Shooting stars of Daadi ka Gaon

Far away from the cricket crorepatis a humble village school in western UP is creating its own big champs of world-class shooters

Khalid Akhter Baghpat/UP

Johri is a small village connecting two towns - Baraut and Baghpat. Unknown to many, it has achieved international status in recent times. This village has a typical western UP rural set up - dull, monotonous, arid and unexciting, with about 1200-1500 people. In winters, it's more vibrant as farmers work in their lush green sugarcane fields which is the main crop here. Inhabited by Pathans, Jats and Dalits, it looks like any other obscure village but for a small mosque compound where a 10 metre-shooting range has been established by Dr Raj Pal Singh, the local role model.
Dr Raj Pal got hooked to shooting when he saw the sport at the 1982 Delhi Asiad. He was so captivated that he took up this sport, becoming a pro. Overcoming all odds - low resources, absence of professional training, inspiration and equipment, he went on to win national medals through sheer grit and patience.
Several sections, including macho youngsters in this 'Omkara territory', have always had an instinctive feel for guns. Many children coming to this school are from the Pathan community, historically a bunch of hardy fighters. This region has a history of fire-arms (kattas etc) being used for all the wrong reasons. Dr Raj Pal decided to tap this love for guns and train them to become successful shooters. Consequently, he also succeeded in shifting the 'male gaze' from caste/community clashes and machismo and aggressive violence (even criminal gang wars) into a creative and competitive experiment.
Hardnews found that it was with this aim that he founded this firing ring along with two other shooters, Maroof and Farooq Pathan, to mould latent local talent into successful shooters. This school has been financed by Dr Raj Pal himself. It is run in the courtyard of an old house constructed of lakhauri bricks with its arched entrance doors under a tin shade. It has 10 shooting pulleys to practise. The shooting pulleys are locally made. The tables on which these shooting pulleys are kept look like they belong to a roadside dhaba. Indeed, it is incredible that this school has produced several national and international shooting champions.
Most of the children who come here to hone their shooting skills are from relatively poor backgrounds. Life is hard, inspiration levels and resources are abysmally low, and they have too many tangible hurdles to clear. But nothing deters them from pursuing their dream that one day they would go on to represent their country in an international shooting championship, make India proud, and win a gold, plus name, fame and money.
Today, as cricketers are auctioned for crores, these village kids have nothing - they have to buy their own pistols which may cost up to Rs 85,000 - probably the amount Shahrukh Khan pays for a pair of designer sunglasses. Locals here want to ask Sharukh Khan, Preity Zinta, the Ambanis and cash-rich BCCI mandarins a few questions: why don't they, for instance, support players like Zakir Khan, son of a generator mechanic, who finished seventh in the world championships at Zagreb in the sports pistol category? Zakir went with a borrowed pistol; he had no pistol of his own. He can't afford one. Zakir is a product of this 'courtyard school' which runs without any support from the Sports Authority of India (SAI).
Rajiv Jaatav is the son of a brick kiln worker. He is a dreamer with loads of talent. He distributes milk in the morning and sells eggs in the evening to supplement his income so that he can buy more pallets to hone his shooting skills. Recently, he scored 590 points out of 600 at the national trials.
Against all odds, this school in Johri has produced big champs. Vivek Singh won a gold medal at the 1999 Oceanic Shooting Championship in Sydney and another gold in the Third Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand, the same year. Seema Tomar won a bronze in an international shooting championship.
Amazingly, this self-financed training school has two champions who are in their 60s and who are breaking all the stereotypes of a male-dominated feudal society. They are the Tomar sisters-in-law - Chandro Tomar and Prakashi Tomar. They took up shooting on the insistence of their granddaughters. In the beginning, Prakashi was apprehensive of the men, but everyone encouraged her. She went on to become a national champion in the veteran category in 2001. Her house has females from three generations making a mark in shooting - all of them have been trained at the same school. Her daughter Seema Tomar has participated in several world meets with the best performance of finishing 34th in a 2006 championship in China in the trap category. Seema is a national champion in trap sport. Prakashi's granddaughter, Sonia, is a national player.
The Tomars, world-class players and national champions that they are, are rather modest people. They are attached to their village roots. Daadi Prakashi's humble house has no frills. This reporter looks for Seema, the new champ. She has gone to bathe the buffaloes. All three shooters go for training in the evening after completing their daily household chores.
Although the Johri school was started in 1998, it took four years for the SAI to recognise it. The only support it gets from the government is Rs 10,000 as salary for coach and Rs 600 every month for seven out of 70 students. This is peanuts compared to the cost these children have to bear. A box of pellets containing 500 shots costs Rs 400. There is a new 10m range with 30 shooting pulleys coming up, but requirements for professional shooting are much more then a tentative brick and tin structure. Most students find it difficult to afford the guns, pellets and services of a private coach.
Despite these eternal and daily adversities, the great Olympic dream can still be seen in the eyes of the kids of Daadi ka Gaaon as this village is known now. Far away from the cricket crorepatis, hidden from media glare, the modest Johri school is carving its own chapters of history. Like the shooting stars in the midnight sky.