Unpacking a small town girl’s dreams

Boxing is a great metaphor for most Indian girls who feel locked into stereotypical notions of what a girl should be. If they dare to dream, the barriers seem insurmountable. This is as true for the Phogat girls in the boondocks of Haryana as it is for you. Mahavir Singh Phogat was a rebel. It must have been the same with your father, Mohammad Jameel. It helps that Phogat senior and your father have been exposed to the demanding, sometimes rewarding, but mostly unforgiving world of sport.

The call to introduce girls to sport in rural areas or in provincial towns is almost always the work of a rebellious father. Jameel Sir faced resistance, bullying from society and many doubting Thomases. A wink here, a smirk there, a general air of disdain at large, and suggestions galore not to venture into what hasn’t been attempted before. What kept Phogat senior or Jameel Sir going is hard to fathom. An irrational belief in the ability of girls to remain invested in a small and beautiful word: hope. Dads weather the storms, weather the world, hold on to little bits of positivity, and keep reminding themselves that tomorrow would be better than today.

What about mothers, Nikhat? When you first returned from the boxing ring after sparring with a bruised boy with a blackened eye, you say your mother was scared. “Who would marry my daughter? she had said. Even after discarding stereotypes, this is how Indian mothers are. But after the initial skepticism, after a few more bruises and black eyes, their skepticism gradually gives way to a sense of possibility. In a close-knit community, they are aware of more sarcastic remarks than their husbands. But after the initial torment, they refuse to care. After the first consecutive medal and the first coverage of exploits in the newspaper accompanied by photographs, they strut the spring in the feet. Dear Nikhat, your sporting achievements owe as much to your excellence in the ring as to the stubbornness of your father and the stoicism of your mother. What we call society and community is generally a spoilsport, a killjoy.

Champions like you change the grammar of community and society. Girls feel more emboldened. Their mothers less inhibited, and their fathers more supportive. This burden of tradition, this need to conform, this expectation to stay indoors and not occupy public space is shattered. From a drop to a torrent to the deluge. Nikhat, you might have heard of Vandana Katariya from a small village called Roshanabad in Haridwar, Uttarakhand. She had scored the hat-trick at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, yet she had to endure caste insults. That’s how mean some of us can be. Through such labors and tribulations, your Boxing World Cup championship is the triumph of tenacity over adversity or rather adversities.

Nikhat Zareen | Credit: Hardik Chhabra/Outlook

Nikhat, yours has been a remarkable journey from Nizamabad province to Telangana to the big world stage. Along the way, there have been defeats and slip-ups, heartaches and crippling wounds and yet resilience, fighting back, coming back… What a spectacular journey! With your shoulder injury, everything must have looked bleak amid the creeping darkness and lengthening shadows. So, salute to your provocative resilience / resilient challenge!

Nikhat, when you would unconsciously click your thumb against your index fingers, you would remember the pain. What would relieve you of the pain is your confident yet innocent desire: Am I trending on Twitter? Are people talking about me? But the business of social networks is ephemeral. What you have accomplished is lasting and inspiring. You could be that reason that makes fathers more accommodating and mothers more supportive of their daughters’ whims and fancies.

Nikhat, boxing as a sport brings both glory and setback to the individual. But the way you recognized everyone – parents, coaches, everyone – it’s so encouraging. Your individuality is deeply rooted in the fact that to excel is not to forget your roots but to come back and be celebrated by those roots. Nikhat, how about becoming emblematic of a provincial town. Mahendra Singh Dhoni: Ranchi. Nikhat Zareen: Nizamabad. Nikhat Nizamabadi. This is how a poet would like to imagine her chances.

Nikhat, Anne Frank in The Diary of a Young Girl says, “In the long run, the sharpest weapon of all is a kind and gentle spirit… Where there is hope, there is life. It fills us with new courage and makes us strong again.” You mean that kind and gentle spirit.

All the best, Nikhat Zareen Nizamabadi!

About Walter J. Leslie

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