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

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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.

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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