By challenging patriarchy, paraglider Aditi Thakur and her father bring about a social revolution in Himachal Pradesh
India's poor medal tally in Rio was widely criticised by pundits and fans alike. Considering the sheer size of the contingent this year, none of the computer or man-made algorithms predicted a medal count lower than five. But as it turned out, the country finished bottom of the medal-per-athlete list - and that too for the first time in its Olympic history.
All the numbers indicated a dreadful edition for the nation. But if we were to look beyond the statistical failure, the Rio Olympics have actually highlighted a subtle societal transformation in Indian sport.
From the time India gained independence to the London Olympics, only two female athletes - Karnam Malleshwari and Saina Nehwal - had managed to medal at the Olympics. But in Rio, both the medals were won by women, including a first in wrestling. And who can forget the wonderful Independence Day gift from Dipa Karmakar, her 4th-place finish bringing a smile to every Indian sports fan's face!
For a country which ranks among the top 10 nations with the highest female foeticide rate, this was definitive change. Although it couldn't be quantified in the form of medals, it was the beginning of a gradual transition from lack of female participation in sport, to heavily depending on success from the finest women's sportspersons in the country.
The upcoming Aamir Khan film named 'Dangal' attempts to trace the story of the Phogat sisters, who defied societal norms in Haryana to participate in wrestling. Buoyed by the faith shown in them by their father, Dronacharya Awardee Mahavir Phogat, the sisters managed to get the girls of an entire district to participate in the sport - even giving impetus to eventual Olympic medallist Sakshi Mallik to follow in their footsteps.
A similar revolution seems to be taking place in northern Himachal Pradesh. Earlier this week, a 15-year-old girl from a small village in the Kangra district shocked everyone by finishing third in the senior category of the National Paragliding Championship. For the uninitiated, paragliding is essentially a sport where you're catapulted in the air by the use of aerodynamic forces, after which you have to attempt to manoeuvre yourself across a course.
According to data collected by the World Paragliding Association, close to 100 deaths take place every year due to the inherent danger within the sport.
A village where women were not allowed to play sport
"My village is a very conservative place, girls are always told to stay in the houses and cook for the man, whereas the men have been a part of paragliding for a long time. The village Bir is the fastest growing in the Kangra district because of paragliding tourism. It even hosted the World Cup last year, which helped with infrastructure and publicity," says Aditi's father Kuldeep Thakur.
"Since then, people have been flocking the region. I was the senior landing in-charge at the World Cup, basically helping the competitors to land safely. My daughter used to accompany me in this, and she seemed really interested. Then I thought to myself, 'why is our village solely focussing on the male participants getting medals, there is a women's category everywhere, if my child likes the sport, she will pursue it'," Kuldeep adds.
According to statistics collected by the Bir municipality, not a single girl from the village had ever taken part in sport, while the men have a rich history in both paragliding and kabaddi.
Prior to the senior nationals, Aditi had zero tournament experience heading into the nationals, but her performance seemed like that of a professional. With as many as 25 participants in her category, out of which 15 were professional, the teenager entered the competition as the youngest and lowest ranked.
She says, "When I first took up paragliding, the villagers used to come and tell my father, 'Yeh sab to ladke karte hai, ladki ko shobha nahi deta (All this doesn't suit a girl)'. And he used to reply, 'Aapse koi kuch poocha? (Did anyone ask for your opinion?)'. It used to make me feel so secure, and I know that I can fully concentrate on gliding without anyone saying anything.”
Aditi's first love, however, was kabaddi; she almost effortlessly made it to the junior state team, a first for a girl from that district. Kuledeep adds, "In the begining, when she was 10-12 years old, I didn't want to introduce her to gliding as she was too young. She went to an inter-school sports meet, where she saw girls from another district playing kabaddi. She immediately came and told me she wanted to play kabaddi. But there was no other girls from the area who played kabaddi, so I decided that she should practise with the boys.”
Inspiring an entire district of girls to participate in sport
This decision was not met with applause by the local panchayat, to put it mildly. During their monthly meeting, this particular 'issue' was raised, with the village elders requesting Kuldeep to not allow his daughter to play kabaddi. One of the Sarpanch members said, "How can you let the girl play with the boys? Do you realise it's a contact sport?"
It was at this point that Kuldeep fully realised the extent of the gender divide created by society. He told the people assembled, "They are all 9-year-olds, do you really think they care about any type of contact, be it male or female? They just want to enjoy themselves playing kabaddi. It is you, who is having such monstrous thoughts in your head. Like it or not, if Aditi wants to play kabaddi with the boys, she will."
However, Kuldeep's firm stance backfired, with all the village boys refusing to play with her. When Aditi ran home crying to her father, he decided to send her to a school in the neighbouring village, which had a girls' kabaddi team.
This move sparked her phenomenal rise in the sport. In just two years, she made it to the state junior team and eventually finished fifth in the nationals. She says, "I love gliding more than any other sport, but kabaddi gave me something which helps me in gliding every day - enthusiasm. You know that once you fall down you have to get back up. It's the same with gliding; one wrong turn, but you know if you're agile and fast enough you can get it done. That helped me a lot in the competition."
Kamal Kumar, the winner of the Senior nationals, seems in awe of Aditi's talent. He said, "Honestly, she is the first girl from our village to take up gliding. We all made fun of her, saying look at this kid not being able to take off properly also. All of us passed statements such as 'Ladki nahi kar payegi (A girl can't do it), but the way she glided yesterday we were left in awe. I can definitely tell you she is India's next hope. If she keeps getting better from here, she can be one of the best in Asia."
Aditi's third place finish at the Nationals catapulted her to 36th in the national rankings - the highest for an amateur after their very first tournament. It also means she will be a part of the Asia Cup next month in Billing itself. And she has achieved all of this success with just one hour of gliding a day.
She says, "I love to know about different regions in India, that's why I love studying political science. When I'm gliding, I glide for hundreds of kilometres, so that I can learn about these places. For me studying is the main priority right now, because my parents are not very well off. I understand that they have to spend Rs 3 lakh a year for this. Eventually, I want to do it for myself. What my father is doing for me, no one in our village would have the guts to stand up for me and do."
The entire state of Himachal is lauding Aditi's efforts, but her father Kuldeep is probably as much of a hero as her. His strong stance against patriarchy, culminating with Aditi's success, has seen the village girls slowly start participating in both kabaddi and paragliding.
He says, "When Sakshi and Sindhu won I was very happy; I went to every house and distributed sweets because I wanted to highlight that you should also put your girl into sport. It has the power to change their lives and get rid of stereotypes that you can't even think of. In their victory was my Aditi's victory."
And in Aditi's victory was the victory of his faith in his daughter's talent, and faith in his beliefs, even when the entire village ostracised his family.
Aditi continues her march towards paragliding greatness. In the coming years, her success will probably be considered the next step in India's sporting revolution - the aftershocks of the heroics pulled off by India's 'girl child' in Rio, if you will.