As the Indian women's hockey team lifted their game and soared at the Tokyo Olympics, news television slathered our screens with visuals of the beat-up villages, faded towns and modest homes that the players belong to. The cameras piled into their homes, where delighted but slightly harassed families were trapped under the spotlights, distributing soundbites and sweets.
Everything was true but this single way of looking at this team is to freeze-dry and attach the women we saw on the pitch in Tokyo to their past. To a yesterday that is familiar and where they do come from, but which these women left behind, some aged 12 or 13, to find themselves. It is also to bypass the scale of their achievements and the truth of who these women have become: the cream of our elite athletes. The most elite of the elite, belonging to one of four semi-finalists at an Olympic Games in their sport. Who with skill, experience and training have turned their bodies - to their wider societies, only repositories of patriarchal honour and shame - into weapons and armour on the hockey field.
The Indian women's hockey team must no longer be shadows of the men and their medals. Do not imagine them in your mind's eye as small or frail. In Tokyo, they have grown larger than they have ever been, in their minds and in ours. They have climbed out of the corners of the history books, dusted off the cobwebs and said, take a good look. This is us. A team like India and the sport have never seen before.
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I had been trying for the past 18 months to write the Big Story around the hockey women. No surprise the women -- cheeky whirling dervishes, space-compressors and expanders, human barriers, pocket rockets -- beat me to it and, in Tokyo, wrote their own story.
In the main corridor of Bengaluru's Sports Authority of India women's hostel - whose doors are locked at 9:30 p.m. while the men, who are also housed in the same sprawling campus, have no such curfews - there stands a large poster. It is covered with messages, signatures, drawings, images. Among flying lions, barbells, hockey sticks, a list of team values, are stick figures, arms raised.
Figures are climbing onto a podium, marked 'Champions', from either side. Framing the poster are handprints. The poster was drawn by the extended 25-strong women's team, and those are their hands dipped in paint and pressed onto it. The hands that wielded the hockey sticks that caused the biggest rumble in Olympic history this millennium.
The poster came about after a ridiculous round of coach-swapping in 2017-2018 after the women returned from the Rio Olympics, where they finished last. In February 2017, coach Sjoerd Marijne was appointed to the women's team, replacing the Australian Neil Hawgood. He thought he'd made a breakthrough with the women on a tour of Netherlands, only to be dispatched in August that year to the men's team.
Harendra Singh coached the women's team from August 2017 until the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in March 2018, where the women lost their semi-final to Australia and their bronze medal match to England. In May 2018, Harendra was sent over to the men, fourth at the Gold Coast, and Marijne returned to the women. That was three coach changes in 15 months.
The difference between them and the top teams in Rio was palpable. "I was not happy," goalkeeper Savita Punia said. "It was hockey, the same game that we'd played for years but the name of the competition had changed and we had let that get into our minds too much."
Then came the bewildering coaching roundabout. The women banded together and promised themselves no matter who was in charge, Tokyo had to be their personal mission. The poster was their pledge to themselves. Nikki Pradhan, sparky, spunky midfielder with a sunbeam for a smile, says, "We had decided after Rio that coaches will come and go. We have this coach now, he may go and another will come. But the work that has to be done, we're the ones who have do it. Us girls, 25 of us." She wasn't being disrespectful, just practical.
From my recordings and notes of interviews done with the women in early 2020, I realise no one said they were going to Tokyo to "give their best''. The words I find are 'medal' and 'podium', with 'gold' and 'history' thrown in a couple of times too. The men were No. 5 in the rankings at the time, so you understood their talking about medals. The women were floating between 9 and 10 in the world rankings. What did they see?
"For the last 11 years," Rani Rampal said in March 2020, "I've been chasing one dream - I must get a medal at the Olympics." She remembers missing out on the qualification for London 2012 with an ache and came away from Rio unfulfilled.
She is one of the most extraordinary athletes I have met; a leader, a thinker, a disruptor of convention. After more than a decade in the sport, her body is beaten down but in her game awareness and influence she's a beacon. Thoughtful, serious and, in a team full of younger women, often much older than her 26. But with an acute ear for social tones, she can, randomly for a lark, produce unexpectedly pitch-perfect impersonations of local GenZ colloquialisms and go "Are you serious?" as if she was sipping a Cosmopolitan in a SoBo bar.
