OPINION

The ground beneath their feat

Siwan’s claim to fame so far has been three-dimensional: it is India’s first President Rajendra Prasad’s birthplace; it is the constituency of the jailed Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Mohd. Shahabuddin; and the district boasts of maximum remittances from abroad to Bihar — roughly 40 per cent of the Rs. 1,800 crore that flowed into the State in 2014-15. But slowly and steadily, Siwan is adding a fourth dimension — or a third claim to fame if you will. A group of young girls of Mairwa block is overturning the all-too-familiar story of being pushed into child labour and/or early marriage at the expense of education. The story is unfolding almost Dangal -like, as it plays out in the boondocks of Bihar. And like Aamir Khan in the Bollywood blockbuster, it has at its centre one man: Sanjay Pathak, 43, who doubles up as the young girls’ coach, guardian, teacher and lifeline; in short, he is their life around which their lives revolve, drawing sustenance and encouragement. This, then, is the story of 70 girls in sports jerseys who sprint, lob and block — striving for perfection under their mentor’s eagle eye.

Every day, the girls set out on their bicycles furiously pedalling away the stretch of 15 km that takes them to Lakshmipur village for their daily practice on the one-acre farmland of Pathak. This is their sports complex, nestled between green paddy and yellow mustard plants, where they practise football, hockey, handball and athletics and have been winning medals at national- and international-level meets. “At least 30 of my girls have played in national/international-level games and have brought medals and laurels for the country and the State… but look at their shoes and the facilities here,” Pathak points out. All that is here is courtesy the monthly salary of Rs. 43,000 that he receives as a government school teacher, but Pathak wouldn’t talk about his sacrifices. “When I see these girls kick the ball between goalposts and run like a hyena on this uneven mud ground, all my worries vanish… what more could I ask from my life?” he asks, his eyes glistening with just a hint of a tear drop.

In Siwan, power flows from the barrel of the gun. And it’s always a man wielding it; women have little identity here. The child sex ratio of the district is skewed at 940 girls for every 1,000 boys. The prosperity that remittances have brought to the villages of Siwan has little bearing on the young girls from here.

A man and his mission

It was sometime in 2009 that Pathak claims he received a ‘divine message’ nudging him to do something for the poor schoolgirls of his native place. He identified a vacant stretch of land to kick-start his sporting mission. “Beginning with just two, footballers Putul Kumari and Tara Khatun, the numbers steadily rose to 30 in just a few months. I was very happy that the girls had even started winning medals at the district-level games and were aiming high,” says Pathak, who literally lives in his tracksuit. But alongside the achievements came taunts, ridicule, and threats at both the coach and his wards. “The rowdies taunted us saying ‘this land is not anyone’s baap ki zameen (father’s land)… it’s government land’. We ignored them but when things got out of control and they began harassing the girls by playing lewd songs on their mobile phones, plying their motorbikes on the field when the girls would practise and throwing shards of glass pieces in the arena, I complained to the local police station. It continued,” he says, adding, “but one day, I decided enough is enough.” That was in March 2015.

Pathak decided to drive his tractor all through his one-acre agricultural field and level it. Soon, it began to take shape of a training ground. This was literally his “ baap ki zameen ”. It took another 10 days for the ground to be readied. He named the sports complex “Himeshwar Khel Vikas Kendra” and the girls’ group as “Rani Lakshmibai Club”. There is no signboard of the centre or the club, though — a few yards away from the Lakshmipur village, the playground suddenly appears amid the green paddy and yellow mustard fields, open from all sides.

Over time, Pathak firmed up the layout. Three goalposts serve as a marker: one part where the girls play hockey; the other where they practise badminton and tennis. The athletes run on the fringes of the ground. At one end is a newly constructed, unpainted changing room, a 28x18 feet hall and a 22x18 feet room meant for administrative work. The hall and admin room are locked. “They have not been inaugurated yet… we’ll do it soon,” says Pathak. A hand pump is pitched near the changing room where the girls drenched in sweat come to quench their thirst after practice. “Now, no one dares come here and tease or threaten us... my girls are safe here,” says Pathak, breaking into a smile across his chubby face.

A father of two growing daughters, Pathak lives in a joint family of nine members.

“He deserves the President’s award for what he has been doing for the girls of the area… but even the district administration is oblivious to this,” rues younger brother Basant, a railway employee.

It’s 5.30 on a wintry January morning and Antima Kumari, a gold medal-winner in 100 metres in the under-14 State and national championships, is tying her shoelaces in her ramshackle rooftop room of her home in Bilaspur village. Stepping out on her bicycle, she soon merges into a file of pedallists on a narrow serpentine path. As they reach the outskirts of Lakshmipur village, another bunch of girls joins in, hockey sticks clutched tight in hand, footballs neatly strapped on the rear carrier of the cycle. Some of them like Anisha Kumari have come from as far as Gaderia village, some 16 km away. At the Himeshwar Khel Vikas Kendra, the cycles are hurriedly parked in a corner as the girls get ready to go through their paces.

Practice makes perfect

The morning sun is not yet out and the wind is chilly. “It’s very cold sir…even the morning dew has settled on the leaves,” complains Priyanka Kumari, one of the girls. But Pathak is rubbing his palms in the field to keep warm and would hear none of it. After a short pep talk, it’s time for the warm-up session.

