Barely two days before she claimed the biggest prize in her judo career, Tulika Maan made a call to her mother, Amrita Maan.“
“ Kitna chahiye (How much do you need)?” Amrita, an assistant sub-inspector with the Delhi Police crime branch, asked.
“Rs 5,000,” came the nervous reply from 7,500km away.
“When she calls, I know she needs money. She won’t call otherwise,” says Amrita, only half-joking.“
“ Bhejti hun (I’ll send it),” she told her sheepish daughter over the phone, but only after giving her the grief of how she always keeps spending all their money.
Neither did Amrita know that on Wednesday at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, Tulika would come back from the brink of defeat against the highly rated Sydnee Andrews of New Zealand. Tulika muscled the Kiwi over her shoulder for an ippon to seal victory and reach the final of the over 78kg category.
Tulika, who is six feet tall and weighs 95kg, most of it solid muscle, flexed her biceps and roared in Amazonian celebration on making the final. Later, the 23-year-old came within a minute of winning a historic gold before being denied by the top seed, Scotland’s Sarah Adlington.
The mother and daughter have an unusual dynamic. Was there a tearful farewell when Tulika left for the airport? “Absolutely not. I told her leave and don’t come back. I’m spending all our money on you and have nothing left for myself or your (younger) sister.
Mujhe khel se matlab nahin hai, bas paison se matlab hai. Sab kuch kharch kar deti hai (I’ve no interest in her game, just my money. She spends everything I have),” Amrita said with feigned resignation, dishing out the famed Jat humour that is often a telling combination of straight-shooting and a deadpan delivery.
Amrita shared her time with with Sportstar before Tulika took on Adlington and after the bout. As her daughter competed in the final, she pulled out her japmala (a loop of prayer beads) and prayed in front of the idol of Thakurji, her term of reverence for Lord Krishna. Neighbours and relatives urged her to watch the bout, but she did not dare. “I’m too scared to do it,” she said, fending them off.
Amrita has had to play both good cop and bad cop with Tulika. “I am not actually a tough mom, but you have to be sometimes. Especially when you’re a single parent. If I get lenient with her,
Behind the humour, there’s pain. Amrita lost her husband, Deepak Maan, when Tulika was just two years old. Deepak, who ran a redline (private) bus service, was shot dead, in a business dispute, according to Amrita.
Always raised to be independent, Amrita was the first woman of her family to get an education and hold a job – as a constable with the Delhi Police. Having joined the police force in 1991, Amrita’s work kept her away from home at odd hours. “I’ve mostly done field work. I was an investigations officer for 12 years at Rajouri Garden police station.” Amrita is currently posted at Tis Hazari court.
There was little concept of maternal care when Amrita started rebuilding her life. Back then, when she went to work, she would leave Tulika with her uncle, a Delhi Police officer. A few years later, she started leaving Tulika by herself at home.
Left alone, Tulika would get extremely bored. “She was very lonely by herself, so, she would keep pestering me to give her a brother or sister. So, I thought I’d put her in a sport just to keep her from getting bored. I did not have any idea about judo, but there was a martial arts academy near our house. It was complete luck that it was a judo academy. It was run by a woman and relatively cheap. I knew Tulika could at least spend two hours a day there,” said Amrita.
While it may have only meant to be a form of daycare, Tulika would end up finding a home as a judoka. It was a sport she enjoyed for it allowed her to express herself. “From the beginning, Tulika was a tomboy. She always played football with the boys. When she would wear a skirt to school, the neighbours would comment: ‘Look how Ganga (Tulika’s nickname) is wearing a skirt.’ It was funny to them. It was strange for me as well. I’d tell her: ‘Seeing you in a skirt is like seeing a Bagpiper (a whiskey bottle) in a car. It just doesn’t look right.’ But judo, that’s where she felt she belonged. Every evening when I’d come home from work to pick her up, they’d say what a good judo player she was,” said Amrita.
Tulika Maan (centre) dressed up as an Indian deity while celebrating a festival with her family.
| Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT
Tulika found encouragement from others around her, too. “Whenever she won a tournament, her school principal would announce her name in the assembly. That of course would go straight to her head. Then she won a national school tournament and
Amrita wanted Tulika to study but supported her daughter’s decision to give judo top billing, albeit in her own way. “I wouldn’t appreciate her openly. She’d say she won gold and I’d say what’s so great about that. I used to think if I responded this way, maybe it would motivate her even more.
“But I’d do everything else. Pack her clothes, cook, and drop her to places. Sometimes, I’d have to wait at the station, waiting for her to return while having duty. And then I would plead with my superiors to give me a half-a-day’s leave or compassionate leave. I had to do this. There wasn’t anyone else after all,” said Amrita.
