet as a star wrestler – and one of the few females in the sport – Phogat earned around $35,000 for five matches at the PWL, each lasting six minutes. Only one male wrestler earned more. Last year, her total earnings from wrestling were around $500,000.

After the bout Phogat headed to the dugout where she slumped down on the ground, exhausted. She buried her face in her sweatshirt while her husband and her physiotherapist, Rucha Kashalkar, watched her warily. When Phogat is not wrestling, she can be a picture of charm, with a politician’s flair for making someone she meets feel like they are the most important person in the room. But in training or during matches she is cold, hard and quickly angered by any sign of disrespect.

As she wound down, her fans began to inch closer to the dugout, leaning over its edge to snap selfies with her. Phogat mostly ignored them. But at one point a pushy man with a paunch thrust his way forward with his young daughter. “Autograph!” he shouted. “Take a photo! Take a photo!” “Vinesh!” the girl cried. Her father gently corrected her, telling his daughter to address Phogat as “aunty”. Aunty is a common but complex term, used by Indian children when they talk to their friends’ mothers or their mother’s friends. But it can also imply that someone is frumpy or conservative; if used to address a famous or successful stranger, it sounds condescending, as though you can be familiar with her just because she is a woman.

Phogat looked up. “Aunty?” she snapped. She has feline eyes and a warm smile, but when she opens her mouth the voice you hear is deep and raw. She comes from the rural, north-Indian state of Haryana, where the dialect consists of short, declarative sentences that shoot out like bullets.

“Well, you’re married now,” the man cackled. “So get used to being called an aunty.”

“This country is something else,” Phogat muttered as she turned away. Even with her face grey with exhaustion, her hair matted with sweat and her mouth hanging open as she cooled down, she was resolute and immovable. Phogat was no one’s aunty.

Phogat was born in Balali, a four-hour drive north of central Delhi. One morning in January I drove to the village to meet her mother, Premlata Singh, who still lives there. The 52-year-old has a very different life from her neighbours. Balali is a typical village in these parts, made up of an orderly series of single-storey houses with mud walls and tin roofs on which residents store food for their animals, unused bicycles and other household items, to make more space inside. Electricity is intermittent and the main source of fuel is buffalo dung, the scent of which drifts through the air along with the tweets and chirrups of red-wattled lapwings. Women with veiled faces hurry around performing chores and the men, their moustaches neatly curled, lounge on charpoys, tugging on bubbling hookahs and talking politics. “They think being seen to work lowers their status,” a woman sneered as she balanced a basket of dung on her head. “We look after the children, cook food, draw milk, wash the buffaloes and help with the harvest. We work, but they control the money.”

Farther into the village a mansion gleams like a moonstone from behind tall gates, its driveway furnished with a red SUV and patrolled by an Alsatian dog, a status symbol in this part of India. Phogat built this house for her mother, a Bollywood fantasy of the high life made real. Inside, a vast living room is furnished with ornately carved wooden furniture and vitrines full of Phogat’s gleaming trophies. A marble staircase leads to a warren of rooms that have balconies with sweeping views of the village.

Premlata Singh is sitting on a charpoy in the concrete courtyard, wearing a salwar kameez with a gold ring in her nose and slippers on her feet. Other than the sharp eyes that gleam out of her doughy face there is virtually no resemblance between her and her fierce young daughter. Singh isn’t a wrestler, she isn’t educated, and when Phogat was born, she wasn’t even pleased to meet her.

Singh was brought up believing that girls simply cost their family a dowry before dedicating their energies to their husband. One of her two sons died when he was a few days old. She prayed for another but ended up with two daughters, the second of whom was Phogat. “I thought, ‘two girls, oh no, what an expense!’ I didn’t know any better. No one did.” Even as a child Phogat understood her lowly place in the hierarchy. “Galti hoon main, galti!” she would shout in frustration. “I am a mistake, a mistake!”

