Child Bride Turned Wrestling Prodigy: You Don’t Want To Mess With Neetu Sarkar
When only 13, Neetu was sold by her parents to a 43-year old man. Instead of giving up, she pursued her dreams.
The International Center for Research on Women estimates that close to 47 % of Indian girls are married before the age of 18. That is an alarming number, considering the country’s attempt to fasten its economic and cultural growth process under a new leadership.
At the fledgling age of 13, Haryana’s Neetu Sarkar was sold to a 43-year old man adhering to the repressive tradition of child marriage in her village. A decade later however, she is using the incident to fuel her dream of becoming India’s number one female wrestler.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, she said, “I honestly didn’t know the intricacies of marriage at that age. My parents were very cash strapped and hence they had no choice but to get me married. My husband had mental issues and within a week, I ran way because I knew staying there would lead to my death.”
Mother of two by the age of 14
Unable to sustain her expenses, Neetu’s parents were also forced by members of the village to get her remarried. Within months, she had to marry again, and also gave birth to a set of twins. At just 14 years of age, she was a mother of two, highlighting the state of women in Haryana.
She said, “Wrestling was something I was always interested in, I used to watch all the fights in my local ‘akhada’ in Bedwah, where the sport is very popular. Of course, at that time I didn’t have the guts to go and ask them, whether I could participate.”
Neetu’s second husband Sanjay was unemployed, the family’s only source of income was his mother’s pension. Hence, wrestling took a back-seat in her life. The 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi signalled the existence of women’s wrestling as a sport in Neetu’s mind space.
She added, “I was so motivated when I saw the girls, wrestling, I was sure I would be able to compete against them as it was always in my head to pursue this at one point.” In the beginning, she went to her local akhada, asking them whether she could also practice. However, she was refused entry as girls were not allowed to participate in sport within the village.
She soon realised that the village elders would not allow her to participate in the sport. Neetu set out on another challenge. In an attempt to lose weight, she would get up at 3 am everyday to run 10 km. She said, “I had to wake up that early because if I came any later after 5 or 6, the village members and my family would be awake, by the time I come back.”
Within a year she went from fat to fit. Her fledgling steps into serious wrestling came, thanks to her husband’s support. Neetu added, “One day he came and told me, I want you to pursue you dream, I don’t want you to be like others who have no ambition. You have a dream and you have to fight for it.”
She added, “I couldn’t leave my village wearing what I wear to wrestle. I had to wear a dress while practicing on several occasions.” Currently training in Rohtak, Neetu’s training day’s last for about 17 hours. She begins her day at 3 a.m, travelling one and a half hours from her village to the National Stadium in Rohtak. She would initially workout for three hours, before competing in several matches. The 22-year old returns home at 9 p.m everyday.
She often poses as a student on the Haryana State Transport bus to avoid paying for a ticket. The money saved is then invested on a glass of juice during practice.
That being said, Neetu has also contributed to her family, prior to wrestling entering her life. She added,“I used to work in a gift shop, then I used to work as a construction labourer, I also worked at a tailor’s shop to help my husband out.”
Her coach Mandeep Singh is all praises for Neetu’s disciplinary regime. He said, “I train a lot of wrestlers, but I haven’t met someone as dedicated as her. Ever since I started training her a couple of years back, she is someone who has always remained determined and never wasted time. That’s why she has climbed the hierarchy so quickly.”
From community ostracization to local hero
By 2013, Neetu had already established herself as the top most junior in the 51 kg category. Her first major success came at the 2014 Senior National Championship, where she won bronze in the 53 kg category. A year later she won bronze in the National Games from Haryana, and also represented India at the World Championship.
Despite her humble financial background and turbulent personal life, Neetu has defied the odds by reaching the national wrestling squad in just three years. But, this particular feat has not translated to monetary support. Bitgiving, a crowd-funding platform along with the Sushil Kumar Sports Foundation is attempting to help Neetu garner finances for her training abroad.
During her initial days, Neetu always had a cloud of self-doubt about her capabilities. However, her former coach cited an example of Mary Kom to her. She added ,”During the time, I wasn’t very sure that being a mother of two I would be able to compete against younger opponents. However my Coach told me about Mary Kom and her life story, that’s when I realised, if she can, so can I.”
A gentle stroll through Neetu’s village will showcase how much her success has affected the community. The same people who used to ridicule her by saying, ‘a mother of two and a wrestler, you will put our community to shame,’ now want Neetu to train her kids. She added. “Now there are girls participating in akhadas, whereas before a girl couldn’t even think of getting educated, leave alone playing sports in public. It’s great to see the change, I hope to see other villages in Haryana also take this initiative.”
Her status as the village’s local hero was cemented, after her first international Junior World Championship visit to Brazil. Even though, she was eliminated in the first round, Neetu’s foray into the world of wrestling gives people the audacity to hope, no matter how difficult the situation is.
This piece was first published in sportskeeda.com and has been republished here with permission
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