Situated 200 km north of Delhi on the historic Grand Trunk Road, Shahabad Markanda is a mofussil town of 45,000 inhabitants. If not for its daughters, it would have been one of those tiny dots on Google Maps that you drive past without acknowledging its existence. But you do acknowledge, especially if you have even a remote interest in the sports pages of newspapers. “Ah, Shahabad,” it prompts you to think every time you pass by. This is, after all, the single biggest assembly line of women’s hockey players in India. About 45 players have represented India at senior and junior levels. Shahabad is to women’s hockey what Sansarpur in Jalandhar once was to men’s hockey, or to the cricket-minded, what Mumbai has been to the Indian team.
That’s one part of the story, but Shahabad, in Kurukshetra district, Haryana, is more than just that. Over time, it has become a powerful symbol as well. Unlike the men of Sansarpur and Mumbai, Shahabad’s daughters, in this land of khap panchayats, have broken a seemingly impenetrable glass ceiling too. They have chosen to step out of the four walls, wear shorts and skirts, and take up a pursuit mostly reserved for men. Thanks to their determination and achievements, this way of life is now — willingly or grudgingly — accepted. There’s hope that soon it will probably be celebrated even. For, the women’s hockey team await the confirmation of their maiden qualification to the 2016 Olympics, due to come in October. And India stands on the cusp of history, courtesy the stick of the supremely gifted Rani Rampal.
In the World Hockey League semifinals in Belgium earlier this month, she scored the equaliser and the final sudden-death goal in a must-win match against Italy, before scoring the winner against Japan in the last do-or-die encounter. Her decisive interventions meant India finished fifth, which was good enough to all but make the Rio Games.
Rani Rampal, 20, is from Shahabad.
Drive past monstrous construction projects north of Delhi. Whizz past hideously named water parks. Glide past acres of freshly tilled earth and paddy fields. