On Tour – Rugby, Trekking and More Rugby in India

By Rupert Melville-Ross

Having heard so much about the Jungle Crows and Khelo Rugby and after spending some months planning our trip we finally arrived in Kolkata on 7 December where we were met by the indomitable Nanda who delivered us to our hotel through the smog and late afternoon chaos of Kolkata.

After checking in at the hotel we were glad to get back amongst the atmosphere of the streets in the nearby New Market area and the next morning to Crow Field on the maidan for the Saturday rugby academy.  We were greeted at Crow Field by hordes of enthusiastic kids and shook hands with each and every one of them.  Ollo then handed out the rugby kit which Culford school had kindly donated to the charity and which the lads proudly wore for the rest of their training session.

We were then invited to play a game of touch rugby with some of the older girls who proceeded to teach us a rugby lesson.  They had some great skills and were too good for an old bloke like me who hadn’t played rugby for years.  It was great fun and wonderful to see all the kids playing with huge smiles on their faces.  It was also a surprise to see the older boys wearing rugby boots and playing full contact rugby to a good standard with scrums and line outs.

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Lots of children…Crow Field, Kolkata

From Crow Field it was a scramble back to the hotel and then to the airport for our flight up to Siliguri with Nanda and Suku.  At Siliguri we met up with the remainder of our trekking gang, Roshan, Kisan and Nipen and were driven up the long and winding road up the side of the Himalayan foothills to Darjeeling.  After a brief stay in Darjeeling we drove further into the hills through strange pine forests to the head of the Sandakphu trail at Maneybhanjan.

After dealing with various formalities in Maneybhanjan we set off up the road to the gompa at Chitrey and then on foot for the first day of trekking along the border with Nepal.  It was a fairly gentle introduction wandering in the sun through parched meadows and rhododendron woods where the Indian lads saw snow for the first time which meant a fair bit of messing about while it was flung about and stuffed down the back of people’s shirts.  By lunchtime it had clouded over and after rice and dhal served to us by a grumpy old crone (the sister of a friend of a friend as it happens, not that she seemed remotely interested) and where some poor chap in another group was bitten on the leg by her dog, we wandered through the mist up to our first lodge at Tumling.

The time before dusk was filled by a stretching session in the gloom led by the pink Nanda (so named on account of his pink earmuffs and rucksack) followed by flinging a mini rugby ball around which regularly disappeared down into the ravine on the India side of the trail.  As night fell we retreated to our dormitory on the top floor of the lodge.  It was extremely cold by our standards but I pitied the poor Indian boys who would never have experienced cold like it and hid in their beds each evening in the unheated dormitories, emerging only for food.  Poor Nipen in particular was stunned into silence; Atty’s coat came into its own, however.  The only slightly warm place at Tumling was a room which a monk used as his shrine where Ollo and I sat contemplating life with the monk and his several dozen candles.  Otherwise, we cowered in our beds only emerging to carry out our evening ablutions under the stars on the crenellations alongside the nearby track.

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A Pink Nanda

It was still very cold the following morning (ice on the inside of the windows) but the cloud had stayed away so we awoke after not much sleep to stunning views of the sunrise over Kanchenjunga and the surrounding mountains.  After staring at that for a while and taking far too many photos we had a rudimentary breakfast then packed up and headed off for the next day’s trekking.  It was a longer and harder walk than on the first day, especially as we had to descend through the bamboo and rhododendron forest into a deep valley and up the other side.  Kanchenjunga was our companion for much of the day and after a couple of hours we caught our first sight of Everest flanked by Lhotse and Makalu in the distance.  The lads were much more vocal once they had warmed up in the sun and their superior fitness (to mine at any rate) began to show.  I was glad that Nanda the pink guy seemed in no rush and was permanent back marker throughout the trek, often with me.

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View of Kanchenjunga

During the trek we began to hear some of the lads’ stories which were deeply humbling and gave us a sense of how successful the foundation has been in transforming young people’s lives and of how it is constantly renewing itself with young talent coming through from the most unpromising of beginnings.  It was a privilege to spend time in their company and to learn how far they had travelled, both literally and metaphorically.  It made all of us English guys in the party reflect on our good fortune.

We spent another uncomfortable night at Kalipokhri, this time in a cold tin hut.  We did have supper and breakfast (rice pudding) in an adjoining wooden hut with a friendly family who did their best to make us feel comfortable.  The only fire in evidence was the one they used for cooking in the corner of the hut, I have no idea how these people survive the bitter winter temperatures at an altitude of well over 3,000 metres without a proper fire and insulation (they seem to prefer to leave their doors and windows open at night).  Theirs is a hard life.

We were greeted by another fine dawn on our final day of trekking up to Sandakphu.  The views again made the effort more than worthwhile.  It was a hard steep slog in the thinning air up to the top and Atty became the first (and only) person to lose his breakfast on the way.  Everyone seemed to get stronger as the trek went on though which meant that by lunchtime we were all up at Sandakphu, a strange place perched on a hill at about 3,700 metres, but the views were fabulous.  After some lunch most of the team rested up while Jim, Crofter and I continued on (without heavy bags, what joy) for an afternoon stroll with more incredible views along the ridge towards Phalut and back again.

The first two nights of the trek might have been cold but Sandakphu was beyond freezing.  Layering up with every single item of clothing in the bag plus two blankets and two heavy duvets failed to work, I was frozen to the bone.  Thankfully it was worth it as the dawn views of the Himalayas from Jomolhari in Bhutan in the east across to Kanchenjunga and then the Everest range in the west were out of this world.  The Crows flag was duly unfurled in celebration before we retreated back down to the lodge for hot chai and eggy bread.

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Makalu at Dawn

The journey in Land Rovers back down from Sandakphu was a bit of a nail biter, two hours of being flung round precipitous corners hanging over deep mountain valleys was not good for those with a moderate constitution.  It was good preparation for being driven by Suku in Kolkata, however, and we all made it down in one piece and after a lunch in someone’s house which had been miraculously rustled up (the lunch, not the house) we headed off back down the mountain through the tea plantations and on to traffic choked Siliguri and then to Saraswatipur where we arrived in the dark.  After dumping our kit in the village church we headed off down the lane to Aunty’s house where Roshan also lives with his rugby trophies for some welcome beer and food around the fire.  It turned out that Aunty’s parrot was called Rupoo, no prizes for guessing my new name for the rest of the trip…

That night we all bedded down on mats on the church floor and slept the sleep of the righteous.  The church doubles up as a school so we were greeted in the morning by hordes of cheeky kids in the playground outside.  Jim led a morning stretching session with the kids which caused much hilarity.  After an Aunty special for breakfast we then embarked on a walk across the river plain and then through the jungle with rugby balls and a gang of teenage kids who were keen to show us round.  This took up most of the morning and ended up on the village rugby ground which is flanked by the jungle and tea plantations on two sides and the village on the other two sides.  An impromptu cricket match followed with stumps and bats rustled up from somewhere; a feature of the game was people crossing the pitch carrying firewood collected from the neighbouring jungle.

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Jim’s Morning Exercises

Late afternoon was Crows rugby with the guys and girls who had accompanied us in the jungle plus dozens more.  Again the standard was good, especially among the girls, some of whom had superb handling skills and were a match for the boys.  It was also great to see Kisan and Nipen come alive in a warm place with a rugby ball in their hands.  Once again we joined in, this time on a full sized pitch which was a real challenge for me.  The best thing about the whole thing was the way all of the kids embraced the game, playing with real verve and with beaming smiles on their faces.  It was also terrific to see so many girls taking part, I suspect that the idea of girls doing anything other than being at home and raising a family will have been anathema to the older generations in the village.  Instead they have the opportunity to take part and play in rugby tournaments across India, something they would not have dreamed of only a few years ago.

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Jungle Rugby

Kisan kindly invited us all to eat with him and his family in the next village that evening.  As we sat round the table by the light of the fire scooping up our food with our hands I reflected on the kindness and generosity of all of our hosts at Saraswatipur, they all welcomed us into their homes with open arms and seemed genuinely pleased that we were there.  We were sad not to be able to spend longer at Saraswatipur, we all loved it there and it was a wrench to leave.

Much of the next day was spent returning to Kolkata where we arrived in time for the annual children’s party hosted by the governor of West Bengal at the spectacular Raj Bhawan, formerly the viceroy’s residence.  It was again great to see so many kids from orphanages and deprived areas of the city enjoying themselves, even just for one afternoon.  It was also good to see all the young leaders from the Jungle Crows taking on the responsibility for looking after the children and making the event run smoothly.  They were all a credit to Paul Sir.

