Manu Bhaker is still in her tracksuit as she sits in her apartment in Faridabad, in northern India’s Haryana state, after returning from eight hours of practice on the shooting range. But even without a gun, the 17-year-old Indian target shooter is busy, now with her phone, scrolling through her Instagram feed. At that moment, she’s an archetypal teenager. Except that Bhaker is anything but normal.
Still in high school, Bhaker is already the world champion in 10-meter shooting, both in the individual sport and in the team category, and is the youngest Indian to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal. She’s also the current gold medalist in her discipline at the Youth Olympics. Those wins, all in 2018, have made Bhaker one of shooting’s biggest sensations and one of the brightest medal prospects at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for India, a country that, despite its size, has only ever won one individual gold medal at the Olympics (in men’s shooting in 2008).
That’s not all. In January, Bhaker took on the sports minister of Haryana, a state notorious for discrimination against women. There are 831 women for every 1,000 men in Haryana, the lowest ratio in any state in India, and ‘honor killings’ of women who marry outside the family caste are depressingly common here. Bhaker accused the sports minister, Anil Vij, of lying when he promised a $280,000 award after her Youth Olympics win. On Twitter, she posted screenshots of the minister’s promise. Not only had she not received the cash prize, but the amount promised to her had been cut in half to $140,000.
Some one in Haryana is really playing with Youth Olympic games cash prize!!!!! @narendramodi @mlkhattar @anilvijminister @Ra_THORe @AshokKhemka_IAS ... Is it really for encouraging or disheartening players. which one is correct... pic.twitter.com/adIsfttId7— Manu Bhaker (@realmanubhaker) January 4, 2019
Vij, a 65-year-old minister of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), demanded that she apologize. The teenager refused. “I didn’t think much” before tweeting, Bhaker tells me over tea and dried fruits at her apartment. “I just did it.”
That gunslinging approach has earned her criticism. When she failed to medal at the 2018 Asian Games, her coach, Jaspal Rana — a multiple gold medalist at the Asian and Commonwealth Games — said his pupil lost her composure after a few poor shots, and instead of taking her time, raced through her remaining chances. “She needs to control her temperament,” Rana told reporters. “Anger will not help her in any way.” Yet Rana has also identified Bhaker as a “rare” talent.
Basically I think shooting is a clean game. In other games, there is a chance of referees cheating.
She has a second attribute that her father, Ram Kishan Bhaker, a chief engineer in the Merchant Navy, says he spotted early: strong will. “Whatever she sets her eyes on, she will make sure she gets it,” he says of his daughter, who grew up in the village of Goria in Jhajjar, a rural part of Haryana. “Manu doesn’t stop short of that.”
Take, for example, a few days ago when Bhaker saw someone she knows on Instagram perform a split. She’s now practicing to perfect the split herself. “I am almost there,” she says, laughing as her eyes light up. Her father looks at her admiringly.
That drive is visible when I meet her ahead of the International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup in New Delhi, which concluded Thursday with Bhaker and a male teammate earning another gold in the 10-meter air pistol. She’s had a full day on the range, followed by our interview, but she still wants to hit the gym. “If I want to be the greatest sportsperson, I have to give that extra hour at the range or at the gym,” she says.
Like any teenager, Bhaker’s tastes keep changing — even in her chosen sports. She took up shooting only in 2014. Prior to that, she had won national-level medals in huyen langlon (a martial art practiced in the northeastern state of Manipur), boxing, karate, skating and tennis. Bhaker’s former teacher and coach Mahinder Singh says: “She might again change. If she gets bored, she is free to select any other sport she wants. She is young, she can do that.” Ask Bhaker’s father, and he has a typical parent’s response: “See, in boxing, she used to practice for, say, four hours and then after practice she couldn’t focus on her studies” because she was tired. He adds, “In this [shooting], she practices and can still focus on studies as well.”
Bhaker’s Instagram feed is that of a normal teen — pictures with family, friends, hoisting the Indian flag — until you get to the glowing video tributes to her from TV channels. She puts the phone down to pick up her real tools, inspecting her pistol with a focus that seems to block out everything around her.
“Basically, I think shooting is a clean game,” she says when asked why she prefers her current sport. “In other games, there is a chance of referees cheating.” After the Tokyo Olympics, Bhaker might move on to some other sport, she says. But for now, she wants to win gold.
It won’t be easy. Bhaker’s family was counting on Vij’s promised prize money to send her to Switzerland for training. About her social media accounts, Bhaker’s father wonders aloud: “Is there a way to increase her follower number? It helps in getting sponsors.”
But what she lacks in financial support, she has in spunk. And a tightknit family. So close, in fact, that they’re ready to close ranks around her in the face of suggestions — including from Rana recently — that it may not have been Bhaker who posted the infamous tweet about Vij after all. Bhaker’s uncle Pintu Kumar says: “It can’t be Manu. It is someone else.” Bhaker concedes that her dad manages her Twitter and Facebook accounts, but she doesn’t reveal whether he posted that tweet.
When I ask her father, he doesn’t reply either. But he is clear that his daughter isn’t apologizing to Vij, who tried to embarrass her, calling the tweet “disgusting.” “We never ask our daughters to apologize,” Bhaker’s father says. Manu hasn’t blinked either. When you want to win an Olympic gold medal in shooting, you can’t afford to.
Read more: This national sports icon gives a different kind of kick.
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