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Indian woman wrestler overcomes fear factor

By Gayathri Sreedharan
BBC News, Delhi

Sonika Kaliraman (Photo: Colour channel)
Sonika has become very popular after participating in a reality show

Sonika Kaliraman is a rarity - she is one of 200 Indian women who wrestle professionally, and one of only about 50 women who can represent India in international championships.

She is tall and graceful - and it's hard to imagine her tossing opponents onto a wrestling mat.

But Sonika, 26, is the daughter of India's wrestling champion, Chandgi Ram.

She has been living her father's dream for 10 years now, and hopes for success in next year's Commonwealth Games in Delhi. She won gold at the Asian Women Wrestling Championship in 2000.

Her real shot at national fame came this August, when she took part in Khatron Ke Khiladi - the Indian version of popular American reality show, Celebrity Fear Factor.

''[Bollywood star] Akshay Kumar [who hosts the show] once exclaimed on the set - "Wrestler? She looks more like a model!" says Sonika.

Her appearance on the show, and the subsequent attention she received from the media have had an effect on her.

Fashionable

Before participating in the reality show, she weighed over 80kg, and knew nothing about "presentation".

But now, after shedding 15kg, she looks fashionable. And long after her exit from the show, the public is still interested in her.

"I was 15, and my sisters and I were watching keenly as TV channels celebrated [Bollywood actor] Priyanka Chopra's Miss World title. Our father asked us - 'Do you want to be famous like her?'" Sonika says.

"He then pulled out a picture of boxer Laila Ali and said something I'll never forget - 'Both women are famous because they've worked for it, they didn't sit in front of the TV and gape'."

Chandgi Ram then made a proposal - he wanted to train women as professional wrestlers, something he had fought for with the Indian Wrestling Federation for many years.

Sonika Kaliraman
I'm never going to allow anybody to humiliate me again
Sonika Kaliraman

And he wanted his four daughters to take the lead.

In the northern state of Haryana - where according to the 2001 census the gender ratio was at an all-time low of 861 girls to every 1,000 boys born - it was unthinkable for a woman to compete in what is generally considered a man's game.

"When my father said he had a proposal for us, we actually thought he'd suggest we become models!"

Sonika was the only woman from her family who took up the challenge her father set down in 2000.

And she learned the consequences of her choice the hard way - audiences at a rare women's tournament threw stones at her and 15 other contestants.

"As we were rushed out by the police, I heard somebody yell - 'Why are women competing here? They are meant to be at home and cooking. This is a man's game'."

"I'm never going to allow anybody to humiliate me like that again," she says.

Contribution

Former coach Rohtas Singh Dahiya feels Sonika had great potential, but her time was divided between studies, TV appearances and wrestling.

"But there's no denying the contribution she and her family have made to women's wrestling in India," he says.

"I first coached a woman in 1999. Since then there have been many more that have come to me to learn.

Sonika Kaliraman (Photo courtesy: Colors)
Sonika had to perform stunts on the TV show

"Initially, women were wary of the costumes, and I had to convince them to overlook it. But wrestling has worked as an incentive - women have done well, won medals and widespread fame.

"And some of my former students now have well paying jobs, and are settled for life."

Sonika's life has been a mixed bag so far. She took up wrestling at the behest of her father, but then faced opposition from many of her father's students and her own brother, wrestler Jagdish Kaliraman.

Sonika recently married US-based businessman, Siddharth Malik.

It was an arranged match in true Indian style, but Sonika has found support from her husband.

"In fact, when the Fear Factor executives called, it was my husband who encouraged me to take part in the show. He said, 'Go ahead, you'll learn something new'."



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