Sleepy Khandra gets jolts of joy as Neeraj Chopra makes history in Tokyo

Talking Tokyo: Neeraj and Bajrang cap off a memorable last day for India (5:39)

Aparna Popat and Sharda Ugra on a day to remember for India at Tokyo 2020 (5:39)

The drive to the village of Khandra in Haryana's Panipat district is scenic - 16 kilometres from the town of Panipat, past the thermal power plant and past fields of freshly sown pulses and ponds filled with buffaloes taking a soak. Khandra has all of these and, bucolic as it is, it isn't very remarkable. There's little drama in the name itself, the sarpanch (village head) tells you it comes from the empty houses (khandar) that once stood here before the first Ror families settled here generations ago. Life in Khandra is serene, moderately prosperous, with an economy entirely dependent on farming. Life follows the seasons and the lights go off as soon as the sun sets.

But on Saturday, Khandra was jolted out of its sleepy existence and into the pace of metropolitan Tokyo. They were following the progress of one of their sons, Neeraj Chopra, who's creating history half a world away.

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The road outside Chopra's family home that he shares with his father, three uncles and their families is packed with locals and outsiders. It's not hard to find, just follow the arrow signs made with white chalk directing you from the state highway or just ask a local. The secretary of the Panipat Athletics Federation has rigged up a giant digital screen and the elders tolerate its presence despite complaining about the crowd between puffs of the hookah pipe they draw from just outside the Chopra residence.

It's a carnival atmosphere. The Chopras are giving interviews to the TV cameras about Neeraj's early life. They talk with awe about the 1200cc Harley Davidson Roadster he bought in 2019, which is tucked away incongruously next to the tractor that was bought the same year. Every little bit adds to the legend of Neeraj Chopra. "Neeraj drives that Harley so fast, you get tears in your eyes even while sitting on the back. He even drives it on the fields, it's like a tractor. He's always been like that. He likes things that go fast," his uncle Sultan says.

The incongruity of a Harley Davidson with a Punisher skull embellishment sitting next to a muddy tractor and being driven on the dirt tracks on Khandra is something that the Chopras don't ponder much about. "He was always someone who wanted to come out. To make a name for himself. Once he won the Asian Games, he bought himself that bike," says Sultan. But even when he revved his bike, he was dreaming of the Olympics. The gates to the family home have the Olympic rings welded on in wrought iron.

By the time the evening session begins in Tokyo, the crowd has already been worked up to a semi frenzy. Bajrang Punia's wrestling bout is telecast first and by the time he has his arm raised against Kazakhstan's Daulet Niyazbekov, there is an air of anticipation. "Bajrang jit gaya, ab Neeraj ki baari, (Bajrang's won, now it's Neeraj's turn)" says one man.

The villagers don't know much about the journey Chopra made to get from Khandra where he, like the rest of the young boys, planted crops, ploughed the fields and swam in the village pond while washing buffaloes.They aren't familiar with the reasons why Neeraj, knowing there was no gym or training ground within a 20 km radius of his village, took the risk of leaving his family home at age 13 and headed to the SAI centre in Mohali with the dream of becoming something or the obstacles and challenges he's faced to rise to the top of the world. They don't seem to care that with his model-like looks, he is the icon Indian sport has desperately craved. They just know woh bhala phenkta hai (he throws the spear) and is one of their own.

By the time the javelin competition starts, the road is nothing short of a bear pit. Chopra gets wild cheers every time he appears on the screen. His competitors are booed with every throw, Johannes Vetter -- the main threat to their boy -- getting the biggest jeers.

There's never any danger that they'll run out of enthusiasm. When Chopra makes his first throw of 87.03m and goes into the lead, the place is so loud it's impossible to hear yourself think. When he extends his lead in his second throw, you must think surely Neeraj could hear them in Tokyo. The cheers never die down as every one of his competitors falls behind. There is a moment of nervousness when Jakub Vladech lands one beyond the 85m mark. The cheers die down for a moment before exploding when the screen shows he's only managed 86.67m.

By this time everyone is, to borrow a line from Tony Greig, dancing in the aisles of Khandra. By his penultimate throw, the women folk, normally secluded behind ghungats, are out if only on the terraces above the horde below and cheering openly.

When the last throw of the competition is done and it's clear that Chopra has put his little village on the global map, there is complete madness. A child climbs up along the scaffolding of the giant screen and waves the national flag, sweets are distributed. Young men with bright eyes say they will be javelin throwers too. For a while, Khandra is the most exciting place in India. But then once the sweets are distributed and the TV broadcast vans have left, life returns to normal. The boys return to their games, the buffaloes continue to soak in their ponds. "This is how things are here. Now we are only waiting for Neeraj to come back. Then it will be the same all over again," laughs his uncle Bhim.