By Swarnendu Biswas
Meeting Indian Woman Wrestler, Sonika Kaliraman Malik can be itself an experience. At least for me, it was. It was an experience not only because women wrestlers are still a rarity in India, but beautiful sportswomen in India are even more so.
Not only because she towered over me with her tall 6-foot frame and amazingly broad shoulders (here I took solace from the fact that in Zor Ka Jhatka she towered over Shahrukh Khan too), but also perhaps because my preconceived mindset, which still regrettably has some remnants of male chauvinism, couldn’t comprehend that a champion wrestler could also be one of the most beautiful sportswomen.
Yes, I had seen her in television many times in the recent past, in various reality shows like Fear Factor, Khatron Ke Khiladi (Season 2), which was hosted by Akshay Kumar, in Zor Ka Jhatka, which was hosted by Shahrukh Khan, and in Big Boss (Season 5), which had Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan as the host.
But Sonika’s beauty and grace seemed much more enchanting to me, as compared to what was depicted through her televised images. She is one of the most famous Indian sportswomen and wrestlers of post-independence India, but she could also easily seem to be a supermodel or a Bollywood diva.
No wonder, Bollywood star Akshay Kumar was also greatly impressed by her. On seeing Sonika on the sets he said, “Wrestler? You look more like a super model.”
Her super-powered physique that resembled a female bodybuilder, her spellbinding features and her wonderfully built biceps put me in total awe of her. When she shook hands with me, I instantly realised that she could break my weak male hand within seconds, if she chooses to.
However, thankfully and mercifully, she chose to put me at ease with her cascade-like laughter, as our conversation progressed…
Initiation to Grappling
As we talked, I learned about the rigorous struggle and grit behind Sonika’s astounding success story, as the first woman Bharat Kesari and 10 times winner of medals in the National Wrestling Championship, and the winner of several other prestigious national level awards in the arena of wrestling.
All in all, she won a jaw-dropping 16 titles at the national level during 1998-2009. But like many sportswomen in India, Sonika’s journey towards fame and success was nothing short of an uphill backbreaking endeavour against several odds.
It can’t be denied that the knack for wrestling and the talent of emerging as a champion in this sport involving great brawn and skills was perhaps ingrained in her genes.
Sonika is the daughter of the late and great wrestler, Chandgi Ram (popularly known as Master Chandgi Ram), who won a Gold Medal at the 1970 Asian Games in Bangkok and was the recipient of the Arjuna Award and Padma Shri.
He represented India at the Munich Olympic Games, in 1972. Across his illustrious career, he was crowned with prestigious titles like Hind Kesari, Bharat Kesari, Bharat Bhim, Rustom-e-Hind, and Maha Bharat Kesari.
Many outside the wrestling fraternity know that Chandgi Ram was a great wrestler turned great coach of wrestling, but not many of them know that he was a great champion towards the cause of women’s wrestling too.
To Chandgi Ram goes the credit of setting up an akhara (a sort of wrestling arena and wrestling training centre combined) to train women wrestlers for local, national and eventually, international events.
His Herculean efforts had contributed to the increasing acceptance and also to the rising popularity of women’s wrestling among the by and large conservative Indian mindsets.
However, despite tremendous efforts on his and Sonika’s part, the acceptance and popularity of women’s wrestling in India is nothing as compared to what it should be. Unfortunately, for the women sports personalities of India, it takes decades to change mindsets.
“One day, when we were school going girls, my father took me and my elder and younger sister to his akhara where we three were amazed, or rather perplexed, to see women wrestlers practising with their male counterparts and as part of their wrestling practice were also throwing the male wrestlers on the mat, again and again,” reminisces Sonika with a hearty laugh.
While the girls were wonderstruck at the women wrestlers’ skills at their father’s akhara, their father asked them whether they were interested to take up wrestling as a sport. The direct question led both of Sonika’s sisters to hide fearfully behind her tall frame. The onus automatically fell on Sonika.
“I don’t know what happened to me, but I blurted out a confident ‘Yes.’ Perhaps the mental cocktail of amazement, wonder and thrill, which was passing through my mind during those moments, induced me to take the plunge into the wrestling arena, which was till then a completely unexplored territory for me,” confesses Sonika, who along with her sisters, had a conservative, pampered and secluded upbringing till then.