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Governor of West Bengal with the Jungle Crows

Our final day together as a group was spent back at Crow Field for more academy rugby, a bit of culture and then a visit to one of the slum areas near the docks for some impromptu rugby with a bunch of scrappy but enthusiastic kids who again embraced the game and the opportunity to play.  They then insisted on giving us all a tour and proudly showed off their homes and very surprised families, in particular their poor mothers who were not expecting us and had to rustle up tea for us all.

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Hyde Road 

We had an awesome time in India, thanks in the main to all of our Indian hosts who went out of their way to look after us, especially the wonderful Nanda.  Yes Nanda and Antara, if that invitation to come to your wedding in 2020 still stands we will all be there.  Careful what you wish for…

We were all moved by the great things that the foundation does and the opportunities it has given to so many people, it is a wonderful thing.  You can count on our continued support and we will spread the word.  Khelo Rugby!

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On Tour – The Team!

www.junglecrows.net

 

 

 

More Than Just A Try

The empowering change a game can have on a community.

by Ramona Sen, Author and Journalist

The girls from Saraswatipur are disappointed that they couldn’t participate in the Asian Games, the most high-profile tournament for the Indian rugby women’s team. Their hopes were soaring when the team was approved for the preparatory camp and cruelly dashed when the Indian Olympic Association decided to leave rugby out of the final Indian contingent.

“Some of our friends from the other states even left their jobs to come practise for this,” said Swapna Oraon, one of the first from her tiny tea-garden hometown in North Bengal to have taken to rugby.

Her disappointment is understandable. Swapna, Sandhya and many other young girls in Saraswatipur have been given a new lease of life after they discovered rugby. These are girls whose lives had been mapped out since they were tiny tots – scrape through class 10 and get married as soon as possible. Now, with the advent of rugby, marriage is no longer a matter of compulsion; they have the luxury of choice.

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Sandhya and Swapna: disappointed with the Asian Games decision but determined to keep playing

Rugby has put Saraswatipur on the map. “Our village is in the middle of the woods, no one knew it existed. But now we have out-station visitors and many people come to watch us play,” said Sandhya Rai, who attends George College in Sealdah, central Kolkata. She likes the big city, in spite of the serenity she has been used to. “Transport is available so easily in Kolkata. In Saraswatipur, we used to travel a long way to go anywhere and if we didn’t find transport, we would have to cancel plans.”

The game has made the village more cosmopolitan than it could have ever imagined being. Now its young girls wear shorts and dash about a field, like boys, driving the boys to the sidelines. Not that it was a smooth transition from playing doll to playing ball. “My uncle used to constantly tell my mother it was obscene of me to be seen with bare legs. But she’d always tell him to mind his own business,” said Sandhya. The censure isn’t limited only to the older generation, unused to seeing their womenfolk scampering about a sporting field. “Girls my age are married and raising children. They never took to rugby, or they tried and couldn’t play, and now they’re jealous and talk about us behind our backs,” said Sandhya, who is 17.

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Sandhya in action for West Bengal

Do the globe-trotting rugby girls, back from Paris and Singapore, assume that marriage and babies is not for them? Not at all. They like the idea of a boyfriend, preferably an athlete himself, someone who will understand equality. They face no discrimination on the field and don’t think they can ever settle for it in their inter-personal relationships. This, if anything, is the biggest change the game has brought about. For the first time, girls from Saraswatipur can dream of equality. “My husband should never be able to throw his money in my face and tell me I’m dependent on him forever,” articulates Sandhya, firmly. She understands the need to have the wherewithal to make her own life as well as inspire younger girls in the village to follow this not-so-beaten path.

Perhaps there really is something about sport that lends clarity of thought. The girls have learnt to be optimistic but practical about the life that lies before them. Though they’ve grasped an opportunity with all the doggedness of a forward, they see the struggles awaiting them – of having pinned their life’s ambitions on a game that might receive rejection from governing bodies, of making their peace with defeat at international tournaments “because the other team was bigger and stronger”. And through it all is the will to live a life that makes a difference.

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Swapna breaks through for West Bengal

Read more about what we do at: www.junglecrows.net

Little Humans of Saraswatipur

Originally published by Leher, as part of their #LittleHumans blog series here we profile five children from Saraswatipur – hear about them and their ambitions.

by Noah McDaniel

Saraswatipur, a cluster of picturesque villages situated around sprawling tea gardens in the north of West Bengal is about 30 kms away from Siliguri. Positioned on the banks of the Teesta River, on the edge of the jungle, one can’t miss the view of the Himalayas on a clear day. The predominant line of work is at the tea estate – picking and processing tea leaves. From a population of 2000 people, 1500 people are employed by the tea factory, passed down across generations.

