Father's modest business driving Divya's wrestling career

Divya Kakran with her father after winning her first national title, in Indore. Jonathan Selvaraj/ESPN

On Friday evening, Suraj Kakran was only half listening to the customers bargaining for the wrestling merchandise he was selling at Indore's Abhay Prashal Stadium -- the venue for the Wrestling Nationals. He was on edge, waiting for a buzzing call that would alert him that his daughter Divya's bout was next. Each time the phone rang, he left his table in the relative safety of the stadium premises and rushed up to the stands. A little after the fifth such interruption, Suraj pehelwan would finally be able to relax. He was able to beam with pride as he watched 19-year-old Divya pin her opponent and become the national champion in the women's 68kg category.

Suraj almost didn't get a chance to choose between his pile of merchandise and witnessing his daughter win her first national title. That he did was largely due to a conversation that happened a few days back. On Thursday evening, the president of the Wrestling Federation of India got a call from a wrestler requesting a favour. This wasn't unusual in itself. But what was surprising was that the caller wasn't making a complaint regarding unfavourable coaches or judges or even a plea for better facilities.

"I told him, 'Sir please, mere papa ko apna saman stadium mein bechne do (let my father sell merchandise in the stadium),'" says Divya Kakran.

A few hours earlier, Suraj had been prevented from setting a table outside the stadium. Nothing doing. Security had instead shooed him and his merchandise -- wrestling shoes, singlets and the traditional jockstrap known as a langot -- away to the pavement across the venue. "The organisers wanted me to pay Rs 2,000 for each day I wanted to set up my table at the stadium," says Suraj.

Divya's plea worked and eventually Suraj could set up his temporary business next to the stadium. There he did brisk trade -- at least until the hours approaching Divya's bout -- with the hundreds of wrestlers from across the country who had come for the national championships.

They were lucky this time. "There are a lot of times where the organisers don't allow me to sell anything," says Suraj.

If Divya's request was taken seriously it was because she is one of the brightest prospects of Indian wrestling. The talent promised by a gold medal at the 2015 Asian Cadet Championships was confirmed with a silver at the 2017 Senior Asian Championships.

Suraj's business has been crucial to all of this. When Divya first started wrestling, the fact that her father's trade took him to mitti dangals (wrestling tournaments held in mud pits) across the country, helped in getting hundreds of bouts of experience. And while Divya contributed to the family's finances with her winnings in these prize-money contests, the cash Suraj earned also helped the family make ends meet. This was especially so when his daughter was contesting in the Olympic-style competition that had no prize money. The fact that Divya still doesn't have a job or a sponsorship under the government's Target Olympic Podium scheme means this is not an insignificant amount.

Divya didn't always like the fact that her father had to set up shop while she was competing. "Thoda ajeeb lagta tha (It seemed a bit strange)," she says. "It was very embarrassing. I would wonder why other parents didn't have to do this."

Over time though, she says, she realized the value of her father's contribution.

When Divya contested at the nationals in Gonda last year, she had to travel in a general train compartment. She would board at a charitable ashram near the station itself. She was just recovering from a bout of dengue and the rigours of journey strained her out even further. Completely exhausted, she would lose in the first round.

In Indore, Divya would fly down from Delhi for her weigh-in. While Suraj travelled on an unreserved ticket -- carrying nearly 50kg of merchandise -- and stayed in a Rs-200-a-night room near the railway station, his daughter would stay at a three-star hotel near the competition venue. She would fly back to Delhi a few hours after she won her contest.

"If Divya has to do well, she needs to be supported," says Suraj, his bags only half as heavy as when he had left Delhi. "At one point I used to consider it shameful having to do this because others would make fun of me. Now the fact that Divya is winning gives me some respect too. But if I wasn't selling langots, how would I be able to do any of this?"

For now Divya's career is blossoming, giving the family hope that their finances won't always be as precarious. "Maybe someday I can hire a couple of assistants," he says. "That will allow me simply to sit and watch Divya wrestle."

Divya, though, doesn't like that. She says there is meaning in her father's contribution. "It doesn't bother me to have my father sell langots when I am competing," she says. "I understand the reason I was able to wrestle was because my father did this job. I don't want him to quit now. It is gives me a lot of pride. I want him to keep doing this. Perhaps even when I compete in Tokyo."