Feature

Deepika Kumari: The girl who left home on an empty stomach and a headful of dreams

The archer has braved every hardship that life has thrown during the relentless pursuit of her dream

By Soham Mukherjee ·

Hunger was her constant companion. Born to Shivnarayan Mahato, an auto-rickshaw driver and Geeta Mahato, a nurse at Ranchi Medical College, Deepika Kumari's family could barely make both ends meet.

From a very young age, the villagers would spot her aiming for the mangoes with stones and then with a catapult, to keep hunger at bay.

Despite surviving on a shoestring budget, she kept her dreams alive. She knew she had to get out of Ratu Chatti, her village, around 15km from Ranchi, the state capital of Jharkhand to pursue them.

"Poverty is a situation that can either make you brave or miserable," she recounted at the recent TEDx XLRI 2021.

"I was very poor once, we didn't have enough food to eat. But I would dream. Dreams are not meant only for the rich. Anyone can dream. I still dream. And in order to fulfil those dreams, I left home."

She was also reaching out to the free food in the academy, so that her parents had one less mouth to feed.

"I was 13 years old. I couldn't do much for my family. So I spoke to them and they were supportive. They dropped me off at the academy. I didn't realise that the goal I set out for had actually chosen me."

From using bamboo bows and arrows, she laid her hands on a piece of proper equipment for the first time at the Tata Archery Academy in Jamshedpur, with the help of her cousin Vidya Kumari, who was herself using the Tata facilities. However, her stepping stone to a professional setup was at the Arjun Archery Academy, an institute set up by Meera Munda, wife of then chief minister of the state Shri. Arjun Munda at Kharsawan.

"I wasn't sure about the path I chose because I was very young and I had no clue. I didn't do it for myself, I did it for my family. When I reached the academy, everything was new for me. I didn't know the language, I didn't know what to do.

"It wasn't the best circumstance, but we were happy with what we had. My dreams kept getting bigger. My performance kept getting better. Sometimes life gives you more than what you can handle, but if you face it, nothing will be impossible."

Deepika Kumari overcame a lot of hardships early on to make it big in the field of archery

In the next three years, she persevered towards her goal with grit and determination and did not return home until she won the Cadet World Championship title in November 2009. At fifteen, she won the 11th Youth World Archery Championship held in Ogden, Utah, United States and also won a gold medal in the same competition in the women's team recurve event, alongside celebrated archers like Dola Banerjee and Bombayala Devi.

But greater opportunities lay ahead on her home turf as India was set to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010. And she did not disappoint.

Kumari finished the tournament with two gold medals, one in the individual event and the other in the women's team recurve event.

At the Asian Games of 2010, held in Guangzhou, China, she continued her rich vein of form and won bronze in the team recurve event along with Rimil Buriuly and Dola Banerjee.

"After I became the world champion when I came back, everyone was really happy. My coach told me to forget that I was the world champion and focus on the next event, the Olympics. I was like, 'Let me just enjoy the moment'. But then I realised he was right. There was no point dwelling in past glory."

With her eyes set on the London Games, she participated in the archery World Cup in Antalya, Turkey as part of her preparations. Kumari won gold in the individual event by beating Korea's Lee Sung-Jin by six set points to four in the final. Later in 2012, she cemented her spot as the world number one in the women's recurve archery and looked primed for a podium finish in London Olympics.

But fate had something else in store for her. In a shock defeat, she crashed out to Great Britain's Amy Oliver in the very first round.

"I was very young, the Olympics was still a fantasy for me. Everything around me felt unreal. But I kept telling myself to focus on what I came to do. I thought I worked hard enough, but when I lost, I realised what I could have done better.

"We often create comfort zones for ourselves and prefer to stay there because we know it will be difficult outside of it. We only think of what could go wrong. Self-confidence is very important," she explained.

Like a soldier, she picked herself up and got back in the saddle in no time for future challenges.

In July 2013, she won a gold medal in Archery World Cup stage 3 held at Medellin, Colombia and followed it with a silver medal in the 2013 FITA Archery World Cup. This was her third silver in as many appearances in the World Cup Final.

In 2014, Deepika was featured by Forbes (India) as one of the '30 under 30' and in 2016 she was honoured with the Padma Shri by the Indian government.

Seldom life gives chances to make amends for past failures. And Kumari has once again earned the opportunity to make a mark in the Olympics after she secured a Tokyo-berth in the women's recurve individual event with a superlative performance at the Continental Qualification Tournament being held on the sidelines of the 21st Asian Archery Championships in Bangkok.

With an unflinching passion for the sport, she has put the small village of Ratu Chatti on the world map. The same village which had once questioned her parents for letting her leave the household at such a young age.

"Our neighbours used to tell my parents that they shouldn't be sending a girl outside the house. But today, when I go home, they all come and ask my parents why they weren't informed of my arrival. It feels nice to know I've achieved something, that people want to see me, want their children to be like me."

A medal in Tokyo might just inspire more children across the length and breadth of India to be like her.