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Today, this tucked away little village is being known for more than just its tea. News from the region boasts of the burgeoning young talent on the rugby field. In 2012, Father George Matthew was transferred to Saraswatipur to head a local parish. He noticed the athletic potential of the children and reached out to the Khelo Rugby team, to bring the program to the village. Within a few weeks, two coaches moved to the village and the program was set up within a month. Ever since, the program has seen unprecedented success with the children of Saraswatipur playing for the West Bengal state and national Indian rugby teams.

Khelo Rugby brings adventure, challenge and excitement to the lives of children. Present in Kolkata and parts of West Bengal, this program has also made its way to Afghanistan and Pakistan, reaching out to children from disadvantaged communities by incorporating sports as a social development tool. Managed by youngsters themselves, Khelo Rubgy is building this program with scholarships and a curriculum of social issues.

This week, we bring you stories of Little Humans from Saraswatipur for whom the rugby field is now second home.

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Eliyas is a very smart 8th grader, studying at the Rajaranga National Hindi High School. He excels in all of his classes, but Hindi is his favorite.

Yet, Eliyas’s passion is playing rugby. He has been playing for 4 years and never misses practice. His favourite positions are center back and flanker and he is always chosen to throw the ball in during line outs. He brags that he is the best passer on his team and can pass accurately to his left and his right.

When he finishes 12th grade, Eliyas wants to move to Kolkata. He has heard many stories of the city from friends and family who have been there.

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Sonali is 12 years old and is in the 8th grade at Katalguri Junior High School. She loves History because she wants to learn about how people lived a long time ago. Her mother says she is very dedicated to her studies, but waits eagerly each afternoon to play rugby.

Sonali joined Khelo Rugby in 2013. She was a little shy at first and would sit on the sidelines and watch the others play. But soon enough, she mustered the courage to play, dove right into the game and never looked back. For Sonali, although playing rugby is great fun, the most important aspect of her practice is fitness. When she turns 18, Sonali wants to join the Air Force and she knows that being physically fit is a critical component of this. She admires those who have volunteered to serve their country and wants to follow in their footsteps.

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Debaraj lives in a small hut with his parents right on the edge of the tea fields where both of his parents work. Debaraj has big plans for his future. His favorite subject in school is English and when he grows up he wants to become an English teacher.

He knows he has to study hard to achieve this goal and studies English for hours every day. But, it’s hard to find the time to study. The power goes out frequently at his house in the evenings and often elephants wander through the village looking for food and destroying the thatched huts in which people live. Debaraj recalls one night when an elephant came to his neighbour’s home and began ripping off chunks of the roof to try and get the rice he smelled inside.

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John Paul has swag, both on and off the field. In the mornings, he takes a bike to school along with the older Saraswatipur children. Most students take 30 minutes to get to school, but John Paul brags cheekily that he can make it in 20.

Both his parents pick leaves at the tea garden, but when he grows up, John wants to be a forest ranger like his uncle. Saraswatipur has weekly run-ins with wild elephants that can be quite dangerous. John’s uncle plays a crucial role in protecting the elephants and their habitat while also keeping them from hurting people in their search for food. John wishes to grow up and help protect his family and friends from the elephants and ensure that the elephants can still safely live in the jungle.

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Rehan is a shy, young, 10 year old boy who lives in the tea garden village of Saraswatipur. His day starts at 5 am every day when he gets up to do his chores and help his mother sweep, clean, and feed their livestock. After he finishes, this 5th grader packs his bag and heads to school. Rehan’s favorite subject is Bangla because he loves reading novels. Once school gets over at 3 pm in the afternoon, Rehan walks home and sits down to do his homework. Once he finishes, he rewards himself by watching Hindi serials on TV.

Although Rehan is a reserved person, he’s quite the opposite on the rugby field. He was introduced to Khelo rugby by a friend 3 years ago and has been playing rugby ever since. Speed is essential in rugby and Rehan is fast enough to play every position on his team.

When he graduates from school, Rehan dreams of following in his sister’s footsteps and moving to the big city. A few years ago, Rehan’s sister was offered a position working for Decathlon in Kolkata and Rehan hopes to work with her when he grows older.