Sometime before this event took place, Chandgi Ram had shown the pictures of former Miss World Diana Hayden, the internationally renowned weightlifter Karnam Malleswari, and the internationally famous boxer Laila Ali and told his TV viewing daughters that these women became famous because they “worked for it, and didn’t sit before the TV and gaped.”
He then asked his daughters what they were doing to leave a mark. The question did leave a mark on the impressionable mind of Sonika, and she began toying with the idea of making her mark in the world.
The show of female wrestling prowess on their father’s akhara perhaps culminated in Sonika’s desire to do something truly worthwhile, and she chose wrestling to fulfil that endeavour.
Truly Tough Journeys
Her decision to take up wrestling as a career involved tough challenges. Soon Sonika’s conservative and pampered upbringing graduated into a grindingly adventurous journey, as after taking the plunge and accepting the challenge of excelling in wrestling, she didn’t allow herself the choice of retreat.
“When I seriously thought about taking wrestling as my passion and profession and begun my journey across wrestling arenas in 1997, women’s wrestling was there in India, but it was confined to the fringes of the overall sports scenario of the country,” informs Sonika.
Back then women’s wrestling merely existed, with little possibilities of its growth. Then very few akharas hosted women’s wrestling, and there were very few wrestling competitions held in the country with provisions for women’s wrestling.
Chandgi Ram not only took the challenge of helping Sonika excel in wrestling but also encouraged many other Indian women in the field of sports to take to this extremely physically-intensive sport, which is still perceived (wrongly) by the majority of Indians as essentially a male sport.
“Initially, his persistent endeavours to make women’s wrestling gain wider acceptance made the entire wrestling fraternity go against my father,” states the lithe and powerful lady.
Many in the wrestling fraternity also voiced their outdated notion to Chandgi Ram when they asserted that while seeing women practising wrestling, the concentration of the male wrestlers could get distracted.
Many of his peers ridiculed the late Master, Chandgi Ram’s tireless fight for the cause of women’s wrestling.
“However, the opposition didn’t deter my father and whenever he was asked to send wrestlers to various wrestling meets, organised across the country, he set a condition. He said that he would arrange for the male wrestlers for the organisers to participate at the meet, but only if women’s wrestling section was also introduced in the given meet,” explains the champion sportswoman.
Chandgi Ram’s stipulation induced many organisers to introduce women’s wrestling section at their wrestling meets. In fact, his battle with the Indian Wrestling Federation to give space and recognition to women’s wrestling was a long one, but with Sonika’s participation and her repeated successes on the mat, her father’s campaign gathered greater momentum.
Particularly the first three years of Sonika’s wrestling career were extremely physically and mentally daunting for her. “In his fierce passion to popularise women’s wrestling, my father took we, the women wrestlers of his batch, to travel to and participate at many women’s wrestling competitions at the local level, which also included travels across the rural areas of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Not only the travelling was hectic, but the schedule was also gruelling too,” explains Sonika.
She said that many a time she had to travel without reservation in trains to attend an urgent wrestling bout, as there was not sufficient time to book reserved tickets. On occasion, she had to sleep through the night in the vicinity of the toilet of the train, as the seat was unavailable.
“The stench emanating from the dirty toilet of the unreserved compartment of the train used to disturb the much-needed slumber for the tired body,” recollects the lady of substance, without the slightest trace of complaint in her strong voice.
“These and many other tough experiences have helped me to grow as a human being and empathise with the trying conditions that the common people of our country face on a regular basis,” states Sonika sincerely, without any air of self-importance.
That was not all. At one wrestling bout, Sonika and her other 15 women wrestling batch mates also experienced getting stoned by the crowd. “With difficulty, we managed to escape from the violent crowd, who were showing their aversion towards women’s wrestling,” states Sonika.
To me, this violent gesture reflected the deep-seated hostility of the Indian society, not only towards women’s wrestling but towards women’s empowerment in general.
“During our frantic tours, many a time we had to stay in huts, with no facility for a proper toilet. And of course, in those times we had to go to the jungles to answer the call of nature,” asserts Sonika unabashedly, accompanied by her refreshing unpretentious laughter.
