Saturday, May 14, 2011

An affair to remember

Asawari had a full blown affair in Delhi with Rhythmic Gymnastics beginning year 2003 and ending 2007. It had all the elements of a passionate engagement. There was drama, intrigue, heartbreak and betrayal. Fortunately one can look back now and laugh but it was a painful familiarization with the murky Indian Gymnastics world while it lasted.

Having been brought up to expect fair play and assume personal responsibility for one’s own condition, there was this constant self doubt and self examination while the open book cheating was going on. The fact of the matter was that she was “nobody’s child” in the intrigue laden stadia of Indian Rhythmic Gymnastics. She did not belong to any of them, not Shampa Saini Ma’am, not Kalpana Debnath and certainly not the dynamic and talented Varsha Upadhayaye. There was no Mama Coach to push her case and fight for points on the judge’s table. Despite her obvious talent, desire and drive, she remained an outsider until the end.

Professionals related to India’s Rhythmic gymnastics would say, “She stands out a mile away.” “I would give her five points straight away for the way she stands on the mat.” And this final straw from the honorary secretary of Delhi Gymnastics Association (DGA) Ram Dulare, coming over his Bank counter in Chandni Chowk, “Your daughter’s biggest drawback is that she is good. They will never let her get ahead.”

All the coaches had their daughters and nieces in the same group as Asawari. They were one age and moved up with her through the Sub Junior, Junior and Senior brackets. There was open talk that two sets of gold medals were made during every State Championship; one went to Asawari and the other to one of the nieces or daughters. Chalk would get told from Cheese however, at the nationals where the insipid relatives invariably fell way short of the final eight. And yet the institutional blinders continued in place, shutting out a potential champion completely. 

Asawari’s reaction was denial, and understandably so. She was too young and too much in love with the mat routines to believe the worst or read the writing on the wall that said, “India’s sports world is run by self-serving, arrogant officials whose expertise lies in mutually beneficial networking and back scratching with a zilch interest in promotion of the disciplines.”

Every day, around 3 pm, we would be at the Indira Gandhi Stadium right after school. While I sweated it out in the heated car under the shade of a tree in the company of other drivers or walked the outer track of the stadium, Asawari worked out inside, going through her paces by sheer hit and trial. The coach sat on the broken sofa or did her own desultory warming up exercises. It was right under her nose that Asawari struggled to make sense and order of her elements. Completely at the mercy of an indifferent training regimen, the gymnasts looked to their seniors for inspiration who in turn waited for these pests to leave so that they could rehearse their elements in peace. There was secrecy about routines for fear of copy cat work in the forthcoming competitions. Her coach’s only golden pearl of wisdom shelled out grudgingly to Asawari was, “Read the Code of Points.”

There was a shroud of secrecy such as you have over the Carnation wearing Italian mafia. Cliques huddled together and avoided looking into the eyes of bewildered parents like me. No coach would come outright and say what her potential was or what the future held for her. They made vague statements about the, “touch of ballet in her gym lines” and “the new crop that has been sowed” and “the amount of politics in Indian gymnastics”. All this while, Asawari was happy enough to accompany teams on way to National competitions in unreserved or wait listed bogeys, at times parked near the toilets in ill fitting gym attire provided by the State Sports body, once at Sheila Dixit’s residence, if you please.

As a family, we agonized over the vast chasm between her dream and the real potential of realizing it ever. At the completion of her Xth from DPS R K Puram, we even considered the Open School for the duration of her senior years. She and I made a pilgrimage to Varsha Upadhayaye in Mumbai to try and understand what needed to be done for her to be able to wear the tricolour on the sleeve. That was the crux. Asawari fancied herself entering the mat with the “Tiranga” on her gym leotard. She heard the Indian anthem in her head all the time. She pictured herself standing in an international arena as her country’s flag went up and the notes sounded out.

Many an evening did this flexible child of mine spend poring and crying over videos of Nadia Comaneci, Kerri Strug and Dominique Moceanu. Try as I might, those images do not go: a fatigued young Indian sports girl, vainly trying to grasp at quicksilver moments that simply refused to happen. How could they? There was absolutely no instruction or preparation forthcoming. She was adrift alone.

To set the record straight, lest it be said that there was lack of dedication, it is true that Asawari was taking Ballet lessons from Fernando Aguilera at the same time as she was training in Gymnastics. But rather than discount it as a distraction, I would have counted it as a huge plus to be the only Rhythmic Gymnast in India at that time to be seriously training in Ballet. The world over, Ballet lessons are an integral component of a Rhythmic gymnast’s training.

There was talent, there was desire, and there were the means as well as support at home. I have not been able to figure out what was missing. Did I not “hi hello” enough with the coaches and the judges? Was there some “adjustment” that I missed out on completely?  Did her obvious talent threaten to upset the apple cart where the coaches took turns to award each other’s protégée the first place, the market principle being of living and letting live?

Asawari’s gymnastics story has long been done but even today, in her significant moments, whenever she is particularly happy or sad; she has just one request, “Can we drive to the IG stadium?”Once past the Delhi Secretariat, I slow down near the stadium gate, she alights from the car, goes up close to peep through and always asks the guard, “Bhaiyya, practise kaisi chal rahi hai? “

One day she told me, “When I finally go, scatter me around the stadium. I know my spirit is going to be roaming this stretch for a long time to come!”

Is ours a case of sour grapes? Have others had similar frustrating encounters with a phenomenon called Indian sports?

PS:  The Gymnastics Federation of India (GFI) has had their recognition withdrawn by the Sports Ministry in the past once. Other luminaries we interacted with during those years of IG stadium were Mr Prem Kashyap and Mr Kan Singh Rathore. Dr D R Saini also made some promises of advanced training.



Wow! This brought tears to my eyes Neerja Ma'm. I can understand what she was trying to do, and you know it too. She was/is not doing it for any medals or recognition. She doesn't want to do it so that she could get modelling contracts or become a face for a brand. She is doing it because this is what she believes she is supposed to do. Doesn't matter if she is sidelined due to the politics of the Indian Gymnastics, she doesn't care. The only thing she cares about it how good she could be. As a person who has been in that zone, I can totally relate to why she would cry watching videos of her idols. I do that time to time.

And yes, when she leaves, please do scatter her ashes around that stadium. She is lucky that she has found a place she is in love with, I am still looking for that place of mine.

PS: Ask her to not haunt the others when she is in the spirit form :)

Neerja Singh said...

I appreciate your writing in. It is such a thrill for any writer to have a reader really "get" what they are trying to say. Thank you for reading and taking the time to write at length. And you are right. It is blessed to have found a place you are in love with.