His daughter, Antim, is on the verge of creating history later in the day, but Ram Niwas Panghal insists he isn’t nervous. This is hard to believe as he says this between astringent puffs of the stick of Dumru brand beedis that he’s chain-smoking throughout Friday evening at his home on the outskirts of the Haryana city of Hisar. His wife, Krishna Kumari, is less circumspect. She insists she isn’t planning to watch her daughter compete in the final of the Junior Wrestling World Championships. “Bada dar lagta hai (I am scared),” she admits sheepishly. She finds it safer to stick to routine, and heads to milk the family’s half tonne murrah buffalo that, having weaned its calf, has recently developed an unpleasant habit of kicking anyone handling its nethers.
Come 8.45 pm – around 615pm in Sofia, Bulgaria – and Ram Niwas's nerves aren’t doing much better. With his wife unwilling to watch the bout at home, he’s gone to a local communications centre. It doesn’t help though that the mobile internet on the computer he hopes to watch his daughter’s final bout on is – to put it politely – spotty. The room he’s in is a non-smoking one, so, Ram Niwas chews his towel compulsively.
While you can understand why, Ram Niwas needn’t have worried. The screen buffers and reloads in fits and starts in Hisar, but in Sofia, Antim Panghal isn’t in any trouble. She coasts to an 8-0 win over Kazakhstan’s Altyn Shagayeva, creating history as the first Indian woman to win gold at the junior world championships.
As his daughter takes a (buffered) victory lap with the Indian flag, Ram Niwas makes a confession. “You know I was a little worried,” he admits, surprising absolutely no one. "Bajrang Bali ki kripa se sab thik ho gaya (By the grace of Bajrang Bali, everything turned out all right)." Bajrang Bali (Lord Hanuman) is the go-to Hindu deity of most people connected with wrestling.
Her parent’s nervousness and the daughter’s historic achievement is in stark contrast to how things were at the Panghal’s home more than 17 years ago when Antim was born. It’s fair to say that back then, Antim wasn’t what her parents had hoped for. That’s literally how she got her name.
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In August 2004, Ram Niwas and Krishna Kumari, in the village of Bhagana in Hisar district, were blessed with their fourth child. They had already had three daughters. All three had typical North Indian names. Sarita (meaning river) preceded Meenu (a synonym for Goddess Lakshmi) who in turn was followed by Nisha (meaning the night). Their fourth child – another daughter – was named Antim. The name translates into final or last. In their case, It symbolised the desire not to have any more girl children.
Ram Niwas doesn’t think too much of it, but there is a touch of irony in his naming choice. His Antim is the first Indian girl to stand atop the podium of the Under-20 world championships in the 34-year history of the competition.
While it might seem an archaic cultural belief, the desire for fewer girl children is strong enough in Hisar, which has a sex ratio of just 872 females per 1,000 males – one of the worst amongst Indian districts – for it not to seem unusual.
“After three girls, we really wanted a boy. It’s the custom in our villages that if you have a lot of girls, you give them a name like Antim (final) or Kaafi (enough) so that you don’t have any more. I’ve never really thought much about it,” says Ram Niwas. Incidentally, another of Antim’s teammates in the Indian junior teams is named Bhateri (no more, please). “It’s just a custom. If you have a lot of girls, it’s usually very hard to manage, especially if you aren’t very well off. There was a fear on how you would provide for their upbringing and then how you would manage their wedding. At least that was the thinking,” says Ram Niwas.
While his choice of a name for his daughter might suggest a father indifferent to his daughter's future, that’s far from the truth. “I owe everything to my parents,” Antim told Sportstar a few weeks ago.
Indeed, while they might not think too deeply about social naming customs that seem regressive, the support of Ram Niwas and his family has been critical in Antim going from strength to strength.
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It was Ram Niwas who wholeheartedly supported his youngest daughter's pursuit of wrestling once he made up his mind. His eldest daughter, Sarita, who was a national level kabaddi player, had a hand in nudging him in this direction. What could have possibly helped is Ram Niwas had also played kabaddi as a youngster.
“I had been a kabaddi player, so, I hoped Antim would also play the game, but it was Sarita who wanted Antim to become a wrestler. When Antim was 10 years old, Sarita took her to the Mahavir Stadium in Hisar city for a wrestling programme,” recalls Ram Niwas. Krishna Kumari joins the conversation and says, "Badi ladki ki zidd thi ki kushti khelegi (Our eldest daughter was determined that Antim would wrestle)."
