By Rwitoban Deb, Journalist and Sports Enthusiast
My search for the Kolkata Port Trust field in Taratala last Sunday ended with spotting a bunch of young women armed with caps, whistles, pens and clipboards strutting about with carefree confidence, commanding military-like discipline from a few hundred younger girls.
No, these weren’t seasoned teachers out on a school picnic. This was the under-14 Khelo Rugby tournament – of, by and for girls – to celebrate the UN International Day of the Girl Child on October 11.
The second edition of the tournament saw more than 250 girls from 16 deprived communities congregate from all corners of Kolkata to put the scorching sun to shame with infectious spirit and unwavering enthusiasm.
“The best thing about this tournament is that it’s been organised by the older girls for the younger ones. The seniors are now coaching the young ones, managing people, making sure the teams follow the rules… these are all valuable life lessons,” said Bruce Bucknell, British Deputy High Commissioner. The British Deputy High Commission was one of the supporters of the event and has been working towards girl empowerment across India.
A group of 50+ young women ranging from the age of 16 to 19, who have now graduated to community leaders, were tasked with organising the tournament. They had meetings before the tournament to divide up the responsibilities, from setting up the tent to organising food for all the players. This really was “A Skilled Girl Force” the 2018 theme of International Girls Day live and in action.
“Jungle Crows started off as a fascination for a few chubby, middle-aged guys but it’s amazing to see how many young women have got involved, it’s really the Spirit of Rugby live and in action!” exclaimed Shaun Kenworthy, chef and Jungle Crows supporter.
Artist and fashion leader Pinky couldn’t recall seeing this many girls play a sport in the city together. “It’s a spectacular sight watching so many girls enjoying themselves and cheering each other on. They all come from underprivileged backgrounds and many don’t even have shoes, but that’s not dampening their spirits one bit!”
The 16 teams were divided into four groups with the winners of each going on to play for the Cup, the second-placed teams for the Plate and the third-placed teams for the Bowl. The contest ended with Hide Road beating KPT Colony 12-7 in the Cup final, while Jainkunj won the Plate and Sukanta Nagar lifted the Bowl.
Winners and losers though, were only restricted to the scoreboard. There wasn’t a single glum face or any sense of disappointment because most of these girls have fought and won a bigger battle within their family, their neighbourhood and their society, just so that they could even be on the field. The pure rush of adrenaline, the raw emotion and unadulterated joy of playing a sport had been alien to them.
“Only boys were allowed to play and girls weren’t even allowed to talk to them in my neighbourhood,” complained Kanika Mondal, one of the leaders of Salt Lake Dhapa, which was echoed by many around her. And now? “Most boys are terrified of them! Boys leave the field for them or play together with the girls,” laughed Sukumar Hembrom, a senior Jungle Crows men’s player, as he looked on from the sideline.
The conversation was brought to an abrupt pause as a 10-year-old limped into the tent with a cut on her leg requiring medical assistance. Although visibly in pain and discomfort, she kept calm. While it might have seen many a grown man shed a tear or grimace in pain, this little girl just put on a band-aid and dashed back to the field in seconds. In case one missed the ‘#GirlPower’ on the back of their jerseys, this was it.
Rugby hasn’t just made these girls physically strong, but also mentally tougher. They are now vocal, assertive and unwilling to let patriarchy dictate the Do and Don’t of life.
“I’ve become more confident ever since I started playing rugby. A few years ago, I wasn’t even allowed to leave the house but now I take my own decisions at home. I convinced my parents to let me study commerce in school,” said Siya Shaw, one of the organisers-in-chief.
Ishma Taj too had to grapple with her family before she could do the same to her opponents. “I loved playing everything from badminton to hockey, before Zaffar (Khan of Jungle Crows) introduced me to rugby. But my relatives didn’t like me playing and my parents soon barred me from going out. It took a lot of effort to convince them that since boys and girls come from the same place there’s no reason to treat them differently,” said Ishma, 19, who now coaches 50 girls in Brooklyn, Garden Reach and wants to play rugby for India.
“When we started working in these communities, the biggest deterrent was the families of the girls. Through years of communication, we’ve finally managed to gain their trust. Now, with the senior girls taking up active responsibility of mobilising and training younger girls it’s become slightly easier but there are still plenty of other challenges we need to overcome,” said Harinder Singh, Jungle Crows manager and one of the few men seen motivating the girls from the sidelines.
Till only the other day, they were made to believe that their sole purpose of existence was to get married and raise children. Now, rugby has given these girls a sense of identity, a dare to dream. They’ve seen their seniors play for India and conquer the world. They’ve realised the world is much bigger than they ever imagined it to be, or were allowed to. They will not settle for nothing. They’ve been in the shadows for far too long. This is their time to shine.