It was close to 2am in the morning, but anxious spectators were rooted to the stands near the Nooranmamman temple in Sundarapuram .Within a rectangular box marked by chalk, stood two teams of 12 girls, facing each other unflinchingly. It was the year 2012 and the two sides were tied in the finals of the annual Kabbadi tournament organised by the temple. It was the home team's turn to send their strongest player into enemy territory for the the deciding point. The taller and older girls moved aside and out emerged a scrawny 11-year-old.
As the crowd roared in support, the girl, nimble and fast, struck an opponent with ease to get her team a winning point before she scrambled back to her side. What followed was grand celebrations as her coach hoisted her up on his shoulder to join the parade of people chanting her name. 11-year-old Darshini smiled as she looked down at the excited audience, happy but perplexed in equal measures.
"Darshini was born with a hearing problem and is 87% deaf," says the mother of the child, who recounted this story to The News Minute. "The tournament five years back was the first time she saw so much acceptance and approval from the society that surrounds us. Older boys aged 25 and 27 came and told her that they want to be as good as her and fell at her feet. I just couldn't stop crying as she asked me what was happening," says 43 year old Jayanthi.
Today, Darshini, the daughter of two daily wage workers from Kovai district is part of the Tamil Nadu team currently participating in the sub-junior National Kabbadi tournament. For the 15-year-old who is now facing the best players from across the country, Kabbadi has proved to be a not only a game but also a platform that allowed her to trump her disability.
The war with words
"She could hardly talk till she was four and even after that the only words she knew were amma (mother), thanni (water) and saapadu (food) ," says Jayanthi. Their daughter, the last born of three children was a constant source of worry and they were afraid about how she would handle the outside world. "She was in sixth standard my neighbour who was taking yoga classes offered to enroll her for free. The yoga teacher's husband was a kabbadi coach and somehow he thought Darshini will be able to do well in the game. He began training her and after she won the temple tournament for the team, he realised she had great potential," she explains.
Darshini's first coach, then took her to Vishwananthan, from the same town for advanced coaching. The 60-year-old man, took the young girl under his wing and soon she was playing tournaments across the state. Erode, Salem, Dharmapuri, Tirunelveli, Pudhikottai - Darshini was leaving an indelible mark on spectators everywhere. "She even had dedicated fan clubs by the time she was 13," says Jayanthi. "In fact, when their team is playing, everybody will yell 'Send number 2, send number 2'," she recounts laughing.
Her improving performance and the adoration she received, increased Darshini's confidence manifold. She had begun to talk full sentences and attempted to hold conversations with her teammates. "By the time she was 14 years old, she had a ear machine given by the government, so her hearing was a little better. We used to make calls to her when she was not in town and she would actually be able to answer us, though she struggled," Jayanthi says, her voice choking. "Like any other mother, I wanted to have long conversations with my daughter and hear all that has happened in her day but it is not possible," she laments. But Jayanthi, soon had bigger battles to fight for her daughter
The battle of mindsets
In 2015, 14-year-old Darshini got selected for a national training camp, days after she got her first period. While she was gearing up to attend this crucial camp, in another section of their house, her mother was being adviced to not let her go. "My in-laws us to stop sending her to play because she was 'mature' now," Jayanthi explains. "I had no support and couldn't fight them. I was forced to keep her at home but I promised to send her the next week. She couldn't stop crying for the next week," she sighs.
Darshini would apparently watch her friends leave and point out to her mother with tears in her eyes. "It broke my heart to force to stop doing what she loves best, so the next year, I ensured she attended the camp. Keeping her safety in mind, my husband and I even went with her. It was embarrassing because there were no other parents but we have to do what is best for our child," she explains. But what about her in-law? "What they don't know won't hurt them," she laughs.
Their perseverance paid off and Darshini effortlessly skid into the team, becoming the only player from Kovai District to be selected for the Tamil Nadu team. "We were not all surprised," says her coach Vishwanathan. "In 2013, when we were playing a tournament in Madhya Pradesh, she scored 21 of the total 27 points for our side single-handedly. Scouts were itching to make her a part of their team and the Indian team already has an eye on her," he reveals.
Future worries forgotten
Not only scouts, the young girl's growth, didn't go unnoticed even by local leaders. "Even the BJP held a ceremony to honour her in Coimbatore. People keep wanting to felicitate her and even though we can't afford to all the time, we try to take her and go," says Jayanthi. For this 43-year-old, who was worried about her daughter's future, this recognition has been a jolt. "I thought my daughter is disabled, she has hearing problems and can never be normal. But she has brought us so much pride and happiness. I have two sons but when I walk on the road today everyone calls me 'Darshini amma'. What else can I ask for?," she says her voice cracking.
With Darshini set to face the team from Assam, in the quarterfinals of the national tournament, her coach is confident she will excel, "We have trained in a manner that is not used for other students," says the coach. "We use signals instead of words to tell her where to stand and how to move. She picket it all up very fast and her disability is not a matter of concern now," he adds.
But back home, Jayanthi laughs nervously, "I am so scared everytime she enters the ring. My eyes are usually closed the whole time in prayer." She may be afraid to watch but this fear doesn't stop her from dreaming of a better future for her daughter. "Darshini's achievements won't end here at this tournament, she will become an international name soon and then we will talk again," she promises.