But besides all these difficulties, which her pampered upbringing didn’t prepare her for beforehand, the enormous physical strain of incessant travelling interspersed with wrestling bouts with very little time for rest, initially took its toll on Sonika, but eventually did toughen her, not only physically, but more importantly, mentally and physiologically.
“Often on long and taxing tours, we didn’t come home for 2 to 3 months, which made me long for home food desperately,” articulates the vibrant lady.
And of course, during those initial years of struggle, with women’s wrestling fiercely fighting to gain even a minuscule proportion of mind and media space, the money at the local wrestling meets across rural and urban India was pitiable, to say the least.
“But it was only our undying passion which kept us going,” points out Sonika, quite nonchalantly.
The Champion Emerges
Soon Sonika’s wrestling prowess gained recognition in the national platform when she won a silver medal in the 72-kilogram category, at the National Wrestling Championship, in 1998.
Her first sizeable prize money came when she managed to become the first women Bharat Kesari in 1998, but even after winning this prestigious wrestling tournament, her struggle continued for many more years.
Even after her iconic achievement, she was not treated as an icon by society at large. Sonika followed her winning of the Bharat Kesari title, with the Golds in Sub-Junior National Wrestling Championship, and Junior National Wrestling Championship, in 1999.
In 2000, after three years of continual struggle with hardly time to breathe, Sonika notched up some awesome achievements in 2000, in the form of Gold medals in National Wrestling Championship and in Asian Women Wrestling Championship. She was also participating in the World Women Wrestling Championship since 1999.
In 2000, Sonika was also adjudged as the ‘Best Wrestler’ by the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports. She also won her first Rajiv Gandhi Gold Cup, in the same year.
Within only three years of professional wrestling behind her, this extremely talented and super strong wrestling phenomenon achieved the extremely coveted world ranking of 8th, in the year 2000. Soon there was no looking back for Sonika…
However, women’s wrestling was still nowhere near its awesome potential, and Sonika’s and her father’s efforts to enhance its mass base continued unabated. The success of Sonika on the wrestling arena helped her to land up a government job with MTNL, in 2001.
On occasion, her entire month’s salary was channelised to pay her late father’s telephone bill, which rose to astronomical proportions despite the subsidised call rates granted to Sonika (as she was an employee of MTNL then), largely because of late Chandgi Ram’s almost frantic efforts to popularise women’s wrestling across the country.
“He used to phone for hours together trying to convince people to lend their support to women’s wrestling, which did cost my entire salary some times,” says Sonika with a chuckle and mock despair in her voice.
Sonika, who was listed in the Limca Record Book of India 2003, went on to win several other wrestling titles across the country. In fact, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that awards and recognition kept following her, wherever she went.
During her decade-long career, she had participated in several international wrestling events and also heightened India’s prestige in the realm of international wrestling by winning a Bronze medal at the Dave Schultz International Wrestling Tournament in 2002, which was held in the USA.
At the 2006 Asian Games, held in Doha, Sonika came back with the fourth position. In 2004, perhaps she reached the pinnacle of her wrestling career when her world ranking was 5th.
Similarly, 2007 was also a particularly remarkable year for this legendary wrestler, when she won the Madhya Pradesh State Year Award for Best Wrestler besides bagging a Gold at the National Games, which was being held in Guwahati.
This, despite the fact that she was badly injured in 2005, and had to have knee surgery. Mostly she competed in the 72 kg category, and during her decade-long wrestling career, Sonika considers Gursharanpreet Kaur as her most fierce competitor.
The Commonwealth Controversy
However, despite such an impeccable record, Sonika was omitted from the 2010 CWG squad. She did accuse the Indian woman wrestlers’ selection procedure of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi as being unjust.
Sonika also moved the Delhi High Court alleging unfair selection process by the Wrestling Federation of India for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which was held in Delhi.
“The performance trial taken by the committee was not fair and justified and the petitioner was not given proper opportunity to prove her ability, for reasons best known to the committee,” said the excerpts from the petition filed by Sonika.
