One of the oldest sharpshooters in the world, 80-year-old Prakashi Tomar pulls her ghoongat over her forehead and straightens her full-sleeved collared shirt over her lehenga before placing her strong hands delicately around her husband’s shoulders. Then she smiles curtly and poses for a photograph. The two exchange no words. He has never set foot inside a shooting range or watched his wife in action.

“It was a shame before. Now it’s alright,” Jai Singh, Prakashi’s husband, mutters almost inaudibly before relapsing into silence. Seated in the porch of his home and gazing into the distance, the toothless 85-year-old takes a deep drag from his ornate hookah. He hasn’t fully reconciled himself to being the husband of a star shooter. But then, in western Uttar Pradesh’s Johri village, famous for producing scores of champion shooters in recent times, most learn the hard way that success has to be pursued despite the men.

Prakashi’s home, like several others in this village in Baghpat district, is a haveli with a large neem tree in the centre of an open courtyard. It smells at once of cattle, fresh milk, and hot roti sabzi being cooked on a chulha in the open-air kitchen upstairs. From the outside, nothing will lead you to believe that every third member living under this roof is a professional shooter. Until, that is, you walk into the living room and come upon the wall-to-wall display of the family’s shooting history and accolades — these range from the Nari Shakti award conferred by President Pranab Mukherjee and an ‘Outstanding woman in sports’ FICCI award received from Governor Ram Naik in Lucknow to a certificate of appreciation from actor Aamir Khan for participation in his TV talk show Satyamev Jayate, among others.

The fame collectively garnered by their family tree can put any great banyan to shame. Three brothers Jai, Bhor and Atal Singh married Prakashi, Chandro and Prasundi, respectively.

Jai and Prakashi have eight children and 20 grandchildren, of whom their daughter Seema and granddaughters Ruby and Preeti are international shooters. Seema, in fact, became the first Indian woman to win a shotgun silver at the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) World Cup. Five other grandchildren are national- and State-level shooters.

At 85, Prakashi’s co-sister Chandro is the oldest sharpshooter in the world. Now a widow, she lives in a neighbouring haveli and has six children and 15 grandchildren. Three of the grandchildren are professional shooters, including Shefali, an international trap shooter.

Both dadis (grandmas) have won over 25 medals each in the veteran category across championships in UP, the north zone and at pre-nationals.

The two families earlier lived as one large joint family. The men farmed sugar cane and wheat, and the women cooked and tended to cattle. The chance discovery of an air pistol changed all that forever. For the ‘revolver dadis’, it unleashed not only instant fame and stardom but also fierce rivalry between the two families. The ancestral land was divided between them and they separated into nuclear families, making it all the more conducive for the women to blaze through their shooting careers and grow financially independent. The men simply looked the other way when the women wielded their guns with aplomb.

A shooting club sprouts

A kilometre from Prakashi’s home, sugar cane fields stretch for miles around. Amid the sweet, tall canes stands the village’s pride — the Johri Rifle Association. About 20 girls and a few boys are at practice. The air is still with sweaty concentration and shots ring in steady succession, the sound bouncing off the pistachio green walls. Johri’s 10-m shooting range has 30 lanes, allowing 30 shooters to practise simultaneously at any given time. The shooters, mostly teenagers as young as 12, stand sideways with their head turned over their right shoulder to face the target. Fingers gripping the pistol, they raise their right hand in a slow arc until the arm is at a 90° angle to the body. Some have an eyepatch on their left eye for added concentration.

Steadiness is everything. The 0.177-calibre air pistols are loaded with 4.5 mm pellets, one at a time. These cannot kill but can definitely injure enough to necessitate surgery. At just about half a kilo, the pistols are lighter than they appear. “But the long practice sessions require a firm grip, steady hand and a calm mind — no easy feat,” reminds Prakashi. The association currently has 65 members, half of them girls. Over the years, the range has become a mecca of sorts for women shooters, with many coming from as far as Bihar.

“At first the parents hesitated to send their girls, but now shooting has fetched our girls jobs that finance homes and their brother’s weddings,” says Dr Rajpal Singh, who founded the association in 1998. Singh was a senior research fellow at AIIMS Delhi before he learnt air pistol shooting in 1985 and participated in international tournaments. In 1988, he was briefly a shooting coach to the late former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. That year, Singh donated a part of his land and used his prize money to build the range in Johri.

Back then, like many parts of western UP, Johri was infamous for its high crime rates and violence. No girl stepped out of home except to go to school. After sunset, women remained locked indoors. There were dacoits, robbers and gun-wielding trigger-happy youth on the prowl.

