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September 22, 2000
"She would have won gold, if only....Josy Joseph in Faridabad
The paanwalaah and his customer spat their paan in unison as they dismissed my query about Karnam Malleswari's house.
I am referring to the weightlifter who on Tuesday became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, and who is married into a family that lives somewhere in the vicinity, I repeated.
They didn't know. In fact, most of Faridabad do not know that a household in the township was celebrating a historic first achieved by its bahu. Then again, you can't blame them -- when Malleswari was winning bronze in the 69 kg category, Doordarshan was broadcasting, two hours after it was over, India's hockey game.
This industrial town on the outskirts of Delhi, thus, is yet to be aware of the greatness of Malleswari's feat. And, in fact, about Malleswari herself.
The owner of Milan sweet shop, which is the reference point for anyone wanting to know the way to Malleswari's in-law's place, wasn't aware that his good friend, Rajesh Tyagi, was the champion lifter's husband. "Only this morning when I finally saw the papers did I realise that it was Rajesh's wife who has won the medal," he said.
Even more ironically, Tyagi and his family wouldn't have recognised Malleshwari, if not for a last minute reconciliation that patched up a family quarrel. Rajesh and Karnam Malleshwari had married against the wishes of the former's family, and their first visit to Tyagi's home in Faridabad was deferred for quite a while.
"Everything is all right now, she is our daughter-in-law," asserts her mother-in-law Jagwadi, 59, who not so long ago was the fiercest opponent of the marriage. Why the initial reluctance, then? It has been relegated to history, and the Tyagis prefer not to discuss it.
"It was 1 in the afternoon," recalls Hari Raj Singh Tyagi (60), Malleshwari's father in law. "I was watching Doordarshan Sports, to see what would happen in her event, but they were showing the India-Australia hockey match replay. I did not have the Doordarshan phone number, otherwise, I would have called them up," Tyagi Senior says.
"It was during the match that a commentator said she had won the bronze," Malleshwari's father in law recalls. "Rajesh called me up some time later, but when I told him, he was not ready to believe me. He called a couple of times more, to confirm. It took some time for the fact to sink in, for all of us," says Tyagi, a former purchase officer with Technological Consultant Centre, an autonomous tool-manufacturing unit.
Outside in the heat, a group of kids are kicking a football around in the narrow lane. Within, neighbours, friends and relatives continue to drop in at the Tyagi residence. Ladoos are distributed, and Neha, the chirpy daughter of Rajesh's Dubai-based elder brother Brijesh, plays host.
So who is Rajesh, husband of India's only woman Olympic medallist? "Both Rajesh and Brijesh were very active in sports," says A C Tyagi, his teacher during Rajesh Tyagi's schooldays at the Government High School in Sector-7.
"My duty was to prepare his diet, comprising badam, milk and ghee, and keep it ready whenever he came back from practise," recalls his father.
After his schooling, Rajesh moved to Hapur college, and while there, became the national champion in weightlifting at the Universities level.
It was during his training camps and while travelling to various venues for tournaments that he first met Malleswari, then a shy girl from Andhra Pradesh living with her elder sister in New Delhi and dreaming dreams of making it big. In course of their meetings, the pair fell in love.
Once, Rajesh even brought his ladylove home, but his family was not particularly impressed. So, about three years back, they went ahead and got married, without reference to his family.
"Later, we realized that she too is a Brahmin like us," says ma-in-law Jagwadi. "And we found her to be a very loving and nice person."
"Whenever she comes here, she cooks food for all of us," says Malleswari's elder sister-in-law Bhavna. "No," she adds in response to a question, "there is no special diet she follows when she is here, she eats what we all eat."
Jagwadi obviously thinks highly of her daughter in law. "If not for the tension created by the delay in announcing the Olympic squad, she would have won the gold itself," she avers. "Whenever I spoke to her and met her, I told her not to worry. We knew she was destined to bring glory to this country," adds Tyagi senior.
"Next time she comes, she will be here for at least 15-20 days," Tyagi says, with anticipation in his smile. "We will celebrate in style then."
Malleshwari had called her in-laws home, from Sydney, a day earlier and spoken to her husband. "She told him that she is trying to leave early and come back home, before the end of the Games," her father in law says.
What of the prize money, which has been pouring in from her employers, and from various state governments? "I told Rajesh that he should build a gym, where international level weightlifters are shaped. It should be good enough to put foreigners into shame," says Tyagi.
"Personally, we are not bothered about the money, it doesn't make any difference to us," adds Jagwadi. "We don't need any of it."
The mood is upbeat, the family is celebrating. In a very low key for now, as they wait for their hyper-achieving daughter-in-law to return home before the real bash begins.
She may have started out on the wrong foot, but Karnam Malleswari is a sure winner in the Tyagi household.
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