She also accused the selection committee of favouring and selecting some wrestlers who had not won a medal in the national championships, notwithstanding their mediocre showing in the ring.
According to Sonika, she was preparing for the Games for four years, during which she won several medals for her country, and her non-selection at the squad was a great shock for her, and also for millions of her fans.
She also went to the US to practice at her own cost, in order to be fit for the Commonwealth Games. Indeed it is a pity that one of the most famous sportswomen in India was not allowed to show her mettle at the mega international level meet hosted at our national capital.
Sonika also expressed her displeasure at being omitted from the CWG squad to the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee, but to no avail.
In August 2010, Sonika led a campaign of the dissatisfied women wrestlers, who were excluded from the selection trials for the Commonwealth Games 2010, in their demand for an open trial for the selection to the CWG 2010.
However, the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) didn’t give any importance to the wrestlers’ protests and went ahead with the trials in NIS, Patiala.
The Delhi High Court also quashed the excluded women wrestlers’ demands for an open trial. However, undeterred, those women wrestlers did challenge the decision of the Delhi High Court’s quashing their demands for an open trial, to a larger bench.
Subsequently, the daily legal tussle drained Sonika emotionally, who was already carrying the burden of grief of her father’s demise, which took place only months before, in June 2010.
It eventually created an aversion towards professional wrestling in the mind of Sonika, which was most unfortunate. She is still trying hard to get over that emotional turmoil.
Retired to Motherhood
The wrestling icon, who took premature retirement from wrestling after 2010, following her marriage. Sonika Kaliraman’s husband is an NRI entrepreneur based in California. She now a proud mother of a baby boy, whom she gave birth to in January 2012. Presently she resides in California.
I requested her to enter the arena again and show her prowess. However, she observed that she needed to practice a lot and get in shape again before re-entering competitive wrestling.
She didn’t reveal whether the demise of her father and her not being able to participate in the Commonwealth Games also contributed to her unfortunate decision of premature retirement.
I also wondered how much more muscle she needed to reenter the arena, but then I am a layman with hardly any first-hand knowledge of the toil and grind involved in competitive sports.
She indulgently laughed at my suggestion, but the twinkle in her eyes showed enthusiasm at the prospect of reentering wrestling.
“I need to wait a bit, for at present my child is too small and needs my undivided attention. My motherhood is presently my full-time occupation, which keeps me very busy and content,” she says with a huge smile.
What I could speculate is that she is presently keeping her fingers crossed regarding her reentering the wrestling arena.
Furthermore, she also feels that she had struggled enormously over the years to make her mark in wrestling, and during that phase, she missed out on a lot of fun in life, which she wants to indulge in presently.
“For the time being, I want to dress and eat the way I please, chill out a bit and take a break from the daily gruelling fitness regimen that excelling in competitive sports entails,” she reveals. I hoped that her break from wrestling turns out to be a brief and temporary phase.
Excessive Official Power
However, though she is not physically participating in wrestling, her mind frequently works on improving the wrestling scenario in our country, even when she is in California.
Sonika rightly believes that the dominance of the officials over the players is one of the reasons behind impeding the nurturing and growth of exceptional talent in wrestling. Too much officialdom and politics are killing our sports.
“Today the scenario is such that officials have the power to ruin the career of Indian wrestlers if the players by any chance incur their displeasure,” asserts Sonika.
Irrespective of the fact that whether you are a good or an ordinary or a bad wrestler, it is important that you follow the dictates of the officials without question if you want to go ahead in your career.
The internationally renowned sportsperson also points out that rampant favouritism towards players pervades among coaches and officials, which is compromising the integrity of the sport.
“I have seen many a time coaches extending favouritism to their state wrestlers at the national level meet, where they are supposed to train all the wrestlers coming from various states, impartially,” points out Sonika. This obviously compromises the spirit of the national level wrestling meets.
“The fact remains that 90 per cent of our wrestlers come from an underprivileged background, and do not even get proper diet and costumes for themselves during their struggling years unless they get into national and/or state squads. This makes them more vulnerable to the exploitation by the officials, for they cannot afford to risk their career by incurring the wrath of their coaches or officials,” Sonika explains.
