If there is a presence more unexpected in the sumo wrestling ring than that of women, it is that of an Indian woman. Hetal Dave surprised the world in 2008.
Guided by centuries-old traditions in Japan, professional sumo remains the domain of men - women are excluded from the competitions and ceremonies. Over the years, as amateur leagues of the full-contact sport flourished in various parts of the world and women burst onto that scene, Mumbai-based Dave, who was 19 years old at the time, became the only such wrestler to represent India.
In popular imagination, a sumo wrestler would not exactly blend into a crowd, but Dave is easily lost among the many fitness enthusiasts at the Oval Maidan in the wee hours of Tuesday. Dressed in a maroon T-shirt and black slacks - full-figured but not excessively overweight - she explains that amateur wrestlers can weigh as little as 45 kg. They compete in four categories, including lightweight, middle-weight, heavy and super-heavy. Dave is a middle-weight wrestler.
Her brother, Akshay, her usual sparring partner, is away for a sports camp. Therefore, she has stuck to stretching and doing no-equipment exercises for two hours daily, even as her parents keep her company. Around a tournament, the 27-year-old steps up training. "Right now it is off-season." When does the season typically start? "It is off-season until I get a sponsor," she says with a dry laugh. She last competed in 2012.
The going is not easy for India's sole female sumo star. Although she continues to draw the attention of journalists and documentary film makers, Dave says her career depends on an uncertain stream of funds. Her monologue is punctuated with loud exhalations from her father, Sudhir Dave, who is performing the kapalbhati nearby. After the yoga session, Sudhir, who is a judo trainer, continues to breathe heavily, angered by the absence of systematic encouragement in the sporting world for rare achievers like his daughter.
Although a Sumo Federation of India exists, it merely receives and forwards entries so far, according to the father and daughter. Dave was able to compete in four international competitions - including the world championships, world games and Asian championships - because of monetary contributions from good Samaritans who came across her story. Typically, it costs at least Rs 1.5 to 2 lakh to compete in a global tournament.
Dave, a judo practitioner, discovered sumo wrestling while training at her club. Her coach, Cawas Billimoria, also taught sumo wrestling at the sports club and Dave would sometimes step in as an opponent. The rules of the sport were simple enough: you have to force your rival to step out of the ring or make any part of their body other than their feet touch the ground.
"You have to go in with a strategy and react quickly because everything is over within seconds. It is not very technical; just pull, push and throw," Billimoria explains. Dave, who had a talent for the moves, decided to enter tournaments. After her first world championship in Estonia, where she competed for a bronze medal but lost, she found herself ranked among the global top 8. Her name was later included in a list of 150 fearless women by Newsweek.
Back home, when she spoke of sumo, people sometimes wondered if she was referring to the car. Some women did not want to join her because the big belt did not look good. Nevertheless, getting the so-called ugly canvas loincloth - called mawashi - had been a special moment for Dave. During the maiden competition, she did not have one of her own and had to borrow it from local players. A gigantic man helped her wear it before holding her by the belt to check if it fit properly, she recalls, bursting into giggles. If it came undone, Dave would have been disqualified. She invested in one later and was even stopped by airport authorities, who could not understand why a bag containing only a track suit and a belt weighed so much. "They sat there and researched on Google. The mawashi belt is long and thick and weighs around six kilos."
To a Westerner - and most people outside Japan - as the humourist Charlie Brooker pointed out, sumo looks inherently silly: fat men in nappies. But in Japan, it is a national sport that retains committed fans despite numerous match-fixing controversies. In his 2012 column following a visit to a major sumo tournament, Brooker noted, "The combination of crowds, costumes and ceremony made it feel like a cross between a cricket ground, a theatre, and a cathedral." Most wrestlers live in training stables, following strict rules of diet and lifestyle. There is a high level of rituals in the tournaments, such as thigh-slapping and sprinkling of purifying salts. Dave, however, has not been to Japan and much of what she has learnt about the sport is through YouTube videos.
In the amateur circuit, Japan does not dominate. European countries, including Estonia and Poland, have produced formidable wrestlers too, says Dave. It does not require special training. Most judo practitioners can easily transition, she adds, but since judo is an Olympic sport and gets government backing, Indian players have chosen not to experiment with sumo.
Dave demonstrates some moves during our conversation. Legs set apart, she squats determinedly and places her hands on her thighs, appearing bigger than she is. She first touches one hand to the ground, then both, showing a readiness to tackle. The smile she wears otherwise disappears while posing for photographs.
Travelling on tiny budgets, Dave has had to attend all the tournaments alone. Fortunately, her status as the only wrestler from India won her the attention and support of authorities in countries she visited. The mayor of an Estonian town enlisted his daughter's help to communicate with Dave in English. She was even given exclusive vegetarian meals, as she had requested. But during the competition bouts, she struggled. Without a coach shouting instructions, Dave had no warning when she was close to stepping out of the ring. The friends she made among players from other countries tried to help her out, but there were language problems. Dave also rues that she has no photos from the time.
Sudhir Dave says he is living his dream through his children. However, his daughter, whose own career is on a hold, now has high hopes from her students. These days, she teaches judo to children of two local schools. The commerce graduate is also hoping to land a steady job with a company that would support her wrestling ambitions. Later, she would like to open an academy. "I will need funds. I will need a space or no one will take me seriously," she says. People will like the sport when they give it a go, she adds, before continuing to outline plans for her fictional academy. "Traditionally, they use compressed mud or clay. But thick mats would work well for practice too." It is clear Dave wants to break more ground.