India’s sharp-shooter granny fighting male domination

At first glance there is nothing remarkable about Parkaso Tomar, a hardy 70-something woman who has spent most of her life working in the fields and tending to cattle in a small north Indian village. Until of course she picks up a gun and fires a volley of shots, all bang on target. She is the “shooter granny” of Johri village in Uttar Pradesh, a northern province infamous for honour killings and female foeticide. Not the best of places for girls to grow up. This is where Parkaso Tomar has become an unlikely role model, inspiring a new generation of female shooters ever since she picked up a gun for the first time. And that was well after she had turned 60.

Since then she has silenced her opponents, both on the shooting range and in the local community, with unwavering commitment and zeal. On the way, she inspired her daughter Seema to become the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Rifle and Pistol World Cup.

Aiming high

It was destiny’s calling that took Parkaso and her much older sister-in-law to the shooting range in Johri, a pretty basic facility in the middle of a sprawling courtyard where poor village children practise for hours in the searing heat. “I got my granddaughter admitted here, but she said she was afraid of coming alone so I started accompanying her. Then one day I picked up a gun and fired a shot, and it was quite good. So the coach said I should start practising and that I had the potential to be good.” And then it became a passion.

“In the evenings I would come to the range and fire some shots,” she recalls. “But even at home or while working in the fields, I would find something – a jug of water or a stone – and keep practising as if I were holding a gun.” Coach Farooq Pathan played a crucial role in helping the two grandmothers hone their skills. “They were both very observant and picked up a lot just by watching other kids practice. “The grannies were so good, a lot of the regulars stopped turning up at competitions to avoid being humiliated at the hands of a woman.”

‘Outlaws’

In these parts, a woman’s voice is seldom heard and rarely respected. So, when Ms Tomar became a regular at the range, boldly going where no woman her age had gone before, she faced ridicule every inch of the way. “Everyone poked fun at us, but my sister-in-law and I paid no heed to them. Some would say: ‘Now she will follow her son into the army. What are they trying to do? Become outlaws?'” But the grannies were made of sterner stuff, never losing sight of their goal. “We wanted to do something useful with our lives and show everyone what we were capable of – that we could excel despite our age. I was simply hooked to the sport. We were so focused that we defied all odds, beat the disadvantage of age and took part in competitions across the country.” Even now, at the age of 75, Parkaso shoots with a steady hand and a piercing gaze. And all this while the loose cloth she covers her head with flutters around in the air, only to be pulled tightly around the waist and tucked into her skirt every now and then.

The grannies may be shooting away to glory but local traditions and customs still have to be followed – covering your head with a scarf all the time is one of them. At the Tomars’ freshly-painted home, the spoils of her success adorn one of the walls. Scores of medals jostle for space with dozens of sparkling trophies.

Game changer

Success for the ladies of the house started a mini-revolution in the village. “Even the men in our family were poking fun at us initially, but when they read about our achievements in the papers and when we started bringing home medals, they said: ‘Practise as much as you want, and do it openly.’ And others who used to make fun of us would say to their wives: ‘You cook at home and work in the fields, but look at them, they are famous!'” For Ms Tomar, her first victory was the sweetest. “I defeated an officer of the rank of Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of police in Delhi. When he was leaving, someone said: at least get yourself photographed with granny.’ “The DIG said: ‘What photograph, I have been humiliated by a woman.’

“Then my coach said to him, ‘you have been humiliated by the scorecard, you have been shooting all your life, she took to the sport only two years ago!'” But medals or no medals, life at home never changed for the grannies. “There would be a huge mound of cow dung waiting for me to take care of – it is used as fuel in these parts. We never gave up our household responsibilities, taking care of the animals and all the chores.”

Inspired young

She takes great pride in her achievements, but having inspired the young makes her the proudest. Neetu Solanki is one who swears by the grandmother. She too is an international shooter, having represented India at competitions in Hungary and Germany. “The grannies are so much older than us, so we thought if they can do it, why can’t we?,” says Neetu. “They showed us the way and now shooting has changed the lives of so many of us. Some have found jobs with the army, and the exposure to life outside the village is changing our worldview. “When young girls say if Granny can do it, why can’t we? I say to them: work hard and keep your chin up and you will go places.” This is a male dominated society, a female child is not always welcome. But thanks largely to granny Parkaso, young girls and boys stand here shoulder-to-shoulder, punching holes in paper targets, and unprogressive mindsets. – Bbcnews