She adds that even if one player raises objection against some unfair practice against an official or some officials or of the coach, s/he is not likely to get any support from her/his compatriots or batch mates; most of whom generally languish in deep-seated insecurity.
According to Sonika, sexual harassment is also not absent from Indian wrestling. She herself had to tackle one such incident in 1999, when her chief coach for the international event where she was participating, came in a drunken state in her hotel room with obviously wrong intentions.
Sonika not only objected to the shameful behaviour of her coach but also got him sacked from the federation.
Besides showing her angst against the dirty politics pervading through Indian wrestling and in fact, many other sports in India, Sonika also candidly expressed her lament at the lack of sporting culture in our country.
“Our country is just obsessed with cricket, and no other games are given their due recognition by the media, government and the public,” she rues while adding that our children and adolescents are not encouraged by their parents to take up any other sport besides cricket.
And the current fascination towards cricket by our society at large is also perhaps because of the prospect of huge money that a cricketer can earn if he attains national or IPL level stature, and not because of the love for the game.
No wonder, under the present circumstances, the recognition and money in all other games except cricket and tennis are not what they should be, and neither the media exposure to other sports, except cricket, anything great to talk about.
Besides cricket, it is the entertainment business about which India shares a collective fascination. In fact, it is extremely lamentable that Sonika became more famous among common people of India after her participation in reality shows than through her stupendous achievements in wrestling.
She became a household name in India only after her participation at Fear Factor Khatron Ke Khiladi (Season 2). Here also she had her share of bad luck. Her lack of good driving skills led her to a quick exit from the competition.
Though she had informed the organisers of the Fear Factor Khatron Ke Khiladi (Season 2) beforehand about her lack of good driving skills and they included her despite that handicap, but in the midst of the competition, the only sports celebrity at the show was asked to perform a car stunt, which she couldn’t perform and hence was eliminated from the show.
At the Big Boss (Season 5), frequent loud honking and the negative vibes emanating from her frequently quarrelsome co-participants induced her to take an early exit from the show, in order to safeguard her pregnancy from a possible miscarriage.
The Great Sportswoman
As a famous female personality of India, Sonika is extremely passionate about inculcating a sports culture among Indians at large, and in making India a more sports-loving nation than it is now.
“We should proactively encourage more and more of our children towards fitness and sporting activities, which in turn may eventually help us to develop as a sporting nation, and improve our presently dismal performances at the Olympics,” she observes.
She thinks that for this not only must the children who have shown potential for making a mark in sports be given the right incentive, right training and the right infrastructure by the state, so that their initiation into sports begins early, but also all sports should be made free from politics and favouritism.
“The huge Commonwealth Games’ sports infrastructure that we have built can be used to train children of our country who show an inclination towards sports, which in turn could facilitate towards ascertaining and then harnessing their potential for a bright future in sports,” Sonika explains.
Sonika has an innovative idea to enhance the popularity of wrestling in India. “We should introduce various types of wrestling, tailored to the seasons, and these forms of wrestling should be projected among their target audience through adequate media coverage,” she proffers. I asked her to elaborate on this further.
“For example, in the winters we can have wrestling meets indoors, which could be played in the backdrop of soothing and melodious tunes. In the summers, we can have mud wrestling bouts, in both dry and wet forms, and in spring, garden and/or cage wrestling can be introduced,” she says with lots of passion.
Sonika believes that repackaging wrestling in India in these innovative and creative formats, while keeping in the mind the seasonal factor, along with their adequate media coverage, would help wrestling as a sport to garner its desired popularity among its potential target audience.
With the gradual progress of the interview, I began to realise that I was not only talking to a super-powered wrestler but also to an extremely intelligent and reflective mind.
As she had a flight to catch, I hurriedly said her goodbye along with putting across another earnest request for her to reenter the stage.
For it would not be that much of a loss for Sonika if she quits wrestling permanently, but for Indian wrestling and in fact, for the fraternity of top sportswomen in India, the loss would be huge indeed.
We already have very few women in Indian sports, and the number of female sports stars in India is unfortunately even smaller.
And thus we cannot afford to let one such rarity choose to fade into obscurity, without bringing more glory to the country. India and wrestling need her magnificent presence…