Singh then had an idea. If the youth loved guns, why not introduce them to a legitimate sport that teaches them the rules of the game and earns them a gun licence in the bargain? He successfully managed to channel their energies from crime into a responsible hobby.

Today, more than 500 girls who trained at his range have found jobs in the army, navy, air force or as bodyguards and coaches in sports academies.

Heads of States invite Singh to replicate his venture across the country. He has held camps in Bikaner, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Alwar, Nalanda, Tinsukia (Assam) and Agartala (Tripura) among other places.

But he recalls a time not so long ago when he had to go from door to door to persuade girls to join the shooting camp. “Dadi Chandro was very instrumental in getting the girls out of their homes,” he says.

Chandro, then a sprightly 65, had heard about the new range and thought it would be fun to enrol her granddaughter Shefali. She had never touched a gun before. When an instructor asked Shefali to load a gun, Chandro, by way of helping her, loaded it expertly and found herself saying, “Watch”. Next thing one knew, she was standing erect, took aim and hit a perfect bullseye. Jaws dropped. Some clapped, some whistled low and some just stared and stared some more... at her ghoonghat, her lehenga, that crinkled smile and that steady hand holding a pistol like a boss. “It was electric!” she recalls.

That moment hooked her for life. She would go to the range secretly, lying to her family that she was out on household chores. Within weeks, Prakashi followed her to the range. She, too, proved a natural. Her first shot too was, no surprises, a bullseye. The dadis would stay up at night, holding a jug of water to build strength in their wrists and control even the smallest tremor in their hands. They would wake before dawn and wash the buffaloes earlier than usual to free up their day for shooting. At the range, the Tomar dadis were a sight to watch. “Yeh jayengi Kargil. Jeh ladegi jung (These two will go to Kargil to fight the war),” the men laughed.

“Dadi, don’t listen to anybody. Just keep practising. You can both win medals in the veteran category,” their 25-year-old coach, Farooq Pathan, egged them on. And they did indeed. In 2000, Prakashi made headlines in all the regional and national media as the first woman to win a UP State gold medal in the veteran category, beating a deputy superintendent of police in the process. The police officer, in deep embarrassment, had refused to be photographed with Prakashi. “Women empowerment is really required in rural India. By choosing this unique sport, difficult for our conservative society to accept, I fought for it,” she told a large audience at the Shift Series event ‘Closeted Conversations... Let’s Start Talking Again!’, a conference of women change-makers held in New Delhi in March.

The achievements of the dadis proved transformative for Johri. “Because of the dadis, families felt safe and relented when their daughters asked to join the association. The publicity they get still motivates Johri’s youth,” says Neetu Sheoran, the only Sports Authority of India (SAI) coach at the Johri range since 2007.

Fourteen-year-old Heena Ali has been shooting for the last two years. She has already won five medals, including two at UP State level. “I fought with my parents to get here. Today they are proud,” she smiles. Kajal, a 17-year-old first-year BA student from Baroth, began training recently in March. Yuvika Tomar, aged 15, belongs to a neighbouring village. “I want to get out of the village. Shooting is a doorway to the world outside. It has given me so much self-confidence,” she says.

Doli Dhinar, an 18-year-old first-year BA student, lives just a kilometre from the range. She started training some years ago. After much coaxing and, later, seeing her dedication to the sport, her family decided to buy her a pistol. A national-level shooter today, she has just bagged a job with the Indian army under a sports quota. “My family has spent ₹4-5 lakh on my training. The army will support me from now on. I must win the Olympic medal in my lifetime,” she says.

At the Johri range, 20 girls receive a monthly SAI scholarship of ₹600 and ₹4,000 a year for their kit. Singh, too, provides financial aid to several girls from needy families. Sheoran pitches in for a few more and even generously offers accommodation at her home to girls coming from far-off places.

Despite their stellar shooting achievements, the girls have to contend with their conservative families by agreeing to arranged marriages when they turn barely 20. What becomes of their sporting careers?

Sheoran, a Johri native herself, gets plenty of support from her husband and in-laws. Each day she commutes three hours from Meerut, where she now lives after marriage.

“My husband makes rotis when I reach home while my in-laws take care of my child. It is rare, I know. In most cases, the girls have to double as cook when they are home, no matter how many shooting medals they may have won outside,” she says.