Around her is a core of senior players. Nine of them - Rani, Deep Grace Ekka, Sushila Chanu, Monika Malik, Navjot Kaur, Navneet Kaur, Namita Toppo, Vandana Katariya, Lilima Minz - were part of the Indian team that won bronze at the 2013 Junior World Cup. Nikki Pradhan and Neha Goyal were standbys. Savita, the team's oldest player, slotted in a few years later, as did Gurjit Kaur. Between them, that's around 2000 international caps.
"With women in every part of the world, if they feel they can achieve something with this coach, they break walls for you. With men, it's less, they do it more for themselves." Sjoerd Marijne
They formed the central spine of the team Marijne had to handle. Marijne's contract ended after the bronze match but his name will be remembered - and mispronounced - in millions of Indian homes till the end of time. He speaks freely of the difference between working with men and women, in his case Indian men and women. The men's technical and tactical responses and capabilities are quicker, he says, but the women are more disciplined. "That's why we make the big steps with them. With women in every part of the world, if they feel they can achieve something with this coach, they break walls for you. With men, it's less, they do it more for themselves."
To work with women, you need trust. You can be the biggest, sharpest, smartest brain in the game but with women, no trust means no response. What Marijne's coaching has done to the women is give them the idea that they must make their own destiny. Empowerment is a loosely-used word but the progress of the women's hockey team over the last three years, culminating in the Tokyo performance, is proof.
From an environment of being shouted at from the sidelines, Marijne has given them - apart from tactical nous and re-jigging (breaking skill sets down into field areas) - another way of doing things. "Leadership is what you are yourself," he told the team, and asked them to set benchmarks. Every game, marks on 10 on themselves, below six is unacceptable. Who knows what their last two matches in Tokyo were marked.
Marijne is a forthright Dutchman who, while making his way through Indian hockey, kept control of his sanity and his fists. He gets asked the Chak De question a thousand times. Whether he'd seen it and what he thought of. With a glint in his eye, he said, "I think it's time for a new one." Again, this in March 2020.
Everyone does love a happy ending but if ever any Indian film were to be made about this Indian women's team, a good chunk of it would be on their escalation of fitness levels and its on-field impact. I'd heard the stories too, how their average Yo-Yo test scores had risen from 17 to 20, the fat percentages in some dropping from 27% to 16%.
Sport is replete with stories of athletic transformation giving up this to gain that. To watch them train is to understand where their speed and lung capacity comes from. Their 'Superman' back extensions turn the body into a deep bowl. Like the yogic bow pose (Dhanurasana) without holding onto the ankles, done with crazy reps.
The Indian women were trained like 21st-century athletes - like all our elite athletes must. With GPS monitoring devices between their shoulder blades spitting out data for distance, heart rate, high-speed running, checking fatigue levels and recovery work required. After every session they enter their own data into personal logbooks, to mark how they feel, pain, muscle soreness, sleep, menstrual cycle details. There is a sign up in their gym that reads, 'changing the 0.2%.' To be 0.2% better than they were yesterday. Between Rio and Tokyo, those 0.2% changes have turned the Indians into a team whose hockey skills are matched by speed of foot and strength of tackle.
Forward Vandana Katariya talked what that uptick in physical capacity did to the mindset of the team. "Earlier, we would be, 'Okay this is Holland, Australia and thoda wahin se morale would be down (we'd lose some heart at the mention of the opponent's name). Ab itna confidence hai ki koi bhi team aati ho, farak nahin padta. (Now we've got so much confidence that it doesn't matter who we are playing.)"
On the field Katariya is greased lightning, with a teeth-baring, goal-scoring roar like no other, her voice calling the team's pre-match chants at the Olympics. Off it she withdraws into herself, erupting into an occasional youthful giggle like it were a guilty pleasure.
Compliments are diverted as swiftly as circle passes, "Everyone has worked a lot on us," she says of the support staff. Including a team psychologist, Priyanka Prabhakar, with whom "we talk khulke (openly), about everything, how we are feeling. She has explained what we are thinking to us very well. We become free."
To the average Indian woman, never mind athlete, freedom is always conditional. On the field and in their training bubble, curfew or no curfew, the women's hockey team has experienced it without conventions and strictures and it has shifted something inside them.