The state of Haryana is unusually conservative, even by the standards of rural India. India as a whole has a skewed gender ratio because boys are so prized that many female fetuses are aborted. But in Haryana the ratio is especially uneven: 831 girls are born for every 1,000 boys, compared with the national rate of 940 to 1,000. Girls are often fed less than boys. “If the buffalo gives one glass of milk,” it is said there, “give it to the boy. The girl will drink water.” What made Singh distinctive was that, despite her own upbringing, she unlearned these ideas.

When Phogat was eight years old her father Rajpal, a bus driver, was shot dead by a relative after an argument. It was unheard of for Hindu widows to live alone and many ended up marrying their brothers-in-law. Singh declined Rajpal’s brother’s suggestion of moving in with him. “No thank you,” she said. “I will look after my own children.” Premlata throws her head back and laughs, as she remembers that time. And, just like that, she resembles her daughter Vinesh, celebrating gleefully after outwitting yet another opponent.

Singh’s decision led to uproar. Family members from distant villages were summoned to convince her to change her mind. She had recently been diagnosed with uterine cancer and there was no way that she would manage without help, she was told. But she survived the cancer – “I outwitted the doctor,” she chortles – and she proved resilient and imaginative.

She fed her children milk, yogurt and clarified butter from the four buffaloes the family owned. With her husband’s pension she started a micro-finance business, charging interest on loans to other women in the village. Singh wasn’t familiar with traditional counting systems, so she invented her own. Her business venture, which was the first of its kind in the village run by a woman, was a success. “I just told myself I can do it,” she said. “‘I can do it!’ ‘I can do it!’ And then I did it.” Gradually, the objections to her single parenting quietened. “My mother took a stand,” Phogat says. “She was strong. And because of her I am strong too.”

With the exception of cricketing victories, India has a terrible sporting record. It has the lowest number of Olympic medals per head of any nation, and has only ever won one gold in an individual sport, the men’s ten-metre air rifle. In recent years this has begun to change, partly owing to the changing role of women. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000 a weightlifter called Karnam Malleswari lifted 240kg to win a bronze medal, the first Indian woman to make it that far in an Olympic sport. That she had overcome great obstacles amplified her achievement. Malleswari, who lived in Haryana, had trained in a thatched shed with barbells made from bamboo and rocks. After her victory, the state government gave her a plot of land and a cheque for $35,000.

Watching all this was Mahavir Singh, Phogat’s uncle. What grabbed his attention was the government’s prize for a gold medallist: one crore rupees, almost $140,000. Like Phogat’s mother, Mahavir had often wondered what he would do with the four daughters the Hindu gods had given him. Now he knew. He would train them to win the biggest jackpot in Indian sporting history.

Wrestling was the obvious sport to try. Its traditional form, in which men fight in mud pits, was wildly popular in Haryana. Wrestling competitions, or dangals, attracted thousands of spectators who treated such events like a carnival. Mahavir, a hefty man with a broad nose, thick eyebrows and slanted eyes which give him a look of perpetual scepticism, had himself competed in these tournaments in the 1970s and 1980s, travelling along dusty highways in the back of bullock carts and sleeping outdoors to fight in villages. But although he had won dozens of prizes, his father forced him to stop wrestling in his early 20s to get a “real” job. Mahavir never forgave him: “I would have fought in international tournaments.” He channelled his thwarted ambition, and his desire for money, into the next generation – his daughters and nieces.

Phogat remembers that she, her sister and her cousins were roused from bed at 4am on a freezing morning when she was only six years old. Winter had already settled on the mustard fields around Balali, but Mahavir marched the girls outside into the biting air. First they had to run laps of the fields to get their blood pumping. Then they were paired up to wrestle as best they could. Every day he made them practise for six hours. He beat them if they were late. He beat them for being slow to pick themselves up. He beat them for losing. Once he beat Phogat with such force that some of the villagers came running out to rescue her. The villagers soon nicknamed him “Devil”. “He wanted an Olympic medal,” Phogat says. “We didn’t even know what the Olympics were. ‘Who the hell is this Olympics?’ we’d wonder. We’re being beaten black and blue but Olympics still hasn’t shown up!’” When Mahavir got the man who trimmed the buffaloes to cut off the girls’ long silky hair, the villagers decided that he was crazy and best left alone. Who will marry his daughters now, they tutted.

