A Child Bride At 13, Now A Prize-Winning Wrestler

If you've ever marveled to hear about somebody who's life is so full of adversity that you feel yours is easy, listen up. NPR's Julie McCarthy examines the improbable path of an Indian child bride who literally wrestled her way into a new life. It is the first report in occasional series on Indians making change, "Against The Odds."

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: She prefers to be known simply by one name - Neetu. But there is nothing simple about the roll call of duties this two-time child bride has assumed - cook, mother, wife, homemaker and breadwinner. With a seventh-grade education, Neetu's been a beautician, a maid, a shop clerk, a cotton picker and a self-taught tailor.

NEETU: (Through interpreter) I learned to sew just by unstitching old suits and re-stitching them back together. I couldn't afford training. I had no money.

MCCARTHY: But being poor seem to fuel her dreams. Since childhood, she had a knack for sports. Neetu recalls astonished neighbors seeing her, a young girl, haul home heavy iron canisters of gas for cooking. Watching international games staged in New Delhi several years ago, Neetu was inspired by wrestling, an individual sport. You get lost in a team, she says. In four short years, it's become her passion.

NEETU: (Through interpreter) I love my wrestling. Wrestling is my life. I have to do this for my children.

MCCARTHY: Disadvantaged girls like Neetu increasingly see the sport, with its potential earnings, as a path out of poverty. But few train with Neetu's discipline.

For more than two years, Neetu rose at 3 a.m. for an hour and a half bus ride to, it seems like, boot camp - the Chhotu Ram Stadium and Wrestling Center in the state of Haryana, known for its wrestling tradition. Early morning light filters into the cavernous gym as Neetu lunges, climbs and contorts her body into impossible stretches. After practice, she'd trek home to do housework, then journey back in the afternoon for more punishing drills.

MANDEEP SINGH: Defense - ready - stop. (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Coach Mandeep Singh puts Neeta through her paces. Don't be passive, he sternly instructs. Her broad shoulders slump. But Neetu listens to him with a rapt devotion reserved for a priest. Shorn hair, sweat-ringed T-shirt - Neetu looks like a well-built boy. Pinning her practice partner to the mat, she seems to have wrestled the child bride out of herself. Coach Singh says she takes direction like few do.

Do you see something that you don't see in other girls?

SINGH: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "She's different in terms of willpower. And being married with small children from a deprived background, it's an achievement to even be here," he says, adding, "during training, she doesn't take a break for even one minute. She's determined," Singh says, "to become something."

So determined, Neetu now lives in a small room near the gym, sparing herself the long commute. She squats on the concrete floor, fixing an egg and milk, her meager diet. Neetu offers food...

NEETU: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: ...And vivid details of her turbulent life - married off at 13 to a man three times her age and who was mentally challenged. When he defecated in the house, she incensed her in-laws by refusing to clean it up. Worse was a father-in-law who acted like a sexual predator.

NEETU: (Through interpreter) One day when no one was home, he took me into his bedroom and pulled off my veil and warned me, don't tell anyone.

MCCARTHY: Neetu says if a man does something bad to a girl, it's her fault.

NEETU: (Through interpreter) Parents think they will be dishonored.

MCCARTHY: Neetu alerted her father all the same, and he extracted her from the marriage. But fearing social stigma, her parents soon married her off again. Neetu says her second husband, however, has been like a savior.

NEETU: (Through interpreter) He's given me a new life. He pulled me out of hell and brought me to heaven. I'm able to wrestle because of him. I'm away, and we don't have a usual husband-wife relationship. He's made a huge sacrifice.

MCCARTHY: When she first confided her dream to wrestle, husband Sanjay Kumar called it crazy. Neetu weighed 175 pounds, but she shed 60 pounds and any inhibition about pursuing her God-given talents. Sanjay lent moral support, and when his business selling milk failed, he adjusted to a new role as house-husband

SANJAY KUMAR: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "The hard work is Neetu's. I've just encouraged her. And I'm with her all the way. But Neetu is not the kind of girl to back down," he says.

Still, Sanjay had a caveat.

KUMAR: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "If you start, you have to succeed," he said, "or we'll get a bad name."

Bad name, disgrace, dishonor - terms used to frustrate female independents, says Jagmati Sangwan, a former member of the Indian national volleyball team. Sangwan now leads the All-India Democratic Women's Association. Like Neetu, she is from Haryana and calls her home state a, quote, "predominantly feudal patriarchal society," especially tough for female athletes.

JAGMATI SANGWAN: The mindset behind this is that if women participate in sports, they will become more and more confident, and they will be losing their control over these women.

MCCARTHY: A child bride no more, Neetu puts her age at 21. A competitor alleged she's older, but her passport says she's 20. Absent official birth records, there's often confusion about how old people are in India. In her second marriage, Neetu gave birth to twin boys at age 14.

Nothing in Neetu's surroundings lends itself to athletic glory. The streets of her village are open sewers; the playing field, a stony lot where she wrestles with her boys. The hardscrabble reality makes her dream to be a world-class athlete seem implausible. Conservative mores make the climb steeper.

NEETU: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: There were insinuations - is she really at a gym, asked gossipy neighbors. Then, the young woman who had changed her husband, her in-laws and herself transformed a village.

NEETU: (Through interpreter) Even people who had spoken ill of me - they said, train our daughters to wrestle; make them like you.

MCCARTHY: Neetu had begun winning. Neighbors delighted in the attention she brought to their inconspicuous village, beginning with her first national medal in February of last year. Last summer, she competed in Brazil. Balkesh Ahlawat is a proud 45-year-old villager.

BALKESH AHLAWAT: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "She's changed everything. Everybody believes that a girl can now say, I want to do something," Ahlawat says.

MCCARTHY: After upending stereotypes in her own village, Neetu quietly raises awareness in others. At a girl's school, she tells her story of striving despite every disadvantage. Neetu tears up sharing painful facts of her life and encourages the girls to dream big dreams. Neetu looks to the future, eyeing Tokyo and the 2020 Olympics.

NEETU: (Through interpreter) I will go there. I'm 21, and four years ago, the silver medalist was 34 and a mother. That gives me confidence. I can do it.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

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