Mamtha Poojary is the unlikely diva of a rural sport. The kabaddi gold tells her tale.
With the imposing Agumbe ghat for a backdrop, Hermunde village in Karnataka’s Udupi district is the picture of rustic splendour. The 5-km road, that stretches from the neighbouring town of Ajekar is barely motorable – bumpy and strewn with stones and boulders – adding to the charm of the setting. The final kilometre, leading to the nondescript, tin-roofed shack that has come under intense media spotlight this past week, has to be done on foot. A narrow pathway, paved between water-logged paddy fields and lined with tall coconut palms brings you to the home of India’s kabaddi queen – Mamtha Poojary.
“People from the city ask me how it feels for a village girl to have conquered such heights? I tell them, my village made me,” Mamtha, speaking in her mother tongue Tulu, said, on her return from Guangzhou, China, where she led India to the Asian Games gold in the women’s event. Ashwini Akkunji Chidananda’s two gold medals in athletics combined with Mamtha’s golden strike in kabaddi makes Udupi district’s haul in the Games a formidable three gold medals. A fair count for a region known more for its cuisine and culture rather than athletic ability.
“Life in the village isn’t easy, ” Mamtha stated, a defiant edge to her voice. “It is physically demanding and it doesn’t matter whether you are a child or an adult, everybody has to chip in. I had to run half an hour every day just to get to school. In fact, I’m surprised how this region hasn’t produced more athletes. Our lifestyle is perfect for sports. We are active as a race and our diet is high-protein.”
Mamtha, 26-years of age and 5 ft 10′ in height, is the second child of Boja and Kitty Poojary, who farm their lands for a living.
Earlier, when their three children were still in school, they worked for a daily wage in adjoining properties. Growing up, Mamtha was the star athlete of her school, Hermunde’s primary facility. She took part in as many events as she could – track and field and even volleyball. Her early association with kabaddi, however, was accidental. Suwarna Ramesh, a local player, pushed her in that direction, and Mamtha reluctantly took the field in order to complete her school team.
Mamtha’s older brother Vishwanath, a strapping young man who works as a mechanic in a local garage, said that his sister struggled when she moved to Mangalore to pursue her education. “She had never lived outside our home, so at first it was traumatic for her. She wanted to return home, but as she got better at kabaddi, her focus turned elsewhere. ” Mamtha, a Railway employee based in Secunderabad, was dubbed the best raider in Guangzhou by commentators. In Hermunde, her matches were the reason for get-togethers and celebrations. The final, however, was a washout for the villagers as a violent downpour meant they were without power.
Mamtha loves seafood, which is a big part of the tug for her village. She likes it red and spicy and preferably fried. River fish was a constant for their meals even when the Poojarys struggled financially. Since they had their own cattle and poultry, milk and eggs weren’t a problem either. “That’s the way it is for everybody in our village, nutrition isn’t a problem,” she said.
At first, Mamtha’s parents weren’t excited about their daughter’s foray into the world of sport. “We wondered if it was wise to allow our daughter to go that far, ” her father Boja said, “but now of course it is all very different. She has helped us financially at every turn and looked after us. Slowly we have to start thinking about marriage for her, she can’t play forever. There’s still some time for that though. It is best to raise your daughters like your sons, give them freedom and allow them choices. ”