Divya Kakran is perhaps Indian wrestling’s brightest prospect. At 19-year-old, she is already a national champion, a silver medalist on debut at the Asian Championships and a gold medalist at the Commonwealth Championships last year. When she competes in the women’s 68kg freestyle event at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, Kakran is expected to win gold once again.
Yet long before the teen’s success on the mat, Kakran was already a renowned figure in Indian wrestling circles. TV cameras have routinely made their way to her home, in the working class East Delhi neighbourhood of Gokulpur. They have also travelled to the Guru Premnath Akhara, in North Delhi. But the footage they really wanted was of Kakran wrestling and beating boys in the traditional mud wrestling competitions known as dangals.
Money is tight in the cramped family home Kakran shares with her parents and two brothers. Her mother Sanyogita would stitch langots - the cotton loin-cloth that all Indian wrestlers wear - while Suraj would sell them at dangals - the traditional wrestling tournament of India.
Divya’s initiation to competitive wrestling began in earnest here. Her father first brought her to watch while her brothers wrestled but eventually let her compete as well. The prospect of a girl wrestler challenging and pinning boys was a novel one. And victories for Divya were rewarded handsomely by spectators. So much so that Divya’s earnings through wrestling in dangals would amount to the bulk of the family’s income. “I had to win. If I didn’t win, we would not make any money and my family would suffer,” says Divya.
As Divya continued to improve though, those dangal contests have all but ended. Nevertheless, the lessons learned on the mud have carried over to the mat. A case in point has been her mastery of the wrestling manoeuvre known as the kalajang, or reverse fireman's carry.
Every wrestler of repute has a go-to daav (manoeuvre); Divya's is the kalajang, a move that requires her to slip below her opponent's stance, control their elbow with one hand and knee with the other, and roll them onto their back for a pin.
"It has become part of her muscle memory now. Even if she doesn't have everything perfectly in place, she can adapt. She has already started developing variations on the kalajang," sas her coach Vikram Singh.
While her routine of competing against physically stronger boys and almost never losing marks her out as an unstoppable force, Divya has had her share of hardships that she has overcome too. At the end of 2016, she suffered a bout of dengue that caused her to lose in the first round of her debut senior nationals. She would come back strongly, winning a silver at the Asian Championships but once again suffer an injury, this time a kidney ailment that hospitalized her for 10 days and cost her a place in the World Championships.
She fought back yet again to add the National title and Commonwealth Championship gold to her haul. While an early loss at the Asian Championships this year was unexpected, Kakran will still be counted as the favorite to win gold at Gold Coast. She is supremely confident of that too. Just last week, she won a gold medal at the Bharat Kesri Dangal in Bhiwani, Haryana. Among the players she beat en route the ceremonial mace and the cash prize of Rupees 10 lakh, was Geeta Phogat, better known as the first Indian woman ton win a wrestling gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. Phogat’s story was immortalized on the big screen in the movie ‘Dangal’. Should Kakran go on as expected and win a gold at Gold Coast, a sequel would well be in order.