"When I took up sport I was laughed at," says CV Rajanna. "People said, 'Dekho itna chhota aadmi bada baat kar raha hai (Look at this small guy talking big).' But I wanted to follow my dream and I did." As he talks, he holds up a clutch of medals by the ribbon, the metal discs almost touching his toes. They aren't all the medals he's won -- 76 so far: 60 national and 16 international -- but it's an impressive statement.
The problem, as Rajanna will tell you, is that no one really cares that he's a serial medal-winner. He's a dwarf, in a country that -- at best -- has no time for dwarfs.
Not even when the 21-strong Indian contingent returned from the World Dwarf Games in Canada last month with a record haul of 37 medals, including 15 golds. Rajanna got three for his collection at what's known as the 'Olympics of the little people' (400 athletes from 24 countries competing in 13 disciplines). Most Indian athletes had no official support; they made their way to Canada by taking loans and they returned to similar deafening silence.
Rajanna, who stands 3 feet 10 inches, remembers when it all started: a bad bout of fever when he was six years old. "Doctors told me I would recover soon," he says, "but by the time I was 10 I realized I was different from my friends. They had all grown taller but I was still very small."
He was a dwarf, and he had to -- still has to -- face a dwarf's life in India. "I have faced a lot of insults," he says. "Wherever I go, when I walk on the streets, people stare at me or point and laugh. Because of this reason, most dwarfs prefer not to step out of their homes or engage in any kind of participatory activity."
Unlike the differently-abled, who are viewed with sympathy, dwarfs in some cultures are reviled, considered cursed, even evil. Their portrayal in myths and tales, as being ugly, stubborn, mysterious and distrustful hasn't really helped their cause. For every Peter Dinklage, who has shattered stereotypes while turning the swaggering Tyrion Lannister into arguably one of the most compelling contemporary television characters, there is the Kingdom of the Little People, an amusement theme park in China's Kunming province where 100-odd dwarfs perform stunts and entertain people with song-and-dance routines. Or dwarf tossing in first-world bars, where harnessed dwarfs serve as human projectiles to be hurled as far as possible on to a padded surface. There's even dwarf bullfighting, where dwarf toreadors battle calves.
In India, there's nothing so extreme but employment opportunities are usually restricted to crude entertainment, most often the jokers at circuses or clichéd roles in movies. Rajanna too has appeared in at least a dozen South Indian movies, including Tamil superstar Rajinikanth's hit Sivaji, and a host of Kannada television serials.
"Through our achievements, we've proved that there's nothing others can do that we can't. It's tough to find the motivation at times but it's this belief that drives us."
"It's very hard for them to find regular jobs," says Shivanand Gunjal, who travelled as manager of the Indian contingent to the recent World Dwarf Games. "They have little option but to serve as comic relief at gatherings and functions. It's not something most enjoy, but they need the money."
Rajanna, though, already had his eyes on another, less obvious, career path: sport. "I didn't enjoy spending long hours on the sets. I still keep getting calls for films but I want to practise hard and focus on sport."
It's not that simple, of course. Rajanna's journey has been a hard, often lonely, struggle. "When we look at [dwarf] athletes from other countries, they have so much support to pursue sport," he says. "In India there's practically nothing for people like us. We are on our own. We have to bear our own expenses for training and competition. Even for the World Games we had to fund our own trips. Now, the Karnataka state government has promised a cash award, so that might be of some help."
We are meeting him at the offset printing press owned by his younger brother; that's where he spends almost his entire day, lending a hand in its operations. The small office room is crammed with trophies and awards, apart from a few pictures of him on the track, running with clenched fists, wide eyes and a measure of desperate hope.
For his sprint training, Rajanna is made to run with a tyre tied to his back apart from belt running. "One end of the belt is stationary and the other end is tied to him," his coach Ramesh Tikaram says. "So he has to pull the extra weight to run. It helps develop the calf, shin and hamstring muscles while the tyre drill can build endurance."
In most disciplines dwarf athletes compete under the same rules as in regular sport. In badminton and basketball for instance, the height of the net (1.55m) and hoops (3m) respectively are the same as in normal competitions. Adjustments are made in a few sports keeping the height disadvantage in mind; in table tennis, for example, players compete on a raised floor to match the table height. "Jump smashes wouldn't really work well for them since net clears would be difficult," Ramesh says, "So the focus is on placement."
After a long spell of being reticent, and especially reluctant to talk about himself, Rajanna finally opens up. Favourite sportsperson? Sachin Tendulkar. He even has Tendulkar's congratulatory tweet to the contingent, following their rich medal haul last month, saved as a souvenir. But it revives a deeply held grudge. "India mein sirf ek hi sport ko poora support milta hai. Itna medal hum desh ke liye jeete, phir bhi koi poochne wala nahi hai (Only one sport in India receives full support. We've won so many medals for the country but still no one really cares)," says Rajanna, sporting a dark blue jersey with his name and 'India' written across its back in bold, sweeping letters.
India made its first appearance in the World Dwarf Games in 2005, 12 years after the first edition in Chicago. It was to serve as a watershed event for both the country and its lone representative, KY Venkatesh, entered the Limca Book of Records with his six-medal finish -- in shot put, discus throw, badminton (doubles), basketball, hockey and football. Afflicted by achondroplasia, the most common form of short-limbed dwarfism, at birth, Venkatesh -- he stands 4' 2" -- says he found the motivation to pursue sport after CN Janaki became the first differently-abled person to swim across the English Channel in 1992. "I thought to myself if she can achieve something so incredible despite being stricken by polio and losing the mobility of her legs, I should also give sport a shot," he says.
Two years later, Venkatesh participated in his first international competition -- the International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships -- in Berlin in 1994. The venue, he says, made it even more special. "To be walking into the stadium where the Indian hockey team led by Dhyan Chand won gold at the 1936 Olympics, was an unforgettable feeling."
Venkatesh went on to bring home his first international medal, a gold, (in shot put) in 1999 at a multi-disability event in Australia. "Before I took to outdoor events, I used to play chess at the national level having learnt the sport from my father, who was a reasonably good player himself," he says. "But Janaki's feat moved me to push the boundaries of my dreams."
Now aged 42, Venkatesh serves as the secretary of the national dwarf federation and says there is a change, even if gradual, happening for the better. "From fielding one athlete in the event in 2005, this year we had 21 participants at the Games. It shows we are moving forward, one small step at a time."
Things are indeed changing. Last year, Parliament adopted the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, increasing the types of disabilities that would be eligible for certain employment quotas and including dwarfism and muscular dystrophy as a separate class of specified disability.
"Through our achievements, we've proved that there's nothing others can do that we can't," says Rajanna. "It's tough to find the motivation at times but it's this belief that drives us."