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!

Rugby Brews Up in the Jungle

My Saraswatipur Khelo Rugby Adventure

By Hari Singh 

16 Hours by bus was how my journey began, but at least it was air-conditioned. But not for one minute did my excitement at heading for Saraswatipur village in North Bengal leave my mind.  This was going to be very much a first for me – coaching children brand new to rugby and that too in a remote jungle. When I got off the bus at Siliguri, the sun was glorious and right above my head and there was a tremendous hustle bustle at the bus stop with jeeps and cars heading all over North Bengal and further afield to Sikkim and Assam.  As guided before leaving Kolkata, I jumped aboard a bicycle rickshaw to reach Salesian College where I met Father George Matthew who would in turn get me going on my further journey to the village.

Father Matthew warmly welcomed me and after only a couple of minutes we headed towards the college canteen for lunch of steaming warm momos. I stayed in a college guest room that day which was comfortable and a great relief from the bus journey. The next morning, Father Matthew drove me towards the tribal village “Saraswatipur” in the Baikuntpur forest. The journey was 20KM away from Siliguri and it was not less than a jungle safari. I was overwhelmed with the kaccha roads surrounded by forest cover on either side. While on the way father gave me a small brief about the tribal families, the children and their lifestyle. He also told me to be careful after dark and not to go anywhere as wild elephants were a big threat to people living in the village.

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Bicycle Tour through the Village (I’ve got a passenger!)

As I reached the village, I was amazed by the lush green beauty of the nature. The whole area of the village is surrounded by tea plantations cut into the forrest. There was an ancient tea factory as well, which I would later visit and marvel at how tea is made. I was greeted by a few village children and my fellow rugby coach from Kolkata – Amirul, who had been in Saraswatipur for five days already. Myself and Amirul were delegated with the responsibility of coaching tag rugby to the village children and preparing them for the “Saraswatipur Cup”. Our fooding and lodging for the upcoming days were arranged by Father Matthew. We stayed in a room attached to a newly built church and our daily meals were prepared by a local village family.

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Visiting the Tea Factory

The much awaited time had come for me to begin with the training of the young kids who never saw a rugby ball and never heard about the game in their entire life. Infact, nobody in the village had ever heard of anything called rugby. This was the major advantage for us to attract kids towards the playground as every kid wanted to grab the unusual oval shaped ball and learn the game which was totally new to them. We started off quite well with almost 130 kids coming for training everyday and it went up to 200 in the next week. We had a systematic and planned approach to our training. We divided all the children into few groups and had time table set for each groups.  Saraswatipur is really a group of villages and very soon we had children from all over the area playing – this is now one rugby mad place!

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Practice – children were great and now rugby crazy!

From third week onwards we started with morning and evening training sessions. The children’s responded in a very positive manner and they took the training sessions very seriously. We also started with English classes in the evening for the kids. We would begin English classes at 7pm inside the church because that was the only place where we had electricity all the time. Very soon we became firm favourites with the children who loved the new game and were enthusiastic to learn new things and we shared an emotional bond with each child in the village.  Soon we were helping them with all their homework, helping to revise for exams and moving around the village like locals.

Apart from training rugby and our classes for the kids, we were also able to have some fun.  Even though I couldn’t swim I jumped in the river along with everyone else and was swept along by the current to a shallow sand bank.  Time after time the children went and so did I! We also got to go fishing and hunting in the jungle, something that was taken seriously every Sunday as the boys headed off with bows and arrows to catch something different for dinner.

Finally, before we knew it a month had passed and the RAF Spitfires were in town. On their arrival to Saraswatipur, the village people welcomed them with flower’s and also conducted a local cultural program with dances and singing to welcome their guests. Most of the village people are from tribal or Adivasi background and their songs and dancing is very important and kept alive throughout the generations.

And though the spitfires couldn’t understand much about what was happening the welcome was very warm and everyone was well entertained.  After the program, all the village children with the RAF team went to the playground for a small training session. It was really wonderful to watch the kids enjoying their time with the Spitfires and seeing also how much the Spitfires enjoyed.  The Spitfires really didn’t want to leave at the end of their first day and wanted to stay back in the village, but arrangements had been made in Siliguri and it was important to get through the jungle before dark, before the elephants came out.

And so we came to the Saraswatipur Cup.  Me and Amirul had made 8 teams of 5 girls and 5 boys on each team of 10.  Each team had one Coach from the Jungle Crows team, a group of who had also travelled up, and one from the Spitfires.  And what a great day it was – better than me explaining were the photos which summed up the spirit and joy of the day for the children and all the visitors.

The Crows Foundation is now planning to place a permanent Coach in Siliguri to keep the Saraswatipur rugby going and introduce the sport to more children in the city and across the region – I hope soon Siliguri and Saraswatipur will be known not only for good tea but also for good rugby!

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Action from Saraswatipur Cup