Dattu Baban Bhokanal - The Rime of the Indian Mariner
Manmad is a one of a kind town in Nashik, Maharashtra. With the twin forts of Ankai and Tankai overlooking the town and the Waghdardi Dam trying in futility to address the hardships of the many tiny villages dotting it, the town has one of the oldest railway stations in the country. One of the many villages in and around Manmad is Talegaon Rohi. The drought hit village has above 4000 people, 800 households and 1 Olympian.
Talegaon, at the worst of times, is bone dry. The children of the village relentlessly, despairingly and hopefully scour and dig wells along with the elders in search of water. This is not an occupation. This is not a choice. This is survival and keep searching, they must.
Adversity however, brings the best out of human beings and the people of Talegaon epitomize this. Today, the village is in the news for an incredible achievement. Talegaon has risen faster, higher and stronger along with their favourite son, Dattu Baban Bhokanal.
Bhokanal’s story however, isn’t yet another rags to riches story. For the 24-year old didn’t merely conquer thirst; he didn’t merely conquer poverty; he didn’t merely conquer pain. Dattu Baban Bhokanal conquered fear. And not just any fear. He conquered the fear of what he never had, yet what made him great. Bhokanal conquered the fear of water.
To wrap one’s head around the sheer will behind this man’s Herculean deed is difficult in itself.
Imagine someone with Vertigo becoming a skydiver. Imagine someone afraid of driving becoming a Formula One driver. Imagine someone with the fear of falling becoming a tight rope walker. Imagine someone who cringes at the sight of blood becoming a hematologist.
Now, escalate your thinking further steps ahead and imagine all of them being the very best at what they do – the creme de la creme of their chosen calling, escaping the vices of Cape Fear. Sounds improbable. Until one meets Dattu Bhokanal, that is.
The Chief National Rowing Coach, Ismail Baig says “He never complains of workload, a very gritty customer and abundance of natural talent. He can be the major surprise from India in Rio”. This combination of natural talent coupled with the right temperament is what has catapulted Bhokanal to stratospheric heights with the rower aiming to reach the stars and go even higher.
However, ambition and new found glory hasn’t blinded him one bit, as he exudes humility and simplicity far beyond his relatively young age. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that his sufferings have shaped his success.
This has proven increasingly true of successful sportsmen the world over, right from Jesse Owens to Cristiano Ronaldo. Jamie Carragher, the former English footballer turned pundit, recently commented on the lack of fight exhibited by young English footballers saying, “they get ferried to football schools, they work on immaculate pitches, play in pristine training gear every day and everything is done to ensure all they have to do is focus on football.
“We think we are making them men but actually we are creating babies. Life has been too easy. They have been pampered from a young age, had money thrown at them and, when things have gone wrong, they have been told it is never their fault. Some 12- and 13-year-olds have agents now. Why?”
This perception gets elevated from the realm of public opinion to theory, with the recent findings of the American Psychological Association on “athletic resilience” which says “Athletes of all abilities, but especially high-performance athletes, must have resiliency in abundance in order to war with the dynamics of internal and external conflict”.
Bhokanal is the prototype of such an athlete, having fought both internal demons (fear, ailing mother, death of father) as well as external (failure) to reach where he has today. More on the former first.
Much like the rest of the kids in rural Maharashtra, Bhokanal used to help his father in digging wells. However, even this quest for water was outside Talegaon, in Nashik. The sorry state of his village and the pervading drought is an issue close to his heart.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, he said, “When I first came to know about rowing as a sport, I was in shock. People waste so much water, when they have access to it. It made me extremely emotional. Over time I became more used to the fact.”
The buck did not stop there though. Bhokanal has been rowing against the tide in life for well over half a decade now, with the untimely death of his father due to cancer leaving him and his family in debt. At the age of 19, he had poverty staring right at him. And like he proved many times over in the subsequent years, when the going got tough, Bhokanal got rowing. And going. And growing.
Drought, poverty and personal tragedy forced Bhokanal to look for alternate sources of employment which finally led to him joining the Indian Armed Forces in Khadki, Pune. Khadki is one of the country’s major army bases, with the tiny town consisting of a Central Armed Forces Vehicle Depot, a Military Dairy Farm, the Khadki War Cemetery and Memorial, and the Dapodi College of Military Engineering.
Surrounded by the Mula River on three sides, the Army Base also had a recreational sport which terrified and repulsed Bhokanal in equal measure – Rowing.
“Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink” cries Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, a poignant line that entirely summed up Bhokanal’s feelings at seeing people row on that most precious of things, water. However, anger and resentment towards the sport soon gave way to a burning fire within to overcome the fear of something that tormented him inconspicuously by its absence.
And no water could douse that fire. After all, “The Mariner hath his will”.
Bhokanal was like a fish out of water the first time he plunged into it. This oxymoron soon became a legend within the Army Base. After all, here was someone who had mastered rowing after being horrified by the very thing he rowed on.
Within a year, Dattu Baban Bhokanal, the new kid on the block hailing from a drought-hit village in Nashik had been transferred to the Army Rowing Node, at the nearby Dapodi College of Military Engineering.
The Army Rowing Node was established within the College of Military Engineering (CME) in 2001, to promote excellence in one of the most physically demanding sports. While the men used to train in the river initially, the two kilometres long and 135-metre wide International Rowing Channel was constructed in 2012, with Bhokanal being one of the early beneficiaries.
He underwent rigorous training, testing his body to the limits, going through a strict indoor and outdoor regime. Rajpal Singh and Inderpal Singh, two of the coaches at the Army Rowing Node, examine the health and performance of each rower in a scientific manner.
Interestingly, ARN in-charge, Colonel Charan Singh Biswana had earmarked four athletes to qualify for the Rio Olympics 2016 along with ace rower Sawarn Singh Virk in 2014 – Bhagwan Singh, Nayab Rasool, Dushyant Singh and Narsa Ram, with Bhokanal not even being in the picture. Such was the speed of his meteoric rise over the next two years.