A strange silence inhabits early afternoons at Rahul Vidya Niketan’s dormitories. A silence loaded with anticipation. At this shelter for children of sex workers set up at Baruipur, on the outskirts of Kolkata, run by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (a collective of 65,000 sex workers), the early hours of afternoons are when the wardens ready themselves for the rest of the day. “They arrive hungry from school (run by DMSC) and need to be fed. The younger ones have to be bathed too,” says Pintu Maity, a member of the committee. As the clock strikes 2 pm, children line up for their lunch (soya nuggets curry, rice and daal) and then head to their dorms for an afternoon nap.
All, except a gang of gaunt boys, who quickly change into jerseys and shorts. They rush to the adjacent field for their afternoon practice. “I tell them to take a break of half-an-hour before practising, but who will listen?” says coach Biswajit Majumdar, who has been with the school for the past four years. Among this group is 16-year-old Rajeeb Roy, son of Rekha, a sex worker associated with DMSC.
In the past few days, Roy has seen a stream of visitors from newspapers and television channels. He is one of the two boys from Kolkata to be selected by the renowned Manchester United football club to train with the U-21 team (the other being Arko Dey from Baranagar area of the city).
Next month, Roy will find himself in the Mecca of football — Old Trafford football stadium in Greater Manchester, England, and the home of Manchester United FC. He is going for a 15-day training session. Not a mean achievement for a boy who used to play barefoot at the BK Paul Avenue ground near Sonagachi, the red-light district in north Kolkata.
Sitting at the committee’s cramped Sonagachi office in Kolkata, Roy remembers his days spent in Asia’s largest red-light area. He points out his house, a narrow, grey building in the maze. “I used to live on the fourth floor of the building. My best friend, Kaushik Saha, lived on the third floor,” he says. As Roy dribbles a football on the terrace of the office and poses for our photographer, he looks worried. He tries to spin the ball on his finger but fails. “I don’t concentrate on these kind of skills. I am an attacker for my team,” he says. Eventually, Saha comes to his rescue. He spins the ball on his finger and then, delicately, like a chef handling a soufflé, transfers the ball from his fingers to Roy’s, whose abashed face lights up with joy and our photographer gets the perfect shot.
“My mother would lock me in my room after lunch so that I could take a nap, but I would quietly sneak out to play with my friends,” says Roy, looking at the sprawl of Sonagachi. He smiles nervously when we ask if we could talk to his mother. “She is a very shy person. She won’t say no to an interview because of me, but I don’t want her to feel embarrassed about these things,” he says.
Roy used to spend the money he got from his mother for his lunch break to pay the entry fee to football tournaments taking place in the city. “We would pool in our resources to participate in these events,” he says.
Talking about his journey to selection for Manchester United, he says, “Last month, I was selected along with 30 others to participate in a camp in Goa through a nationwide school championship competition. The coaches from Manchester United selected 11 of us.”
When Roy reached the camp, he was concerned about how people would perceive him. “I arrived late because I took a train from Kolkata. Everybody else took a flight. There were children from rich families who spoke English,” says Roy. Not being able to communicate in English was a big issue in his head. “But I made friends quickly. There was a boy from Mumbai who spoke very good English and translated for me when I interacted with the coaches. He told me that it was perfectly fine if I was not able to communicate in English, a lot of Spanish footballers don’t speak English either,” says Roy.
But after a while he adds that he is tired of answering the same questions. “People keep asking me how it feels to be my mother’s son and then achieve something like this. I don’t know how to answer that question,” he says.
Understandably enough, the teenager prefers to tell tales of mischief and merrymaking. He talks about the little shrine dedicated to his favourite Brazilian player, Oscar, in their tiny one-room apartment. His mother didn’t know why a poster of a baby-faced Brazilian man was sharing shrine space with idols of Durga and Shiva. “She would get really irritated and tried removing it many times, but every time, I would bring it back,” says Roy, with a laugh.
Roy feels the real turnaround came in his life when his mother sent him to Rahul Vidya Niketan two years ago. “Here (at Sonagachi), things are not okay and there are a number of bad influences around. One of my close friends is into drugs now. Yesterday, he came to me and asked for Rs 10 as a treat for being selected for Manchester United. I felt really bad. He, too, was a good footballer,” says Roy.
In Rahul Vidya Niketan, Roy was a part of a sports programme initiated by Samarjit Jana, founder of DMSC. “Jana believes that sports is the best way of integrating children of sex workers with the mainstream society. Today, our football coaching centre at Baruipur, which was only meant for children of sex workers, have applicants from across the board,” says Majumdar, who was a first-class player in the Kolkata circuit. In the four years since its inception, the coaching centre sent players to represent India in the Homeless World Cup in Mexico in 2012 and in Poland in 2013. “These kids are determined and talented. But as you can see, they need better nutrition. Most of them can’t even afford a proper pair of shoes. We need to supply all that. That is why we need donors to support these kids,” he says.