The personal costs

Varsha Tomar, a striking 34-year-old international trap shooter, remembers the morning she messed her Olympic trials. It was in 2012, less than a year after her parents had arranged her marriage to Suraj Chaudhary and she moved to live with his joint family. By then Varsha had already been to 28 countries, participated in 15 championships and won six international medals. Before the wedding she had made it clear that she had her sights set on the Olympics. But soon after marriage, she found herself playing the dutiful daughter-in-law, mired in endless household chores. On the night before the Olympic trials, she had been cooking and attending to guests until 1 am. Already sleep-deprived and ill-trained, she had to finish another round of morning chores before she was allowed to leave for the trials. By the time she arrived, she had missed the first round and was already five points behind. She failed to qualify that year.

Born and raised in Baoli, a village neighbouring Johri, Varsha had since childhood watched her father go shooting for wild boars at night. In 2002, when she was in her first year at Jat College, Baroth, she managed to convince her family to enrol her at the Johri range. She started off with air rifle shooting and swiftly moved to trap shooting. “Trap felt adventurous. It requires you to remain calm as the Buddha but precise as a Samurai,” she says, when we meet in Delhi. Unlike in air pistol shooting, which involves a still target, the thrill in trap shooting lies in targeting a clay bird that is released from a spring trap and flies at 120 kmph in unpredictable trajectories. It is a hit or a miss. No in-betweens. Her double-barrelled shotgun weighs 5.5 kg, and strong shoulders are needed to withstand the forceful jerk of its recoil.

In 2003, she was selected as a lower division clerk in the army under a sports quota. This entailed going to office just four days a month, a grant of subsidised ammunition and equipment, and all the time to concentrate on her game. Her gun costs ₹6.5 lakh. The other costs, including training, ammunition, clay birds and travel, exceed ₹6 lakh a year. Though the army takes care of nearly half the expenses in the case of Varsha, for the average person, shooting still remains a sport for the rich. There are more richie-rich Abhinav Bindras in the shooting fraternity than rags-to-riches stories like that of Jitu Rai.

Varsha’s troubles began exactly a month after her marriage, when she discovered that her husband wasn’t a practising lawyer at the Delhi High Court as her family had been led to believe. Money was in short supply and, soon enough, Varsha was upbraided for spending large sums on her sport.When she had qualified for the Asian Clay Shooting Championship in Doha in 2012, her in-laws demanded she take her husband along and pay for his travel. “I had to justify every rupee I needed to spend on my sport,” she recalls. An episode of physical abuse and an internal nosebleed later, Varsha walked out of her marriage.

More than a year after her divorce, she is struggling to get her groove back. She practically has to start from scratch, which means qualify for the nationals. “Shooting is a very precise sport. If your pulse rate is over 75 you are too hyper to shoot. You need great control over your emotions,” she says, adding that’s where a family’s steadfast support matters most. “I think this is the real reason there are so few of us on top. Most women shooters have to make a compromise. Some choose to sacrifice their sport and others their marriage. It is rare to have both. This is a mental game, for which we get such little understanding in return,” confesses another international female shooter, who too is in the middle of a protracted divorce proceedings and wishes to remain anonymous.

The female patriarchs

A kaccha mud road leads to Chandro’s house. She has a rare visitor today. It is Prakashi, accompanying me. The two of them almost never talk to each other, except in the presence of media and at award ceremonies, where they come together as ‘partners in crime’ and feminist motivational speakers. As we enter the house, Chandro’s daughter-in-law, Munesh Devi, rushes forward, tugs her ghoonghat over her forehead and bends low to touch Prakashi’s feet. Except this is no ordinary sanskari show of respect. It turns into a five-minute foot massage that begins from the knees down to the toes in firm grasps, on repeat mode. All the while Prakashi talks to me, ignoring the bahu at her feet. Finally, when she feels suitably worshipped, with a touch of her hand, she releases the young woman from her abject position and sends her scurrying inside to bring us water.

“Have your daughters-in-law ever tried shooting?” I broach. “Where’s the time?” she replies off-handedly.

“But I have taught my daughters and grandchildren well,” she continues proudly, oblivious to the prejudice.

Chandro welcomes us and instantly hands me her phone. It is her granddaughter, Shefali, from Delhi, who needs to speak to me “urgently”. “Over the years, our narrative has been usurped. Dadi Chandro was the first woman to shoot. Is that clear?” she says menacingly, clearly alluding to a rivalry that’s spilled over into three generations. It almost sounds like an Anurag Kashyap film — which is perhaps why it comes as no surprise when Seema confirms that the director is, indeed, going to make a film on the shooter dadis. “Initial papers have been signed,” she says.

After the due diligence, Chandro has eased into interview mode. “I listened to all the criticism that came my way and then I simply grew deaf,” she says smiling. Twenty years later, that still remains a tough lesson for Johri’s girls to take back home.