Dipika Pallikal Karthik 's Tryst With A Life Full of Sport | Blume Day 2024

The keynote speaker for Blume Day 2024 was Arjuna Awardee and India’s top-ranked Women Squash Player Dipika Pallikal Karthik.

In conversation with Karthik Reddy, Blume's co-founder and Managing Partner, she spoke about growing up in an environment where playing sport was encouraged, the multiple obstacles she has faced and overcome as a squash player in a cricket-loving country, and how motherhood is slowly changing her relationship with the game.

Watch her as she continues to inspire millions across the globe, both on the court and off the court!

Karthik Reddy: Thanks again Deepika for making the effort. First thing I discovered about Deepika is we're fellow Chennai people. So, there's always special bonding between fellow Chennai folks. So I think, my favourite starting point to know a person, and I want the audience to know you, is where did it all start? What's the inspiration to pick up a squash racket? How did this journey begin? 

Dipika Pallikal Karthik: I don't know if many people know this, but I'm born into a sports family. My mom actually played cricket for the country. She captained the Indian cricket team in her days. My granddad played basketball for the country, and my grandmom was an athlete. The list goes on but I'll stop there. 

So, there was no pressure. I think it was just a responsibility for me to take up a sport and play it but having said that, I think, I'm the youngest of three girls and we are seven granddaughters and the only thing my grandparents wanted for us was to play sport. And I'm the only one who's actually gone into that, to the career of sports. 

That's how I started. I think it was just organically into the family. Yes. 

Karthik: You're the favorite granddaughter on that side. I would like to believe so, yes. And then, so what prompts someone to keep pushing yourself to first rise to the national level and then turn pro, go international, I think we specifically of the choices our friends offered, the folks who know you, we wanted Deepika on stage because it's unusual to see a woman squash player at the world stage from India and a little bit about that journey on what drives that determination at such a young age to think that big. I know everybody puts in work as a young sportsperson.

Dipika: Yeah, I think I'll give full credit to my parents. When I started playing, I was about 10 years old and all I wanted to do was play squash. I didn't want to go to school. I didn't want to go out with friends. I didn't want to go do anything else other than play squash. And they actually gave me the opportunity to do that.

But having said that, squash is a very unknown sport in the country, and this is what, 25 years, back when no one really knew about Squash. We didn't have an academy. We didn't have infrastructure. We didn't have coaches. So, I think the reason why I'm here today and what I am today with all the experiences that I have, I think I have to really thank my parents because at a very young age it was, I think for them to instill in me that it's not about winning a national championship or it's not about winning, being India number one.

It was always a bigger goal of being world number one or winning medals for the country. So, I grew up like that with that goal of trying to having a bigger goal of not just a national championships because I know at this day and age a lot of parents I think the goal stops at being national champion, and then we'll see what happens.

So I think for that I have my parents to thank but being a part of squash as well I think it was a very unknown territory for us because I didn't have any role models to look up to in the country as I can say and my parents had to find places, my parents had to find coaches, my parents had to find academies.

And at the very young age of, what, 12 or 13, I think I moved base to Egypt and I stayed there. And I did all my homework from Egypt. My mom would go back every three weeks, take my homework in a big bundle of thing, go back home and then, she would bring back notes for me to study.

So I think my journey has always obviously been very hard compared to a lot of other sports in India, but I'm very, happy that doors have opened up for squash players, not just because of me. I'm sure that there are 2-3 other people who have done extremely well for the country, but we're very happy that we've put Indian squash on the sports map of the country.

Karthik: If you heard a little bit about the panels as you walked in today, and I told you the theme for this year's edition has been, it's our 13th year, so we're also growing up. And when you look at our founders and our patterns, each of them starts building a little bit more courage incrementally every year.

And finally, we have a lot of champions across the world and the point you made to become a role model is how, that starting point is super tough. And the first companies you saw two on stage, they've been building since 2010, straight out of college. So, it seems very similar in terms of journeys.

You spoke about coaches and infrastructure. Specifically, other than your parents, did anyone play an important role? How important is it when you have to slog for 10 years at a stretch with a single minded goal? Which is very similar. That's why we equate entrepreneurial journeys with sports people and competition is not trivial anymore. 

If you're sitting in India, an Amazon will come here. If you go abroad, you're competing with 100 people. So, I'm trying to understand to try and see if there's a parallel between your mindset of how you're building against a global player and was the coaching that helped beyond your own grit? What all helped actually? 

Dipika: I think over the years, my journey can be split into different parts of the years where I was a junior. I think I was very lucky to have got success at a very young age because I was already world number one in the junior category when I was 14-15 years old.

Then, it was a decision for me to move up the ladders as in take that hard decision of whether I still wanted to play juniors and still kept winning because the competition was quite comfortable for me or try to go out of my comfort zone and start playing the senior category. And then at 16 years old to do that, I think I needed a lot of backing from my parents as well as my coaches.

And the reason why I broke into the top 10 in the world when I was only 20 was because I started, the professional circuit at a very young age. 

But I feel the important thing for me, and I keep, telling the juniors is that it's very important to put yourself in very uncomfortable situations to learn from it. 

To believe it or not, when I joined the professional circuit when I was 15-16, I did not win a match for three years. And I was like, I'm gonna hang my racket up. I don't want to be a part of this sport. What am I doing? 

But then I feel like those three years I learned so much than what I've not learned in my junior career to just be standing with the best of the world.

I was playing world number ones on a daily basis. I was playing top 20 people and I think it made it easier when I was an actual senior to migrate into the category. So, I think what I've learned is, as an athlete, I think it's very important to get out of your comfort zone, get yourself a bit uncomfortable and learn from those situations.

