The 20-year-old has fought sexism, poverty and casteism to make her place among the top wrestlers of India.
Taking a major leap in career is never easy for someone rooted in the rural India. Situation worsens for girls, especially when it comes to taking up a sport like wrestling that accepts women with a scorn. It is considered immodest for females, hence discouraged in the society. But Divya Kakran is made of different material. Breaking up old notions of femininity, she not only entered into the male bastion but has been proving her mettle for quite some time now.
The girl, who once struggled for a proper diet, today has a Commonwealth Games bronze medal to her credit and is now vouching for a gold in the upcoming Asian Games. She is named in the six-member female wrestling squad of India, alongside Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik, that will participate in the Asiad Games to be held in Indonesia from 18 August.
At the raw age of 20, Divya stands for everything her father could not achieve. Through her, his wrestling dreams are getting fulfilled. But the glory did not come that easy for Divya. She had her own share of struggles.
Fighting the odds
Divya belongs to a traditional wrestling family. Her tryst with the sport began when her father first brought her to watch her brothers wrestle. Slowly, she started taking interest in the game. Seeing her keenness, her father later allowed her too to fight in dangals.
Thereafter, Divya started taking on boys in the ring and left each one of them pinned down to the ground. But the idea of a girl challenging boys at their own game did not go down well with many. At first, even Divya’s own grandparents and her mother didn’t like her fighting against boys.
Speaking to The Sunday Guardian, Divya says, “A lot of people advised my father to not make me wrestle. They said if I injured myself, no one will be marrying me. But my father was resolute. He treated me like a daughter and gave me all the support which is given to a boy.”
With her own determination and father’s firm backing, she outperformed many in the arena and started earning handsomely by winning games. Divya’s family was not stable financially. The condition was such that they could not even afford milk for her. But with money she earned through dangals, Divya would add to the family’s income and avail better diet for herself.
However, the challenges didn’t end there. Divya faced much more than sexism and poverty. Wrestling in India has been the fiefdom of only a few communities and Divya belongs to a caste considered lower in the social stratification. So, other than fighting boys, she had to fight against casteism too.
“I think India still lags behinds in social equality. I remember an incident when I wrestled against a girl from an upper caste and defeated her. Calling out my caste, her relatives taunted her that she lost to a girl of a lower caste,” Divya recalls. “Casteism is still deeply rooted in our society and I really feel sad about it.”
Brother’s role in her success
Success comes at a price, but in Divya’s case, it was her brother Dev who had to pay that price. Dev wanted to be a wrestler himself but their lower middle class family could not afford resources for both of them. So he had to take a backseat so that Divya could script her success story. Dev is now her sister’s training partner.
“He left his education, his wrestling career, and everything for me. I have to sometimes attend wrestling camps in Lucknow which last for two-three months. I get accommodation in hostels for the camp, but my brother stays in hotel rooms to accompany me,” Divya says.
“He also beats me up when I give away points in bouts. He works hard on me and so gets angry when I make mistakes. Lekin papaji ko ye bilkul pasand nahi ki vo mujhe maare (But my father does not like him beating me).”
As Divya prepares for the Asian Games, Dev is around her all the time taking care of everything.
Asian Games preparation
Divya says the Asian Games preparation is keeping her busy all day. “I leave the house at 5.30 am for stadium and practice till 10.30 am. Then I take rest there itself and again resume the practice at 3 pm which goes on till 6-6.30 pm.”
Ahead of the Games, Divya competed at the Junior Asian Wrestling Championships where she had to settle with an unsatisfactory silver medal. She lost to Meerim Zhumanazarova in the final and failed to earn even a single point in the game. It was Divya’s second defeat to the Kyrgyz wrestler in five months.
Her brother feels that she is afraid of wrestling with foreigners. Divya admits it. She is now working to do away with that mental block so she goes to the Games with all confidence. “Everyone, including me, was hoping nothing less than a gold (at the Junior Asian Wrestling Championships). But then I took a lot of pressure on myself,” she says.
“The tournament was happening in India and then I had this thought that everyone will have their eyes on me. And I had already once been defeated by her (Meerim Zhumanazarova) in the Senior Asian Wrestling championship. This added to the pressure and I failed to overcome it. So, I couldn’t show my natural game,” she explains.
For the Asiad, Divya is working more on her focus so she could learn to deal with the pressure. That apart, she is putting extra efforts to get hold of the techniques as she considers herself comparatively weak there. “I am a bit nervous for the Games but then it is natural. Taking pressure doesn’t help one. I am just practicing hard to overcome my fears and I have also succeeded to a level in that,” she says exuding confidence.
“It is better to die fighting hard than underperforming due to fear,” Divya says, quoting her father.