Sarita, whose unyielding ways worked years ago, is looking to start working at Sports Authority of India in Bengaluru after a diploma course at the National Institute of Sports.
Ram Niwas remembers the starting point. He started making the 20km journey from his village to Hisar city with his two daughters, but was initially uncertain about letting Antim wrestle. “There was a coach, Roshni Devi madam, who insisted Antim should wrestle. She said, 'The girl is good, let her play.' I had to think for four to five months. She was relentless. She kept sending messages. Pura dabav tha unse (she kept up the pressure). She said, 'If you aren’t letting her play, then give her to me, I’ll raise her,'" recalls Ram Niwas.
Going all out
It wasn’t that Ram Niwas was against his daughter wrestling. His concern was that if Antim had to wrestle, there couldn’t be any half-measures. “I was thinking, if I’m going to put her in, I must be serious. Bada decision jaldi nahin le sakte hain. Daalna hai toh accha karna hai warna dalna hi nahin (Can't take a big decision in haste. It has to be all or nothing. I can’t just put her in the academy and forget about her). Bori Bistar sab le ke aana hai (I had to pack up everything and come here). So, first I sent her and her eldest sister to Hisar and put them in a room on rent near Mahavir Stadium. So, there was someone to cook and clean for Antim. A month later, their mother joined them. The rest of my kids also went there after six months. Finally, I came here,” he says.
There were plenty of hard decisions to be made when Ram Niwas decided to shift his family to Hisar to support Antim’s wrestling career. After first taking a house on rent, he realised he had to get a place of his own. “I was looking for a house to rent, but also needed a place where I could keep my buffaloes. Finally, I decided to build my own home outside of Hisar," he says, sharing his thoughts sitting in the home he built to back his daughter.
The home is modest. The grey cement structure is still unplastered, with an Indian flag providing the barest bit of color. There’s a drawing room with a kitchen in the front and two bedrooms with a bathroom to the back. But most importantly, it has a shed for cattle. "The buffaloes were non-negotiable. If my daughter had to wrestle, she had to get the best diet and I didn’t trust the milk you get in cities,” says Ram Niwas. The family has three buffaloes and a cow now.
None of this has been cheap. Ram Niwas’s expectations about daughters being expensive to raise has been true but not for the reasons he would have thought. And it’s a responsibility he has willingly taken.
“Expenses are everywhere. When she goes for a camp in Lucknow, I travel with her and rent an apartment in Lucknow so I can stay near her. When she has a competition in India, I’ll make sure I’m travelling with her. If she travels, she has to travel comfortably and not dhakke kha ke (in a cramped way). I still haven’t sold most of my land. But I’ve sold almost everything else. Other things. I had a tempo truck, a few bikes and an Eicher tractor. But I had to sell those. It’s not cheap to raise a wrestler. Paise ki zarurat thi to kuch na kuch to karna padta hai (I had to raise money somehow). At other times, I would borrow money from my friends,” he says.
In public, Ram Niwas has confidently dismissed arguments for years that he was spending too much on one daughter. He drops the posturing in his daughter's moment of glory to admit he had his worries. “Ram ko pata hai, ek kisam ka jua khela hai (God knows, I was gambling),” he says. “I don’t know why I took that decision. I know I thought she would make us proud one day.”
Wrestling coaches backed his instincts. The coaches knew Antim was special. “She was talented from the start,” says Pradeep Sihag, who coached Antim from the time she first started training at Mahavir Stadium, and now trains her at the Baba Lal Das Kushti Academy in Hisar. “When she was just a year into training, she had a bout against a senior wrestler. Even at that age, she was good enough to fight in a 15-minute match. Her movement was always good... even the coaches liked working with her. Her catching power is quite good, and she is very hard working. She trains for four hours in the morning and four hours in the evening,” he says.
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According to Antim, she never had second thoughts about wrestling herself. “It was always something I wanted to do. I never felt that I should do something else."
Her family, though, remembers how she wasn’t on board with everything initially. The worst, says her mother, was cutting her hair in the way most Indian wrestlers do. “She really hated having her hair chopped off. She had really pretty long hair. When she got her hair cut for the first time, she started crying. She pointed at her sisters and told the barber, 'You need to make them bald, too,'” laughs Krishna Kumari.