To begin with, the girls wrestled each other in a mud pit that Mahavir dug for them. They sometimes had to compete against boys in dangals. The first time Mahavir’s eldest daughter, Geeta, participated, the bout was over after a few minutes. “Geeta quickly grabbed the boy by the arm, pulled him over her shoulder and pinned him down,” says journalist Saurabh Duggal, who has written a biography of Mahavir. “The mud stains on his back at the end of the bout reflected his quick defeat.”

Geeta was the most successful in the early years, but Phogat was also starting to distinguish herself. She was the smallest of the group but the first to arrive for practice. Already she was displaying certain attributes common to most elite athletes – an obsessive love of her chosen sport, intense focus and an overwhelming desire to win. “I practised like a crazy person,” she says. “Then I’d come home and train in my room.”

Local competitions led to regional and then national trials. At the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010, Geeta won the country’s first-ever gold medal in wrestling. Hundreds of villagers made the trip from Balali to cheer her on. When she returned, many more gathered at the entrance of the village to garland her with marigolds. Geeta and her sister Babita, who won a silver medal, received around $175,000 for their performance at the games from the state government. It wasn’t long before Phogat also started winning. In 2013 she got a silver medal at the Youth Wrestling Championship in Johannesburg, and then crowned this with a gold at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow the following year.

Money flowed. Mahavir refurbished a room in the village for the girls to wrestle in. He bought mats and set up a fully equipped gym. He expanded his family’s home into a fortress-like compound and drove a new car. “Mahavir’s fortunes changed because of his daughters,” says Rudraneil Sengupta, author of “Enter the Dangal”, a book on wrestling in India. With the influx of visible and previously unimaginable wealth, local villagers stopped protesting about how he trained the girls. Fathers now sought him out for advice on how to get their daughters into wrestling.

A couple of days after her victory in the Pro Wrestling League, Phogat was eating breakfast at a relative’s house in Kharkhoda, a city in Haryana, where she and her husband had come for a family visit. Her physiotherapist joined her at the table, dressed in a nearly identical tracksuit. Hunched over their plates, the two scooped curd into their mouths. The stillness of the morning was broken only by sizzling sounds from the kitchen, where the cook was frying parathas. Phogat’s husband Rathee, who she married in 2018, pottered around in the background, gathering her kit for practice.

Rathee first saw Phogat when she was 15 and eating an ice cream after a competition. He was 18 at the time, and, like her, he had just started out on the national championship circuit. “One day I’ll marry that girl,” he told a friend. He was being serious, but it was hard to take him seriously: floppy-haired and serene, Rathee is so shy he has difficulty looking people in the face. Two years elapsed before he summoned the courage to call Phogat. “Listen,” she cut him off. “This is my mother’s phone. Call again and she will thrash me. And she will thrash you too.”

Their relationship mostly played out on their devices. They messaged each other on Facebook. They texted. And even as they shared photographs as keepsakes, they told no one. In their rural community, Rathee says, “girls don’t talk to boys. If they do people don’t respect them.” The young couple were afraid that if their relationship became known among the state’s small wrestling community, the gossip and derision that would inevitably follow would hurt Phogat’s career. Rathee, who is also from Haryana, was determined to keep her on track. “My mother had to ask my father for permission to leave the house,” he says. “What were her interests? No one asked. What were her dreams? No one knew. We didn’t even know what was on her mind…I didn’t want that. I thought, ‘I’m going to let my wife do whatever she wants’.” Phogat burst out laughing at the idea of waiting around for a man to give her the okay. “I don’t listen to anyone,” she said. “Not even to you.”

