Baraa Saanda is a backward locality, situated on the other side of Bund Road — that is, if you approach it from Islampura (earlier known as Krishan Nagar). It is inhabited by people from low-income groups who live in small houses which they share with their extended families in order to cut the cost of living. Multiple families share the rent in case they hired a house.
This part of Saanda is deprived of even the basic civic amenities — roads are worn out and narrow, and the sewerage system is usually choked. The residents are seen walking on bricks placed in the streets, to avoid falling in the pools of water especially in rainy season. Even very little rain is enough to block the drainage system.
People here are too conservative in approach. The situation of education and health facilities is also not any different. The female members of families are discouraged to step out of their houses except in emergency. The streets are full of men all the time who often make the life for girls out difficult.
A look at the abovementioned conditions and the quality of life in this locality makes one believe it is a perfect recipe for disaster. The environment is not at all conducive for people to even survive with grace, let alone making a breakthrough and excelling in any field of life. Political leaders only come during elections and after that they aren’t ever seen. But what transpired here earlier this month is something that ought to changed the popular perception altogether. One fine day, the whole locality was in festive mood and waiting for a couple of girls who had not only made them proud but the whole nation. They were holding garlands in their hands, while the children were dancing to the dhol beat. These girls were siblings named Twinkle Sohail and Sybil Sohail, and had just won home four gold medals each in the International Oceania Pacific Powerlifting Championship held in Singapore from December 7-10.
It was for the first time in the history of the country that women had participated in such a championship. There was another participant, Saniha Ghafoor, who also won gold medals in the same. Interestingly, there were a few male powerlifters also in the competition from Pakistan but they could not clinch an honour.
The Sohail sisters belong to Christian community. In an exclusive chat with TNS, they say that they did face some discrimination based on religion “but at a very limited level.” On the whole, they were hailed for their achievement.
Sohail Javed Khokhar, the proud father, says “it’s a dream come true.” A calligraphy artist and portraitist by profession, Khokhar does not earn enough to be able to cover the cost of his daughters’ training and diet. “I only know what I’ve been through all this while, and how I overcame the hurdles.”
It’s a story that is the kind of stuff films are made of. Khokhar has been a cricketer but he could not go beyond club level for lack of resources and connections. But he promised himself his children would turn into world class sportspersons. All of his four daughters and two sons are into sports, and boast achievements. The daughters — Sybil, Maryam, Twinkle, and Veronica — are all into powerlifting, while the boys (Adil and Rabil) are cyclists who have made some name in the game at the national level.
Khokhar recalls how he was initially condemned by the locals as well as his relatives “for allowing my daughters to wear track suits and participate in a tough sport [like powerlifting]. I was also warned that this would affect the other girls in the family negatively, but I stayed focused. I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
To his delight, his girls proved him right.
“Gradually, our relatives have come to support us, and also contributed in sharing the cost of the training and diet [of the girls].”
When quizzed, Khokhar reveals that their diet — which includes vitamin supplements — costs him “around Rs2,000 per day”. Besides, he has to cater for their requirements such as purchasing and replacing sports gear, travelling etc.
“My request is that the state must patronise poor sportspersons like us, so that we can win home bigger titles in the future.” Come to think of it, if they can achieve so much with their bare minimum resources, they can do wonders given help by the state and corporate sector.
Sybil, who won in the 47kg category, explains the difference between weightlifting and powerlifting: “In the former, the athletes have to lift weight above their head and stand upright with both arms fully stretched. But in powerlifting you do deadlifts in which the weight is pulled up till thighs, and benchpress which is done while lying on the bench on your back, and squats with weights resting on your shoulders.”
Sybil says that while leaving for Singapore they were hopeful but at the same time a bit concerned because they had to compete with powerlifters belonging to countries like Australia, Nauru, New Zealand, Japan, China, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Japan and others. “We succeeded in beating them in our respective weight categories despite the fact that they had immense financial support and best possible training facilities available to them in their countries.”
She also says that the participants from other countries could not believe that they had trained with such limited resources and yet beaten them at the game.
Twinkle, who won four gold medals in the 72kg category, says that as students of Punjab University they used to train at their indoor facility. “Our father made it the goal of his life to make us world champions in the sport, and he did all he could do to fulfill it in his personal capacity.”
She also thanked Pakistan’s powerlifting federation, Lord Mayor of Lahore, and their coach who supported them and even arranged air tickets “at a time when it seemed we might miss the chance.”
About the presence of a handful of people for their reception at the Lahore airport, she says she is not disappointed, “Maybe it’s because of their lack of knowledge about the sport and the importance of our achievement. But now we get visitors who honour us, every other day.”
Not surprisingly, the two girls are being compared to the Pogat sisters on whose life last year’s bumper Bollywood hit Dangal was based. Though, there is a glaring difference: the coach in the movie is intimidating, rude, extraordinarily assertive, and has no emotional attachment with the trainers. In this case, their coach, Muhammad Rashed Malik, is a fatherly figure who spent from his own pocket to cover the costs associated with preparation for the international event. He is well settled in the UK and has a career as an international referee and coach but he returned to Pakistan to train the youth.
TNS also has a word with Malik who says that Pakistani women were able to participate in international powerlifting competitions only after 2013 when the global sport body thought of allowing a gear covering their whole body. “So, you can see how the girls prepared themselves within such a short time and brought laurels to their country.”
He hopes the government will own them and the corporate sponsors will also come in, the way a bank recently patronised a female scuba diver. Right now the Pakistan Railways is providing them support but it needs to be scaled up.