When a dynamic teenage pistol shooter is targeting not one but multiple Golds at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics 2020, the entire nation has to be rooting for her. 19-year-old Manu Bhaker will be seen fighting it out in the 10 meter, 25 meter air-pistol, and mixed-team shooting events at the Japanese capital after many Covid-hit hurdles. Manu took out time from her grueling practice and meditation routine in Croatia, just before heading to Tokyo, to give an exclusive interview to India Currents.
Hailing from the small village of Goria (population of 4,590 as per the last Census, 2011) in Jhajjar district of Haryana, Manu first picked the pistol at her school’s shooting range only 5 years ago. Before that, by the age of 14, Manu had already played, excelled, and voluntarily dropped out of about a dozen other games.
“I played almost all games which were available at Universal School Goria. And mostly left (these) games after winning medals at national and state level,” Manu shares.
Which games are these?
“Boxing, skating, marathon, kabaddi, lawn tennis, table tennis, swimming, Tang-Ta (a sword and spear martial art from Manipur), karate, and shooting. In Tang-Ta and karate I have national medals,” elaborates Manu.
“Shooting was also a game at Universal School and many students played it” which is how Manu had her first tryst with the pistol. Excelling at other games “did not help me in any way in preparing me for shooting.” So why did she stick to this game for so long, compared to all others?
“Shooting is a transparent game with a transparent system. It’s quick and gives instant results too. Alongside these factors, early results in my career of this sport, with very little work compared to other contact sports, made me opt for this sport. I enjoy sports, but I love shooting the most,” says Manu firmly.
“Olympic is a dream for every athlete and it is mine as well. It feels great to represent India,” Manu says about her first-ever appearance at Olympics.
However, she’s already felt the pulse and pressure of it when she created history by becoming the first female Indian athlete ever to win Gold at the Youth Olympic Games in 2018. Breaking records several times, her talent has been shining bright across championships like Commonwealth Games (2018), ISSF Junior World Cups (2018), Asian Airgun Championships (2019 and ISSF World Cups (2018, 2019, and 2021), among many others.
Bhaker has become the sportsperson she has while growing up in Goria and is deeply attached to her home and school. “My best childhood memories are of the School stage show where I performed the role of Goddess Saraswati. I was 4 years old and everyone praised me. Girls from standard 11/12 were bowing towards me and I couldn’t control my laughter,” shares Manu fondly.
The presence of a healthy sports culture and the ready availability of coaches at the school played a vital role in Manu’s marvelous career path. “Goria is a beautiful village and our school on its outskirts is even more beautiful,” explains Manu.
At the recently released NITI Aayog’s Sustainable Development Goal India Index 2020-21, prepared in association with United Nations India, Haryana scored poorly on gender equality, among other things. Also, it is well known, that according to Census 2011, Haryana has the worst gender disparity in the country at 834 girls per 1000 boys.
Given the situation, many would think life in Goria would have been challenging, but Manu quashes any such thoughts. “My life has always been a cakewalk due to a supportive family. My parents are absolutely amazing and always removed possible obstacles. Even the people in my village are great and support girls and boys equally,” shares Manu. “I have never heard or saw anything about inequality in my village and don’t know why some people always try to make this a topic of discussion. Actually, reservations, unemployment, and population control should be topics of concern,” she adds further.
Manu bagged several Gold medals at the 2017 National Games and a silver at the 2017 Asian Junior Championships almost within a year of picking up shooting. She’s been playing in both 10m and 25m events for five years, but coincidentally, has won all of her 14 international Golds in the 10m category only, playing either individually or in a team event. Yet, surprisingly, it is the 25m game that is closer to her heart.
“I love the 25m sports pistol more. I enjoy the sound and passion. Also, it’s quick,” says Manu without any qualms. While focus and mental balance are imperative in this sport, a match at an international level has to evoke a myriad of emotions for any athlete. Does Manu feel nervous, or is she strategizing on the field with the opponent beside her?
“I don’t plan. I don’t watch anyone’s game. I simply listen to music and keep myself calm. I listen to all kinds of music, including Haryanvi and Punjabi,” she shares. Her day starts early and she practices the super-powerful Suryanamaskar for an hour daily, without a miss. “I follow a standard routine starting yoga. And I haven’t changed this routine since I started shooting; nothing special for big events as every tournament is special for me.”
Studies haven’t taken a backseat for her either. “It is very very important for me to excel at and complete my studies too. I do study for 1-2 hours daily even at this time,” says Manu.
India’s best promise at Tokyo, this youngster is satisfied with the international standard ranges and infrastructure of her land. “I do continue to practice at my school range or in my house range for the 10m, but I have to travel 145km to Delhi for 25m pistol sports. Surprisingly, there is not a single 25m sports pistol range in our state, Haryana,” says Manu.
Being good with a sword, spear, the pistol, and hand-to-hand combat arts of boxing and karate too, does she feel she has the spirit of a warrior? Does she see herself as a part of the army like her grandfather?
“I am in all these things. But I will opt for the civil services,” says Manu with a sense of finality.
Suruchi Tulsyan is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, India, who loves taking care of her children and plants.