Last month Satyanarayan Prajapati, a marginal farmer in his mid-40s, breathed a sigh of relief as one of his four children landed a job with the Indian Railways on being recognised as one of India’s most promising athletes. It will be the first step for the family, dependent on his manual labour for its sustenance until now, towards a better life.
The resident of an Uttar Pradesh village near Mirzapur, over 800 km from Delhi, Satyanarayan had of late been struggling to make ends meet and stared at an uncertain future after he developed breathing problems due to asthma.
“To tell you the truth, life was hard for us,” says his son KM Chanda. “The conditions in our village and the condition of our house was bad. Once I saw that sports was a gateway to success and life could be bettered through it, I decided to take the plunge.”
Chanda is the middle-distance runner who returned with Delhi’s only gold medals in athletics – two of them – from the National Games recently held in Gujarat. She won the 800-metre and 1,500-metre events.
Athletics as via media
At 21, Chanda was already searching for a means of likelihood so that her family could overcome the backwardness that besets villages in BIMARU states.
But life took a turn. On her trip to Nadiad in Gujarat to attend the National School Games in 2017-18, she chanced upon Delhi government athletics coach Kulbir Singh.
“I was participating in zonal and inter-zonal competitions while studying at the inter college back home,” she recalls.
“I got a chance to go to the school games. I approached him and said that I want to become an athlete and want to train in Delhi. I wanted to avail the facilities and coaching in the Capital,” she says further.
Singh picked up the tab, as he does when moved by an athlete’s plight.
“In athletics, we often come across athletes who come from very under-privileged backgrounds. We often have to spend out of our own pockets initially. I realised she has potential and was desperate for success,” says Singh. He coaches her at the Prahladpur Sports Complex near Rohini.
Kulbir took care of her and her two friends during Covid and brought her closer to his home in Rohini from Bakhtawarpur in North West Delhi, where she had been attending school after shifting to the Capital. It was hard for Chanda and her friends to regularly go to Rohini from Bakhtawarpur during Covid.
“Many of the competitions she could have competed in like the world junior championships were cancelled or postponed due to Covid and by the time the situation improved she was past 20,” says Kulbir.
The big break came this year when she won gold at the Asian Continental that included athletes from 10-12 countries. Although not of the level of world juniors and other events, the success brought her into limelight following her silver at Kathmandu’s South Asian Games in December 2019, just months before Covid pandemic was to strike and put a halt to the events.
“I also qualified for the Asian Games scheduled to be held this year but it was postponed unfortunately due to the effects of the pandemic. I will have to qualify again,” she says.
Post National Games, she competed in the Open National Athletics in Bengaluru.
Chanda has two other sisters and a brother, all still studying. Her brother and one of her sisters are in college while her younger sister is enrolled in school.
“Dad used to take care of all the expenses of my sisters and brother. I never had to contribute anything. We would often take land on lease for a year and share the proceeds with the owner. We also have a piece of land where we work,” says Chanda.
She says that her job has come as a sort of a relief for her family since her dad struggles to work due to illness these days.
“But obviously, I want to move ahead and improve further. I would like to compete at the postponed Asian Games (in Hangzhou, China) next year. I want to compete at the Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games too,” she adds.
While Chanda bagged two gold medals in middle-distance, the Indian national team quarter-miler Amoj Jacob got Delhi two bronze medals. One in 400 metres and the other as part of Delhi’s 4x400m mixed relay team which also featured promising athlete Aman Chaudhary.
In all, Delhi returned with two gold and four bronze medals. While Jacob won two bronzes, including the one with the relay team, Radha Chaudhary (in women’s 800m) and Abhishek Drall (in men’s javelin) also returned with bronze.
The state finished eighth in the points tally of the athletics event at the National Games with 51 combined points behind Services, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Kerala, Maharashtra and Punjab. While the male team finished in ninth position, the women’s team ended a bit better at the seventh position thanks to Chanda’s gold.
The 24-year-old Jacob, who resides in Rohini and also trained recently at the Prahladpur Sports Complex ahead of the National Games, took to athletics after being pushed into it by his school coach.
Unlike Chanda, who had to come to Delhi in search of a better life, Jacob had been brought up in the Capital. Although his parents hail from Kerala, where he has spent some time in the national camp over the past few years, he went to school and college in Delhi.
“I used to be a football player as a kid but then I decided to switch to athletics. Till the 10th standard I played football. In between my coach said you should try running. He pushed me into it,” recalls Jacob who studied at Delhi University’s Khalsa College.
“Honestly speaking, I only wanted to bunk classes and that is why I took up athletics. I was not really into athletics. From 10th standard, I started going to the CBSE nationals and moved up.”
Jacob is part of India’s 4x400m team that won gold at the Asian Athletics Championships in 2017, the country’s first in the event since 1975. He also competed at the Tokyo Olympics held last year.
However, in recent times he has struggled with injury. Ahead of the Commonwealth Games (CWG), where the 4x400m team finished seventh, he had an injury and after returning from the Birmingham CWG, he went to the National Games.
The 400m individual bronze has been disappointing for him even though the gold medal winner is his 4x400m India teammate Muhammad Ajmal (representing Services).
“I thought I could register better timing than the 46.62 seconds that I got in the National Games. I can achieve 45.9 (Ajmal clocked 46.29). But I am happy. I never wanted to compete but I did because I wanted to try something new,” says the athlete who has been in the national camp for the last five years.
For Drall, in his mid-20s, this was his first medal at the senior national level. The Najafgarh lad, who has won medals at junior national level, threw the javelin to 79.01 metres which was just 1.70 metres short of the distance thrown by the gold winner.
Drall had thrown 81 metres in practice and was expected to do better.
But this being his best performance at senior level, should help him land a job which he has been looking for a while.
Drall trains at the Capital’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, like Radha Chaudhary, who got bronze in women’s 800m run behind Chanda.
Radha, who took up sport when she was 15, started out with school sports day events before getting seriously hooked to the track.
Her dad, who runs a juice shop in Govindpuri where the family – including Radha’s brother and two sisters – stays, did not object initially. But when she struggled for a job and medals in an intervening two-year period, he became sceptical.
“There was a time – a one or two year period — when I was not winning anything and struggling to get to somewhere when my dad and family began to have doubts with my choice of profession,” says Radha.
But about two years back, she got a job with Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) which settled the nerves of the family members.
“Things got settled a bit then,” she says.
Radha won bronze in 4x400m women’s relay in Open Nationals last year before winning a bronze in 800 metres in the 1st National U-23 event last year at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
That set the tone for the big one at National Games and the 20-year-old is now looking for more success.