Soon another batch of girls arrives, picks its hockey sticks and start playing on the adjacent ground. Three little girls in running shoes take to the track. In a few minutes, the playground is buzzing with frenetic physical activity and the cacophony of girls cheering and encouraging each other.

On paper, coach Pathak has nothing to recommend him — neither a sportsman in his time nor someone who has trained for the job. But years of taking these village girls under his wing and mentoring them have honed his own skills besides that of his pupils: other than Putul, Tara and Antima, his stable has also produced national-level players such as Amrita Kumari, Nisha Kumari, Tara’s sister Salma Khatun (football), Sindhu Kumari and Khusboo Kumari (hockey) and Mamata Kumari and Neelu Kumari (handball). “There are about 30 players of this ground who have played national and international matches [at various age divisions],” boasts the coach, in between shouting out instructions as some dribble with their sticks, others feint and dodge past opponents with the ball, and still others zip past on the running track ringing the field.

It’s 8.30 a.m., pack-up time. “The girls should be in their schools by 10 a.m.,” says Pathak. The playground gets deserted as bicycles once again zoom past narrow dirt paths taking the girls home.

Daring to dream big

Pathak’s unswerving devotion to his cause has offered a lifeline to girls who couldn’t have dreamt of a future beyond Lakshmipur village, let alone Mairwa block or Siwan. Tara and Salma Khatun’s father Sudhan Ansari runs a roadside vehicle puncture shop to support their family of 15, which lives in a half-constructed roadside hall with partitions made of thin curtains in Mudyari village. Tara had gone to France to play in the school football world cup in 2014. Salma is a national-level footballer too, and sisters Sarla and Sabra have taken to the game as well. “Initially it was tough for us to allow our girls to play football… the relatives and the villagers taunted and ridiculed us. But now, after they have won laurels and their photos appeared in newspapers, we’re happy with whatever they are doing,” says Rasulla Begum, their mother.

Similar stories abound. Nisha, who has been to Kathmandu and Tajikstan in 2016 to participate in under-16 football competitions, is the daughter of electrician Ranjit Yadav. Amrita, who has played in Sri Lanka in 2013 and captained the Indian girls’ under-16 football team in Bangladesh in 2015, is the daughter of Shambhu Prasad, a vegetable vendor in Gurugram, Haryana. Putul, whose father Ravindra Prasad sells sweets at a roadside shop near the temple in Mairwa Dham village, couldn’t make it to the Indian under-16 women’s football contingent that went to Jordan for the Asian football championship because her passport was not ready in time. “It was bad luck but one day she too will go to a foreign land to unfurl the Tricolour,” says her proud father. Putul is fifth among seven sisters and a brother. Three sisters are already married and one is set to marry in April this year. “But I’ll let Putul continue with her game and let her marry whenever she wishes,” says Ravindra, glancing at his 17-year-old daughter.

“This is just the beginning. The younger lot like Kajal Kumari and Shruti Kumar are the real players to watch out for, and they would certainly play for the senior Indian women’s football team provided politics does not play a part in player selection,” asserts Pathak. Ten-year-old Kajal, whose father Navrangi Bansfore rears pigs, comes from a Mahadalit family. “She is an all-rounder... plays football and hockey with equal ease, but she excels as a sprinter,” says Pathak. His pupil, sporting running shoes that are beginning to give away, smiles from a distance. “I like running the most.”

Promises to keep

Back home, space is always at a premium. Some of the girls have stacked their medals in large trunks, gunny bags and on the cemented racks below the roof in the room. The room of their coach too is crammed with medals, trophies and shields won the girls and awards for him. None of the girls have televisions in their households, except Antima who has a black and white “Hybon” brand TV set in her tiny room on the roof. But they all have their idols to swear by. “[Lionel] Messi and Ronaldo are my favourite players for their dribbling, running and precision-passing skills,” gushes Nisha. For Amrita and Putul, Messi is the best of them all. “No player has control on the ball like him… he is a true magician,” says Amrita. For Tara and her sisters, it’s David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane. “For their simple skills,” they say.

No television, but have they seen the much-talked-about Dangal ? No, not even the coach. “We’ve heard that the movie is inspirational for players like us… its story is like ours but we can’t afford to go to the theatre and watch it… let its HD version come and we’ll download it on someone’s mobile phone,” giggles Amrita.

The only regret these girls have is that they’re not getting any government support for their endeavour. “Whatever we have is provided by our coach Sanjay sir… the playing field, boots, jerseys, T-shirts, footballs, hockey sticks, he gives us money for our travel expenses to play matches outside the district… he is our everything,” they echo in unison. “I spend Rs. 12,000 of my salary every month and get some donations from close friends and kind villagers for the girls to play the sport… the changing room for the girls has been constructed with a donation of Rs. 3 lakh from some good Samaritans,” says the coach, hoping that the State administration in Patna wakes up to their plight.

It’s 3.30 p.m. and the girls are back on their bicycles heading for the playground. The sun is slowly turning a shade crimson and the swirling fog gradually enveloping the village fields in a cold embrace as they furiously pedal to reach the Kendra by 4 p.m. The morning routine repeats itself until around 6 p.m., when it’s time to call it a day. The girls are homeward-bound, but the saga of hope, courage and promise will unfold again in the morrow.

When I see these girls kick the ball between goalposts and run like a hyena on this uneven mud ground, all my worries vanish… what more could

I ask from my life?”

Sanjay Pathak