Tulika prospered under this tough love. For the most part, she took advantage of her size. She was always the biggest and tallest girl around. With few women judokas competing in the super heavy (78kg+) weight division, Tulika did not have much competition to overcome domestically. As an 18-year-old, Tulika won her first senior national title at the weight.
Eventually, though, it became too much. Encouraged by cynical coaches to simply get bigger, even at the expense of technique and fitness, Tulika slowly started losing interest in the sport. At the Asian Games trials in 2018, she lost both her matches. She weighed in at 130kg then, most of it not in muscle.
Yashpal Solanki, her coach now, recalled, “She couldn’t even jog or lift weights then. She had no stamina and little balance.”
Solanki, who reached the bronze medal match at the 1998 Asian Games, was initially hesitant to work with Tulika, who had another coach. He had built an impressive career in coaching after his days as a competitor. His student Avtar Singh had qualified for the Rio Olympics.
He advised Tulika, but resisted taking her on as a full-time student. Amrita, however, did not relent. “She kept insisting and eventually I agreed.”
By then, Solanki had taken up a job with the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Bhopal. Tulika, with her mother’s support, followed. For Amrita, it was a simple decision. “When I was a young girl, I was the first in my family to get a job and become independent. When Tulika said she wanted to go by herself to a different city to pursue her judo, I couldn’t say no.”
Of course, as usual, she did let Tulika know how much all this cost. “People would tell me how my GPF (General Provident Fund) never seemed to have any money. And I would tell Tulika it was all her fault,” she says. Barely 19, Tulika moved to Bhopal and rented an apartment outside the SAI campus in Bhopal. She stayed put for two years before eventually earning a place in the judo camp.
Solanki worked on her fitness and confidence. Both are linked, according to the coach. “She was extremely overweight and not only did this make her a weaker judoka, it also made her very self-conscious about her appearance. You know how society is about women who are of a heavier build!”
He made Tulika work on developing her explosive strength and endurance. “She has lost 35kg. Now, she’s almost all muscle. Earlier, she couldn’t bench press more than 40kg and couldn’t do a single free squat. Now she benches 85kg and squats 120kg for repetitions. Earlier, she would run a 400m lap in 2 minutes. Now she does it in a minute and 15 seconds,” he said.
Tulika also benefited from a host of supportive judokas including Olympian Avtar Singh and Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Vijay Yadav. “They are like brothers to her and motivate her. They keep pushing her because they believe in her potential. In fact, they tell Amrita ji that they are her sons,” said Solanki.
Amrita chuckled when asked about this. “More mouths to feed,” she said. “Every time they come to Delhi, they camp in my house expecting me to cook for them. If I don’t cook, there will be a whole line of food delivery men outside our house.”
As Tulika’s judo career blossomed, her expenses rose. “She had to travel for competitions. The government pays for some tournaments, but we pay for many more. Then there is kit and diet. I always complain to her that she’s eating me out of my house. I sometimes tell her if judo doesn’t work out, I’ll find three houses for her and have her wash dishes,” said Amrita. She is quick to add in the same breath, “But I’m her mother after all. Of course, I’ll pay.”
Tulika’s self-confidence skyrocketed after she moved to Bhopal, according to Amrita. Her daughter changed in other ways, too. “Suddenly she became very girlish. It shocked me because she started wearing dresses and sarees. She’s changed so much now, so much so that now she wants my clothes from when I was ‘younger and thinner.’ I was so surprised but then she said, ‘Maa, are you not happy? After 23 years, your daughter is born.’”
Amrita’s response to such cajoling is on expected lines. “So, that’s going to be even more expenses for me.”
Tulika Maan (Extreme Left) during the medal ceremony of the women’s 78 kg category Judo event at the Commonwealth Games 2022.
| Photo Credit: PTI
For Solanki, Tulika’s judo career has been reborn, too. “She’s a lot more aggressive now. She doesn’t give up after going down a point.”
This never say die spirit, coupled with improved stamina and strength, is what Tulika displayed in her bout against Andrews. Down early by a point, against a judoka who outweighed her by 10kg, Tulika stayed calm and countered with devastating effect.
Despite her loss in the final, Solanki is confident about Tulika’s growth. “She’s incredibly talented. If she keeps working hard, she could break India’s medal jinx at the Asian Games (the last of India’s five medals in judo came in 1994). She has the potential to reach the top eight at the Olympics,” he said.
Those are a distance away. For now, late on Wednesday night, Tulika called up her mother after the final and had news. “This time she wanted to tell me she’s got something for me,” said Amrita. The police officer-mom has an inkling it will be her money that will be spent for that something, a likely piece of memorabilia to go along with the silver medal.