Her right hand stretched out at a right angle to her torso, Chandro Tomar is absolutely still. A steady hand, she says, is what it takes to master a loaded gun. She would know. Since the late 1990s, Tomar has been competing and winning in the discipline of pistol shooting, a sport she only took up in the seventh decade of her life.
Her head covered with a pallu, a baggy shirt spilling over a ghagra (long skirt), Tomar is, for the most part, an ordinary woman from Johri village in Uttar Pradesh. But for almost two decades now, she has been an extraordinary ambassador for the sport and for her region.
“The body may be old but the mind is not,” says Tomar, 86, who was in Mumbai recently to speak at the We The Women festival curated by journalist Barkha Dutt, presented by Facebook and UN Women. The conference featured several prominent speakers, including cricketer Mithali Raj, actor Alia Bhatt, and lawyer Mrunalini Deshmukh. “One’s age can be anything, but there should be a zeal. I had it,” says Tomar.
She first won a medal—silver—in the North Zone championships in 1999, a year or so after she picked up a pistol for the first time. Tomar has since collected medals in competitions across the country, often vanquishing those much younger than her.
She would wake up early, finish the housework, supervise the tasks in the wheat and sugarcane fields, tend to the cattle, and when everything was done, she would go to the range to practice. At night, when everyone else was asleep, she’d work on the hand-stabilizing exercises, holding jugs of water, stones, and bricks to improve steadiness.
Her shooting career started when she was 65. She took her 10-year-old granddaughter to a shooting range. But the girl was rattled and wasn’t able to load her gun. “Let me do it,” Tomar recalls telling the girl. “I can help you.” She pulled the trigger and hit the bullseye. “Everybody was shocked,” says Sumit Rathi, her grandson-in-law, who was helping translate when we met Tomar. “And they said, ‘Arrey dadi!’”
Until that moment, Tomar, who never had a formal education and was married at 15, was an average woman from an agricultural family in rural India.
And it took a loaded gun to change all of that. “It was just fun,” she says. It galvanized a sense of fearlessness and confidence. She laughed at the question of whether people fear her. “Robbers no longer come to our village,” she says.
At competitions, she might have heard the odd derisive remark about showing up in a ghagra. Her children—two sons and three daughters—never said anything about her newfound passion, nor did her husband. But some of the extended family in the 40-person household did. “I shut my ears,” she says. “Let them say what they want.”
For the most part, she has retired from active competition, given the extensive public engagements and invitations she gets. Her last competitive event was in Delhi in 2016, when she won a bronze medal. Now, as an elder statesman of the range, she spends her time addressing gatherings, coaching youngsters and inaugurating facilities. And while Tomar has slowed down on competing, she shows no signs of stepping away from the game, continuing with coaching and mentorship. “Till my last breath,” she says. “I will give my life to this game.”