In the gym, which they once entered wearing baggy t-shirts with sleeves, they now sport the exercise gear of elite athletes. Like with the men, it's important for body movement and it also shows off muscle. They find it's okay to stand before a mirror and check out what your triceps look like on the day, like the men do. Their bodies, says defender Reena Khokar, a non-deferential Chandigarh girl, will not be shamed here. "A good physique is not to be thin only. I'm going for sports, I'm not going for a bikini contest. And I never have felt ashamed of my body."
"Hockey has made our lives, we have to give it our thanks. So we can't cut corners, we can't be lazy, we have to maintain our standards." Gurjit Kaur
We talk. The women are generous with their information, insights and life stories. Savita took to hockey because her beloved grandfather loved it and then quickly retreated under the helmet because being there gave the painfully shy teenager some security. "I didn't want to face people, I didn't have the confidence but the helmet gave me that." Now she's barking orders but wants to clarify that "off the field I don't talk to anyone in this tone, I don't want to, it's not my nature."
Without her yellow goalkeeping gear, she is physically slight, as if easy to push around; in it, she acquires a presence and bullet-deflector superpower. She ticks the team off if match warmups are not good. "What's the point of keeping our views to ourselves? I tell them you have to be sharper. No point saying that after the match."
Her partner Deep Grace Ekka has internalised the Marijne message of each player being a coach and communicator to the other, talking and correcting the person ahead of you. "Everyone must. It makes things simpler; it starts from the back, the goalkeeper who tells the defender who tells the mid-fielder who tells the striker. One player cannot do this." Forward Navneet Kaur, a standout in Tokyo, who cut her forehead and played India's last match against Great Britain with a bandage over four stitches, used to be daunted by the bigger defenders in opposing teams, worried that she would get shoved aside, unable to wrest the ball back. Between Rio and Tokyo, she discovered that by using her skills she found physical tackles far simpler to handle. "It's no point pushing back, we must focus on our game, their motive is only to disturb you, yours is to play your game. You have to keep your body balance and receive the ball and then get out of there. Now it is fun, it is like you push, we will show you."
We talk about many things - being athletes, what it does to them, society, being Indian women - and everything returns to the centre of their lives. Hockey. The sport has been both maker and giver. "Had I not played hockey, it would have been impossible for me to set aside my fear, become confident, given the background I came out," Rani says. "If I had stayed there, I would have grown up, got married and my fears would have remained in my heart. Hockey has taught me that you can reach a place in a life where you think that everything is over, there is nothing ahead, but whatever happens in life, you have to face it, handle it. Now I have become a fearless person."
Gurjit Kaur says, "Hockey has made our lives, we have to give it our thanks. So we can't cut corners, we can't be lazy, we have to maintain our standards." There are only two women's names in a long list of men on the roll of honour in Savita Punia's school in Jodhkan, Haryana. One is a teacher, the other is her.
I try my best to get them to call me by my first name, but they say they can't. We've met, I tell them, you know me, 'Ma'am' is too formal. Yes, yes, but we can't. Maybe I'm too old, more than twice their age, how could they go all first-name chummy. Oh well.
Many months later, there's a WhatsApp message - parts of an exam paper. One of the players is acing an online exam but conjunctions and prepositions are driving her mad. "Ma'am, humne socha aap ke paas iska answer fatafat milega."(We thought you'd be able to give the answers quickly). I'm grinning as I send fatafat answers: "He abstains from drinking. he is deprived of his rights." Ma'am is so pleased to be a port of call for millennial misdemeanour. Those hair-all-tied-up, disciplined, hardworking Bharat ki betiyaan. What a bunch of badasses.
In Tokyo, everything they had spoken of in Bengaluru was played out at the biggest competition of their lives. Not caring who they were playing. Never being intimidated. Going tackle for tackle, turnover for turnover, interception for interception. Rankings don't matter, anyone can beat anyone in international hockey. Just like Nikki had said, "If we are ekjut (united), we can beat anyone."
In Tokyo, they were both ekjut and hellbent, crashing through barriers and convention and planting in our minds the tales of this golden generation of Indian women who did what had been never done before at an Olympics.
The tight formidable partnership of their senior players is close to its end, about to be scattered to the age and to the winds. It is why the older among them were weeping inconsolably on the pitch after losing their bronze medal match.
"We have made loads of memories," Rani says. "Some of us play for long, some play less, but the memories stay forever. That when we leave the sport, we remember where we started together and where we finished."
We will never forget.