Bareilly. "First my family stopped me. Then the villagers taunted me – 'you are a girl and you want to play hockey'. But just because I was born in a poor farmer's house in a small village does not mean that I am willing to give up my dream. I will not let these circumstances stop me from winning medals for my country." Though the words come from Bira, they are echoed by the dozen-odd hockey-playing girls of Bareilly's Masit village.
They may not have a hockey ground to play in, they may not have proper sports kits or even shoes. But whatever they lack in material facilities, they make up for with their enthusiasm and determination. They have big dreams – of wearing the sky blue uniform of the Indian team, of playing international hockey and of hearing the national anthem being played out when they stand on the winner's podium.
Masit village is about 30 kilometers from Bareilly. There is an amazing fascination for hockey here – not so much among the boys, but rather among the girls. These girls eat hockey, sleep hockey and dream hockey. For them, the game is a way of forgetting that they come from a poor family, that they are 'just girls', that all they can dream of is running a home and looking after children. When they are playing, they have just one aim – to score. They want to score a goal for the empowerment of women, to show the world, that they are not 'just girls'.
Their families are poor. Everyone in the family works – if the father drives an autorickshaw, the mother works in someone's house and the brother works in the fields. For these hockey players, also, life did not offer them the luxury of dreams. But that was before. Now, through their passion for hockey, they are trying to change their destiny.
Upasna studies in class XI. She used to play bare-feet and with a borrowed hockey stick. She tells about the day that their world changed. "We had gone to play kho-kho in the stadium. There we saw some girls playing hockey. It was thrilling to see them dressed in their sports kit, running with the stick, passing the ball, scoring goals. We were all so excited. That moment itself we all knew that we also wanted to play hockey. Not just play – but play for India and win medals," she says.
But it was not so easy. There was opposition from all corners. "My family did object, but I was determined. And seeing my passion, they finally gave in. But they had no money to give me. I did not have a hockey stick, I did not have shoes. All I had was passion," she says.
She and her friends would go to the stadium to play. The coach there would let them borrow hockey sticks for one hour. "That one hour was not enough, but we made the most of it. We would play with full determination and put in all our effort into the game. And it paid off. Seeing our dedication, the stadium management gave us permission to play for longer," she says.
Tapping and dribbling
"When we had just started going to the stadium to practice, the villagers used to make so much fun of us. They would say, 'look at those girls playing a boy's game'. But we did not care about any of the taunts and comments. We just kept playing. And as we kept getting better, they had to shut up.," says Bira.
The nay-sayers were served their just desserts when one fine day the pioneering hockey-playing girls of Masit village were called in front of a stadium full of players and spectators after a university level match and felicitated. "The same people who had taunted us first, after seeing us being feted in front of the huge crowd, returned to the village and organized a big ceremonial welcome for us in our own village," she says.
Now, the whole village supports them and says, Chak de!
The man who supported the girls from the beginning is Coach Mujahid. He is the man who let the girls play with his team's hockey sticks at Bareilly stadium when they were just starting out. "I was moved when I saw the amazing enthusiasm these girls from Masit village have for the game. Initially, when they came to me, I thought that their interest in hockey was just a passing fancy. But then I saw their passion, I saw how driven they are. I was quite surprised to see their dedication. Some of these girls have the latent talent to become champions. Some have quite excellent tapping and dribbling skills. Some of these girls have already played at the district level," he says.
Apart from their dedication to the game and their love for it, what works in the favour of these girls is their rural upbringing. Due to living with physical hardships, they have the key quality that every sportsperson needs – stamina. "To play any sport, you need strength. These girls are very strong. Their village upbringing has also improved their stamina. They practice on the uneven kuccha village roads. They do all the household chores and also work in the fields. All this physical activity has improved their ability to play hard for hours without feeling tired. Now that they are getting a platform, I am sure that some of them will certainly make it to the international stage," says Coach Mujahid.
Villages are home to a lot of hidden sporting talent: Sanjeev Jindal, social worker
"I came to know of these hockey playing girls via social media. When I met them I came to know that they were in desperate need for equipment. They did not have their own hockey sticks or even shoes. They would get hockey sticks only for an hour at the stadium. I shared their story with my friends and all of them expressed a desire to help them. So with their help, we got hockey kits for them," says social worker Sanjeev Jindal.
"I want to encourage these girls. I am sure that rather than the cities, there are more talented sportspersons in our villagers, just waiting to get discovered. If we are able to provide facilities like playgrounds, basic equipment and coaches to them, I am certain it will rain medals in India. Interestingly, I have seen girls to be more enthusiastic about sports than boys," he adds.
Jagriti, another team member, says, "There is no place to play in the village – neither do we have playgrounds nor do we have playing fields in the school. This lack of basic facilities is killing sporting talent in the nascent stage itself. We only know how we struggled to get the recognition and support we have today. The stadium we go to practice in is 30 kilometers away. It is very difficult to go there every day to practice. When we cannot go to the stadium, we run around the boundary of our fields or on the cemented banks of the irrigation canal. If we have a stadium or playground in our village, it would benefit not just us, but also players in nearby villages as well," she says.