-Thanks to Leher for agreeing to let us publish these stories on our blog – learn more about Leher from their websitefacebook or twitter!

Rumble in the Jungle

Khelo Rugby in the City gets together with Khelo Rugby in the Countryside

by Zeeshan Ali, Khelo Rugby Community Coach

To mark our India Independence Day we thought it would be a great idea to introduce two of our Khelo Rugby communities – the city children of Kolkata to their country brothers and sisters in Saraswatipur. We brought together 8 Kolkata children, 2 from Salt Lake Dhapa, 2 from Bijoy Basu, 2 from Bhawani Bhawan and 2 from Nawab Ali Park and set of late on 13 August night on the Darjeeling Express from Sealdah Station.  Myself, Owen (a UK volunteer), Sanu and Amirul were responsible for making all the arrangements and though it was a late night train, the excitement meant none of us really slept properly.

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Starting out from Kolkata by train – excitement building

After a long 10 hours train journey, we reached Siliguri.  From there Father Mathew George of Salesian College drove us through the forest to Saraswatipur. During the ride through the jungle all the children were astounded by how beautiful it was, extra green and lush because of the monsoon rains.  It was a completely different level of experience for the children who had all been born and brought up amidst the huge buildings and busy streets of Kolkata. After the one hour drive we reached the village, which is surrounded by tea plantations on all sides – so now the Kolkata kids found out where tea came from!  We were warmly welcomed by everyone in the village, especially Amirul who everyone in the village knows very well after he lived there while setting up the Khelo programme. After a quick wash and freshen up the Kolkata kids were keen to get out and practice and see where they would be playing.

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Looking smart!

The children were astounded seeing the size and conditions of the field. These kids hardly get to play on such a lush green field in the city. We started training. Soon there were children coming from all over Saraswatipur and the surrounding villages to watch the new children playing. And before we knew it, we had 6 teams playing with all the children mixed up.  It’s always amazing how quickly kids break down any barriers and get playing together especially when they have a great sport like rugby in common.

Personally it was a second time for me to Saraswatipur, and I could see that the children’s rugby skills had continued to improve. I could clearly see that rugby had really captured the Saraswatipur children and the city boys were amazed and knew they’d have some tough games the next day.  The day ended with the Kolkata kids having made 100s of new friends and was followed by a good dinner and a good nights sleep.

Amirul takes the whistle!

Great play and Amirul on the whistle

Independence Day dawned and we observed a traditional flag hoisting by Father George. Then a few races were organised for the very small school children who weren’t taking part in the upcoming rugby tournament. Once all the races were over we kicked off with the first match of the tournament. There were 8 teams in the junior league including the team from Kolkata, and there were 4 teams in the senior league. The field was a bit muddy and water logged in some places but it didn’t affect the spirit of Khelo amongst the kids. The day was filled with great games of rugby and a high level of skill from every player in every team.

Owen ready to referee

Owen ready to referee

Although the Kolkata team had much more experience than the Saraswatipur players all the games they played were close.  I don’t think we expected them to be pushed quite as much as they were and it took all their experience to win through the tournament.  The Khelo spirit was in abundance and the day was a real festival of rugby for the children.  In the end the Kolkata Crows lifted the cup, but only after a tough final match.

Fast and Furious Action

Fast and Furious Action

In the senior league Saraswatipur Cyclone won the cup by defeating Nirpinia Thunder. After the prizes were given out, lunch was organised for all the children – thanks to the Jungle Crows Foundation for this

After spending amazing days in the village it was time for us to leave and head back to Kolkata. Just time to catch a movie and do some shopping in Siliguri. All the children were very sad they had enjoyed their time together so much and made loads of new friends. But then it left a smile on the Saraswatipur children’s faces when they got to know that Amirul and Sanu were going to stay back in Siliguri and train them regularly.  The Crows Foundation is sponsoring Sanu and Amirul to pursue their further studies in Siliguri, so they’ll study and also carry out Khelo Rugby sessions. After saying bye to everyone we left, eyes were filled with tears and faces illuminated with big smiles at the same time. The Kolkata children were really touched by the warmth they had encountered from the villagers. They want to go back again and play with them, the sooner the better.

Thanks to everyone who made the trip possible and especially thanks to my co-organisers Owen, Sanu and Amirul.

Kolkata Crows

Kolkata Crows