Driving out around five hours north-west of Delhi, when the landscape sheds all pretence of the urbane and starts resembling something straight out of the movie Dangal or Sultan, is the home of one of India’s newest sports stars.
Christened ‘The Wall’ for her stellar role as goalkeeper in the national women’s hockey team, 31-year-old Savita Punia’s saves helped India beat Australia at the Tokyo Olympics to enter the semi-finals on Monday.
NDTV was at her home in Haryana’s Jodkhan town when India was playing against Argentina on Wednesday. The star champion’s proud parents recalled her journey with the hockey stick and said it is important to encourage girls into sports.
Her father Mahender Punia, a pharmacist, told NDTV, “We live in a village that doesn’t have facilities for sports. Savita has seen her share of struggles and has overcome them because she made it a goal and said ‘I will do it’.”
As a teenager, Savita would travel 25 km from her home to Maharaja Agrasen School, the only institute in Sirsa district to coach hockey players which in turn became the road to glory for her and the country. It was under a Haryana government scheme that she took up a sport and it happened to be hockey.
It was her grandfather, Ranjit Singh Punia, who aspired to have at least one family member pursue hockey. As a child, Savita and her grandfather would listen to hockey commentary and spend hours before the radio.
“Savita still listens to songs from ‘Chak De! India‘,” Mr Punia said with a chuckle.
But while Haryana boasts of Olympic champions, it is also notorious for its skewed sex ratio. As a father, how did he ensure a safe environment for his daughter? “I have always said and still tell Savita to keep the hockey stick with her at all times. The stick will protect you because one never knows what kind of people you are around. Let hockey stick be your defence, dar ke nahi jeena, jiyo toh hosle se jiyo (Don’t live in fear, live undeterred),” he said.
Savita’s mother, Leelavati, said, “My daughter is very helpful. Whenever she is home, she helps me with household chores from cooking to cleaning and washing clothes. Her favourite food is missi roti, bhindi, laal chutney and she is very fond of guavas.”
Soon after Argentina beat India in the semi-finals, Mr Punia addressed the media and said, “Winning and losing is part of the game. Our girls put up a good fight against Australia and they will do so to win the bronze medal in the next match against Britain. Our girls have made a name for themselves on a global platform, and we must all be very proud of it and give more opportunities to our girls in India. We must support our daughters.”