Karthik: And now, if you just cut to where India's at today, the big question is, it's such a large country, and you've shown that it was so difficult and challenging to move to Egypt to actually get the infrastructure and the coaching, do you think things have changed? Do we foresee 100 medals in Asia? It is great. I know you're still playing. You're still winning gold medals. But have you seen that in the 20 years? Have you become a trendsetter in squash for women? And what has changed in those 20 years? And what should we be doing as a country to see ourselves as a sporting superpower?

Dipika: Indian sport has definitely changed. I think we're growing leaps and bounds, but I feel, as an athlete, you're seeing a lot of stuff behind the scenes and I was at the Asian Games, about six months back in China. And India is doing really well. I think this is the best year for us in terms of medal tally.

But you're sitting there as an athlete, and I think I just won the quarterfinals and made it to the semis and all the headlines are, Deepika Palakkal assures a bronze. But the headlines should be, Deepika Palakkal fighting for a gold. So, I think that needs to change in the country.

I think we're very content with medal. It doesn't matter what color it is. But as an athlete, the only thing you're dreaming about, sleeping about, eating about is that gold medal. So, I think that needs to change of trying to aim higher and trying to aim for the best regardless of what backing you've got, the government backing, the sponsor backing. I think it's very important to try and aim for the best and try and achieve that. 

Karthik: Super stuff. Then maybe any fun incidents you can recall of how difficult it is for a sports person, especially in an individual sport, to battle these situations where yes, you have coaches, you have interest, but the loss is yours. The challenges are yours. You're running all over the world and sometimes our founders find it daunting that, they have to go and win these markets globally. 

And, we have a joke internally now that there's no way to win unless you displace yourself and go and contend with that. You said put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Any fun stories from, gritty stories or emotional stories from those many years of being overseas? 

Dipika: No, I see, I feel, being an athlete in India is hard. Being a women athlete in India is harder. 

So, I think there are obviously a lot of experiences and a lot of stories, but I think what is really stuck with me and I don't know if it's a funny story, but I feel like it's probably something very close to my heart that I've always been someone like who's headstrong. I've always trained with boys. I've made boys cry on court because I've always beaten them. 

So I take that on myself, like I've been always around the guys. I think what really, I'm proud of sitting here today, I might retire in a few months, but I think what really stuck with me is how I've tried to change, the equality in squash, at least.

I think this was about eight years back, nine years back when we were playing the national championships, I realized that the equal pay, it wasn't happening. When you enter these tournaments, the last thing you think about is the check that you're getting at the end.

You only think about, your national champion and that's all that matters. But for some reason, I was filling up the form as usual and just putting my entry in and then I had to sign at the end and I saw the prize money and the prize money said, 2.5-3 lakhs for the men, and it said some 20,000 or 30,000 for the women.

So I still signed it, I sent it, and then I think it just kept going on in my head, did I read the numbers wrong? I'm very bad at math. I'm very bad at numbers, so I was like, okay, something must be wrong. And I was just sitting with Saurav, who is India's number one, who is my doubles partner, happens to be my brother-in-law also.

I was like, Saurav, you guys get way more money than us and he is like yeah. So there was no like, Oh, really? He's yeah. So, I felt I've trained with the boys all my life because I've always wanted to put myself, in a higher situation where, I'm playing tougher people and then it just struck me that why are they getting paid... it's not even about money. 

I feel it's just about respect. I think, I put in the same amount of hours on court and off court, just like the men. So why am I not getting that equality? And I stood my ground. I didn't play a few national championships. I got threatened, that I won't be taken into the Indian team because the national championship is one of the selection processes.

I said it is fine. I think that was a big decision for me. Emotionally, I think a lot of people also supported me through that and I think today we stand as equal prize money for the last five years. So, I'm very proud of that.

Karthik: Outstanding. No, I knew that was a part of your story, but I'm glad it came out this way without me asking it as an obvious question. Thanks for sharing very candidly. And married to a cricketer now, so assured sports kids coming out of that stable? You have two now? 

Dipika: I have twins, yes. Twin boys. They're about two years old. Actually, one likes to play cricket, one likes to play squash. Yeah, I think it's a decision we will take, but right now I think, the family is moving towards cricket. I'll try and play my charm. 

Karthik: Early days.

Dipika: Yes.

Karthik: The other question I had is, people always laud women who go through, so many more personal changes as they become mothers, they become parents and yet, out of the blue, I don't know if people expected you to come back, but you're here, you're winning gold medals again. How was that journey? Just to inspire the women in this crowd as well. 

Dipika: It's been hard. I think it's been fulfilling. I think, when I took the break at 28. I was probably top 15 in the world, and I was playing my best squash and I was enjoying traveling around the world and doing my thing.

But suddenly, I think just one day, something clicked and I wasn't enjoying being on tour, being away from family and I wasn't getting the results I wanted. So, I decided that I was just going to take a break. It was a mutual decision with my husband and myself that, we wanted to start a family.

But having said that for me to have taken that step of, taking that break at a young age of 28, playing my best. I think I was very lucky to have had the support from a lot of people, including my parents and coaches. Coming back, it was always on the cards, but I didn't think it would have been this hard.

I've seen people bounce back, win gold medals, win Wimbledon, win French Opens. You always see the stories. You don't see the stories of what happened behind the doors. So, for me, I think it's been really hard to be back in shape. Obviously, when I got back for the Commonwealth Games, my kids were only about seven months old.

It was hard for me to process the information that I've not played for seven months and suddenly, I'm at the biggest stage at the Commonwealth Games trying to win a medal. It's been hard, but it's been fulfilling and I'm just very, very happy that the boys got to see me win a gold.

Karthik: Awesome. On that note, the wonderful Deepika Palakil. 

Dipika: Thank you. 

Karthik: Thanks again for flying in from Chennai and being a wonderful guest today. Thank you.