Divya Kakran could sense the irony even as she sweated and strained a couple of days ago, digging up a field in Harabagh, a village high up in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. Kakran, was preparing a circular mitti (mud) pit akhara, the trademark surface in Indian kushti wrestling. The carefully driven and turned earth of the akhara is a surface on which nearly every Indian wrestler has trained and competed. Including Kakran. As a youngster, she had carved out a name for herself as one of the few female wrestlers in the dangal — the traditional wrestling tournament — circuit in India, challenging and beating boys.
It wasn’t something Kakran enjoyed much but it was necessary in order to supplement her father’s meagre income as a salesman of wrestling loincloths. But Kakran had thought she was done with the world of dangals. Over the past few years, she had made her mark as an Olympic style wrestler, competing not on mud but on slick synthetic mats, her target not cash rewards from crowds but international medals. The 21-year-old is now considered one of the strongest prospects in the women’s sport in India. Earlier this year, she became just the second Indian woman to win a gold medal at the Asian Championships, beating the reigning junior world champion from Japan along the way. Kakran now has a steady job with the Railways and is followed by the country’s Prime Minister on Instagram.
“I thought I was done with mitti. Of course, god always comes up with another plan. Once again, I’m back in the mud,” she says.
Kakran isn’t unhappy, though. “I’m just happy I’m getting to wrestle once again,” she says.
For nearly three months, Kakran had been unable to do so. When the government first enforced a nationwide lockdown, beginning on March 25, to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, all sporting facilities had been shut down. While many of her compatriots found themselves isolated with no training facility, Kakran got a lucky break.
“It’s really difficult to stay away from training. I can’t live without it. I feel like there is a weight on me if I don’t do it.”
Her coach, Vladimir Mestvirishvili of Georgia, had an inkling of what was about to happen and told Kakran to move in with him. “My coach stays in Model Town in Delhi. Because the coronavirus was already spreading across the world and the national camp had been dismissed, he suggested I should come to his home since there might be a situation where there might be some shutdowns. I shifted only 10-15 days before the lockdown. It turned out it was a good decision,” she says.
Coach Mestvirishvili, who Olympic medallists Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt consider instrumental in shaping their career, had prepared a barebones training facility on the roof of his rented accommodation. There were a few dumbbells and weights and stairs that Kakran could climb. There wasn’t any wrestling mat, though. Kakran only practiced upper body technique with the Georgian.
Kakran says she was very disappointed at first — not just just because Covid-19 spread even as she was in the best shape of her career. “When this happened, I was in really good form with really high confidence. I was absolutely sure of qualifying for the Olympics. So when I first learned I wouldn’t be going to the Olympics, I was really disappointed,” she says.
What was even harder for her to come to terms with was the fact that she couldn’t wrestle. “It’s really difficult to stay away from training. I can’t live without it. I feel like there is a weight on me if I don’t do it. I would complain a lot. The Chhatrasal Wrestling Centre is near my house and I’d say, ‘Coach, let me go just once. I’ll go in the morning before everyone gets there’,” she says.
Coach Mestvirishvili, though, told her to consider the matter rationally. “Coach said if I got an injury, I’d not be able to train at all. Even though I wasn’t able to wrestle, at least I can do some sort of training at his home. I could do weight training, there is a way to do chin ups. I can work on my upper body technique and strength, so what is the issue? I can’t do running or mat training but I’m still in a better situation than most. That calmed me down,” she says.
But while Kakran trained as best she could, the coronavirus kept getting closer. A couple of weeks ago, coach Mestvirishvili and his wife returned to Georgia. Kakran too decided to move out to Himachal a week later. “The state of Delhi is so bad, it’s not safe. Even my coach is old, so it was a good decision to leave for his home. One of our neighbours in Model Town got infected. One of my friend’s father got infected as well. He took all the precautions and still caught it. That’s when I decided to leave the city as well,” she says.
Kakran reckons she’s reasonably safe in Harabagh, a remote village, uphill of Mandi. “I booked a car and came here with my friend Neena and my younger brother Deepak. My friend is from this town, so that’s why we were able to get permission to come here. The Himachal government isn’t letting people in if they aren’t residents of the state,” she says.
While the severity of government rules on training and hygiene has delayed the restart of national wrestling camps, training has resumed in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. “Coach Vlad has sent a training schedule and I train twice a day following it. It’s high altitude training so that’s a big plus. I run sprints in the mountains. On the first day, I did four sprints after struggling. Now I’m able to do ten. It’s really hard but I’m doing my best,” she says.
Wrestling, though, was an itch she had to scratch. “There was a garden near my friend’s house so we cleaned it up and dug a mitti pit. It took me two days to make it. My friend’s grandmother was really angry that we dug up her garden but she’s understood now,” says Kakran.
Wrestling in her makeshift akhara will only benefit her, says Kakran. “When I started my career in mud, I always wanted to get away from it. Now I was in a position where I was trying to build a mitti ka akhara because I was so desperate to wrestle once again. I practice here with my brother. He’s over a hundred kilos and the mud offers a lot of resistance so it’s really good for building strength,” she says.
For now, Kakran is satisfied. “This is a remote area and there are days when the power goes out and it becomes really cold but the air is clean and the food is pure over here. You can just walk around the village and pluck fruits and vegetables to eat. And the best thing is there aren’t any cases of coronavirus here. There’s only mountains and greenery. I have my akhara too. If I need to, I’ll stay here until the virus goes away,” she says.