If you were in Dadupur village of Varanasi a few days ago, you would have seen it aburst with celebration – a celebration of the noisy and colourful kind. The kind where women shed their inhibitions, and where strong, strapping, women who know or speak their minds are cheered on.
And the reason? Their girl, Punam Yadav, had won India a gold medal in weightlifting in the recent Commonwealth Games.
She won in the 69 kg category by lifting 100 kg in the snatch and 122 kg in clean-and-jerk.
We didn’t fare so badly in the Games this time around–third overall, and 26 gold medals to boot. These were shared almost equally among men and women, across sports, and three of India’s five gold medals in weightlifting were brought home by women.
Now, in the weeks when the nation has been rocked once more by heinous incidents of violence against women, the story of India’s ambitious, motivated and inspiring sportswomen, provides some hope.
We followed the 23-year-old Punam, shortly after she returned home, victorious. The right mix of humility with pride, she answered the questions of awestruck reporters and fans. “I never hoped or dreamed of the gold, but it happened, with the guru’s blessings,” she smiled, garlanded and luminescent. She credited her parents, coach, and the support of the Indian Weightlifting Federation for her windfall.
Unlike other male sports stars, Punam was photographed alongside her mother, family and friends.
Kailash Yadav, Punam’s father, was more generous and appreciated the hard work that Punam had put into her sport. He even sold their buffalo to support the cost of Punam’s intensive training, which prepared her for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, where she won a Bronze medal.
Kailash said that they had always placed Punam’s dreams ahead of anything else, which finally paid off. He had never imagined this day of happiness.
Punam’s teacher, Fatima, caught in a cloud of music and festivity, shared some of her celebratory glow. She was proud of having taught a gold medallist and wished even greater heights for Punam.
Young girls from the school beamed in shared pride and talked about how it felt to have a peer in their vicinity be known across the world. It meant that their hopes and dreams were suddenly brighter, shinier, and more achievable.
The best part of our day as a gold medallist’s companions was meeting Punam’s prospective mother-in-law, Kiran Yadav. Screaming above the pulsating music and excitement, Kiran said she’d seen Punam always as a daughter, and not someone who was marrying her son. Punam’s hopes and dreams were shared by her new family, and would continue to be so.
Everyone who knew Punam, and those who knew her through her successes spoke of her courage, and Punam herself, in a message to other aspiring sportspersons said that resources meant little in this field. “If you have the passion, and the courage, then nothing else matters. You’ll be successful.”
She did point out that attention and resources come on the path of success, and this was not the way it should be. “Now that people know me, I have access to training and other opportunities. If we had these things before, our journey would have been much easier, and success would have come sooner.”
Doting family and fans notwithstanding, her strength of body and mind will stand her in good stead in a region where good fortune doesn’t come easy–Punam and her family were attacked only days after her victorious return to Varanasi. They escaped the attackers–allegedly involved in a dispute between her family and a local village head. Punam acted swiftly to call in the police and got her family out of a sticky situation.
All in a day’s work for a gold medallist from the hinterland.