When she was younger, she did whatever her uncle Mahavir said. He prescribed the diet that traditional wrestlers followed, avoiding meat to appease the Hindu gods. She relied on talismans rather than modern medicine to heal her injuries. Despite her early success, neither her stamina nor her technique was sufficient. After her victory at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, it took her four years to win another championship gold.

In 2016 Aamir Khan, one of India’s biggest Bollywood stars, released a film based on her family. Khan, a small, lean man, packed on 25kg to play Mahavir. Called “Dangal”, the film shows how Mahavir trained his children to become wrestlers, despite opposition from the other villagers. The film had all the elements of a great Bollywood story – drama, action, a rousing score. It had the added benefit of being true to the facts. In the end, the actress who plays Geeta wins a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games. “Dangal” quickly became the highest-grossing Indian film ever made, netting over $300m worldwide. Suddenly the Phogats started appearing on magazine covers and television talk-shows.

For some members of the family this was the apogee of their careers. But it was a low time for Phogat. She had qualified for the Rio Olympics that summer and was tipped to win a medal. But in the quarter-finals she snapped her knee and had to be carried out on a stretcher. “Gayaa, sab gayaa,” she wept. “Gone, all gone.” It didn’t help that the film everyone kept asking her about didn’t even mention her. “Dangal” focused exclusively on Mahavir’s two oldest daughters. Phogat had long known that her uncle favoured his own children: on one occasion he refused to let Phogat attend a trial she had qualified for, insisting that one of his daughters take her place. Though he had no say in the film, for her this was further evidence of his preference.

Phogat used her enforced rest after Rio to break with the old ways – Mahavir and his methods were the first to go. “She started from zero,” says Vinay Siwach, a sports journalist. For the first time she acquired a professional coach, Wöller Ákos, a Hungarian wrestler who now works with her full-time. Her physiotherapist also travels with her. She added a nutritionist, a psychologist and a sparring partner. All of this was funded by Olympic Gold Quest, a non-profit organisation aimed at helping Indian athletes win Olympic medals. In the run-up to next year’s Tokyo Olympics, the foundation will spend around $400,000 to give Phogat the support that she needs to beat the Japanese, who are the best freestyle wrestlers in the world. It is all far removed from the mud pits, beatings and folk medicine of her uncle’s training days. “Now I surround myself with people who believe in my dream,” she says. “Tokyo is mine.”

For Phogat, victory means far more than a medal. “There’s a wrestler in every family in Haryana,” she says. “But they have always been men. Now women see a clear path forward. ‘She looks just like me,’ they say.” Every win she has makes it easier for other women to see themselves as fighters.

At least 25 schools in India now train women to be freestyle wrestlers. Haryana and other states organise more competitions in rural areas and offer the most accomplished competitors free training and monthly stipends. Medal-winning athletes are rewarded with secure government jobs in the railways, the army or the police – even Phogat has a managerial job with the Indian state railway, as does her husband. Her role comes with perks and a pension, but as long as she is wrestling she will never have to show up for work. The government hopes that such programmes will encourage more women to wrestle and become champions. One day, perhaps, wrestling in India will be a sport identified with women as much as men.

After Phogat had finished her breakfast of curd and parathas that morning, she slipped into her singlet, grabbed her mat shoes and headed to a local gym housed on the top floor of a three-storey building in a private school for boys. The setting wasn’t what she was used to: the weight machines were old and rusty, and monkeys clung to the bars on the windows as parrots flew by outside. Her companions at the gym that morning were a few dozen teenagers in bright tracksuits hoping to represent India on the wrestling mat.

Phogat slipped on her hot-pink shoes and straightened her pony-tail. Wearing a flinty expression, her jaw jutting, she did some light stretches and jogged around the hall to loosen up. Then she noticed her husband looking distracted. Without a moment’s hesitation she lunged for his ankle, heaved him up and flipped him over her shoulder. From the ground he gave his wife a huge grin and threw himself at her. Rathee said jokingly that he likes to let his wife win. Phogat snorted at the idea. “Let’s go again,” she said, half-seriously. “I don’t let anyone win.”