That never happened since two of her elder sisters, not in sports, were satisfied with studying. “Wrestling is too violent,” says elder sister Nisha jokingly when asked why she didn’t pick up the game. “Why don’t you admit you tried and couldn’t do it yourself,” chides her mother. Nisha, who’s studying for the National Defence Academy exam, admits defeat readily. “That’s true. I couldn’t do it. That training is too hard and bohot maar padti hai (you get beaten a lot). Antim bohot tough hai (Antim is really tough). I’m happy to support her from outside,” she laughs.
Propelled by natural talent and backed by her family to the hilt, Antim has been a consistent performer since the junior age groups. She won the U-15 national title in 49kg in Patna in 2018 before winning the bronze medal in the U-15 Asian Wrestling Championship in Japan the same year. The next three years would see the Haryana wrestler winning the cadet U-17 national title at the sub-junior nationals in Cuttack in 2019, followed by a gold in the Cadet U-17 national title at Patna in 2020. This year, she won a gold medal at the Junior Asian Championships, followed by a silver a month later against far older opponents at the U-23 Asian Championships.
Her medals and trophies are roughly bundled in a locker. There’s just that many of them. The most prominently displayed trophy, mounted on a wall in the girls' bedroom, is the cardboard cutout of a key to an electric scooter awarded after she won a dangal (wrestling tournament) in Punjab. While her father would once drive her on his motorcyle from their home to her wrestling academy, she now drives the shiny red two-wheeler on her own. When Antim is not home, which is often, considering the number of competitions she takes part in, the vehicle takes pride of place in front of the family’s doorway.
At home, Antim has gone from being the last girl child to occupying a similar spot like her prized two-wheeler. Even before she won her world gold, Krishna Kumari was already thinking about what to cook for her daughter on her return. “She doesn’t like typical Haryana food like churma. In fact, she hates sweets. When she comes back, she will be craving kadhi with roti and pyaz ka raita,” she says.
Incidentally, the Panghal couple had a son two years after Antim. Arpit, the long-desired son, has slowly found himself relegated in the family’s pecking order. A Greco-Roman wrestler of no mean ability himself – he was a bronze medallist at the Haryana U-15 championships earlier this year – Arpit has gone from being the darling of the family to a sparring partner for Antim. “When the Covid lockdown happened in 2020, Antim didn’t have anyone to practise with. Luckily, Arpit was there,” says coach Sihag.
Arpit is in awe of his sister. “I got inspired to take up wrestling because of her,” he says. “I like her wrestling a lot. She is so aggressive on the mat. I really like how she attacks from the side (finds angles)."
It’s unlikely he’s going to lose his admiration for his sister's achievements. Antim is yet to turn 18, which means she has two more years to compete at the junior level. Antim, however, is already showing signs that she is ready for challenges on bigger stages against opponents several years older.
In May, she nearly pulled off a monumental upset – leading world bronze medallist Vinesh Phogat 3-0 with 15 seconds to go before eventually losing on criteria 3-3 at the selection trials for the Commonwealth Games. “She stunned Vinesh with how quick she was at the start of the match. It was just lack of mat experience that cost her,” says Sihag. But that defeat would prove to be a catalysing moment. “Think of the quality that Vinesh is. She is an Asian Games champion and a world medallist. On the other side is this 17-year-old girl. Only after she did kushti (wrestle) with Vinesh and came close to beating her did she get the confidence that she is ready to take on the best,” says Sihag.
A month after the bout with Vinesh, wrestling coach Jitender Singh asked Sihag if Antim wanted to take part in the Zouhaier Sghaier competition – a world ranking tournament – in Tunisia. There Antim stunned a quality field. She beat Tokyo Olympic quarterfinalist Luisa Valverde; the 2022 Pan American champion in the 53kg category, Dominique Parrish of the USA; and then the 2022 Pan American champion in the 55kg category, Karla Godinez, in the final to win her first senior gold medal.
With results like this, it’s little wonder that Antim and her coaches probably found the junior world championships a degree easier. “Because she has started competing and winning against seniors, the juniors is almost very easy for her,” says Sihag.
Few believe she’s reached anywhere near her ceiling just yet. “You wait and see until another two years. She’s going to be very good. Everyone is going to know her name,” says Sihag. While the name isn’t the most flattering, Antim doesn’t sweat it. Her stated position is, “I never thought too much about it or about changing it. Right now, it’s my pehchan, jaise kushti meri pehchan hai (it’s my identity, just like wrestling is my identity).”
Ram Niwas also believes this. “She looks very nice when she’s running around the mat with the Indian flag. She’s already done this thrice (at the Asian juniors, the Tunisia Ranking series, and the World Juniors). I don’t think this will be is the last time,” he says.