It’s barely 3am but Neetu Sarkar is already up and lacing her running shoes. The 21-year-old woman gently unlatches the main door of her three-room house in a hamlet called Bedwa in India’s northern state of Haryana. Careful not to rouse her family who are still deep in sleep, she steps out, locking the door behind her.
After a few minutes of warm-ups and stretching, she sets off on a jog down the dirt-and-gravel road to the nearby bus stand, where the first bus will take her to the national stadium in Rohtak, about 90 minutes away. There she will train for close to 15 hours, before returning home to cook dinner for her family.
The young woman isn’t afraid of being attacked in the dark. Those in her village know her well and would dare not mess with her. Neetu, you see, is an international-level wrestler. A silver medal winner at last year’s National Games, she has also represented India at the Junior World Championships in Brazil.
Her dream is to represent India at the 2020 Olympics.
The mother of twin boys aged eight hasn’t had an easy rise to international glory. A child bride at 13 and a mum a year later, she had to surmount several obstacles before she could kiss her first medal at a national event after vanquishing her opponent on the mat.
‘There have been several challenges,’ admits the lean, muscular woman.
‘I was barely 13 when my parents got me married to a man who was nearly three times my age,’ she says. ‘Two girls from my village had eloped and my parents – fearing that I might do the same and bring a bad name to the family – got me married to an elderly man in the same community.’
As soon as the wedding ceremony was over, Neetu had to move in with her new husband and in-laws. ‘Life was very difficult there,’ she says, adding that some people in the family began abusing her.
The barely teenage girl pleaded with her parents to rescue her and take her back home. ‘Thankfully they supported me,’ she says.
While she was able to walk away from the marriage, just three months later her parents arranged another marriage for her.
‘All I wanted was to continue my studies, but my parents wanted the money [the groom reportedly paid some money to marry her]. I am not angry at them, I have no complaints, but I wish they had thought about me and tried to understand me better.’ Fortunately, her second husband Sanjay Kumar, now 28, treated her well, and slowly Neetu began to fall in love.
‘I was too young to understand marriage,’ she says. ‘I was only happy that there was no one in this new house to ill-treat me. My new husband was kind, while my mother-in-law and sister-in-law were affectionate towards me. I was extremely thankful for that.’
Barely a few months later, Neetu was pregnant.
‘Doctors said my body wasn’t fully developed and I was too young to carry the pregnancy and should abort the foetuses, but my mother-in-law did not support this idea and asked me to have the babies,’ she says.
The following year, Neetu, who was just 14, gave birth to twin boys. ‘I faced several complications and I had to have a caesarian before my due date.’
For the next few years Neetu was a full-time housewife and mother. She spent her days cooking and cleaning and taking care of her family.
But the young woman was miserable. ‘I felt life was passing me by. I wanted to do something with my life and was getting frustrated leading a dull existence.’
Then six years ago she was idly surfing channels in her home when she chanced upon the 2010 Commonwealth Games’ girls wrestling match, which was being telecast live. ‘I felt so excited watching the match,’ she says.
‘It was like an instant magnet to me. I felt I wanted to do it – because deep inside I knew I would be able to do well in that sport.’
Neetu knew there was a wrestling training centre nearby and the same week, plucking up courage, she walked into the local male-dominated akhara (wrestling pit) to meet the coach and request him to train her.
‘Of course, at first I was refused entry. They said it was not a place for women and that this was a typical male sport,’ she says. But not one to give up without a fight, Neetu persevered doggedly, visiting the centre every day for over a week, requesting trainer Narinder Kumar to give her a chance.
‘The good thing was that my husband supported me,’ she says. But he was the only one who did.
‘Almost everyone in my village were against it and many families began to speak badly about me,’ she says. ‘But I was not bothered. Thanks to my husband’s support I enrolled and began to train rigorously.’
When she joined, she weighed 80kg and her fitness and stamina level were much below par. In a bid to get fit, she, on the advice of her trainer, started running 10km daily.
‘Even at the time, I used to wake up at 3am and start training,’ she says.
She would then weight-train and then grapple with the local wrestling champs – all men –before returning home to cook and take care of her family.
Many days she devoted nearly 17 hours a day to training and wrestling, and survived on just four hours’ sleep a night.
‘I knew nothing about wrestling as a child but I feel it is the difficult times I faced that have given me this strength and ability to fight,’ she says.
Within a year of practise, she lost all excess fat and began to look lean and toned. ‘I also cut off my long hair because it was coming in the way of my wrestling,’ she says.
So determined was she to realise her ambition of becoming a well-known wrestler that she was willing to go to any lengths, including taking up a few sundry jobs to earn money for her bus fare and for some nutritious food.
‘I used to work as an assistant in a store, then in a tailor’s shop and even as a construction labourer to help my husband – a gas cylinder delivery person – make ends meet.’
‘While leaving home, I used to wear the traditional salwar kameez but once in the gym, I used to change to my sporting gear,’ she says.
The hard work soon began to pay off.
In 2014, she bagged her first bronze medal at the National Championships. A year later, she won another bronze at the National Games in Kerala, before going on to represent India at the World Championship.
Neetu is hugely proud of her achievements. ‘I belong to a farming community. There isn’t a single boy, let alone a girl, who is an athlete in my village. It makes me feel proud. Villagers used to ridicule me. Only in 2011, when they actually saw me playing at national level, did they start believing that I was doing something good.’
Sanjay, her husband, smiles as Neetu narrates her story. Although he earns just Rs3,000 (about Dh165) a month, he does all he can to encourage his wife in pursuing her dream.
‘My husband not only motivates me professionally but also helps with the housework too. He’d help to chop vegetables, clean the house and wash clothes. He is an absolute strength and I have no regrets marrying him,’ she says.
Her eight-year-old twin boys – Prince Kumar and Ayush Kumar – are extremely proud of their mother. ‘I often ask them if their friends tease them because of me, but they say their friends are equally proud of me and even have my pictures on their books, believing I am a celebrity. This gives me further encouragement’.
While hesitant to train her at first, coach Narinder from Chhoturam Stadium in Rohtak, now calls Neetu ‘my favourite student.
‘I’ve trained several boys and girls, but I have never come across a passionate wrestler like her. I have seen her coming to train in extreme weather conditions. She is hugely committed and passionate.’
Neetu says that during her initial days, she occasionally did wonder whether she was doing the right thing pursuing wrestling. ‘Being a mother of two I was not sure I would be able to compete on an international stage. However, during such moments, my coach used to encourage me and tell me that I had it in me to make it big. I owe a lot to him.’
She religiously watched all the Olympic wresting matches on TV, and says she now wants to do more and use her position as a champion female wrestler to educate people about the need to encourage girls to realise their dreams.
‘Child marriages are something our country needs to work on. Parents need to trust their child. When parents drag children into marriages, the child suffers terrible trauma. I want to tell all the parents to believe in your girl. Educate girls and let them live their dreams.’
The mother of two boys says she wants to adopt a girl to set an example in her community and across the country.
‘I will make her study as much as she wants. She will be free to pursue her dreams and if she wants to be a wrestler I will give her everything I can to ensure that she becomes a better wrestler than me.’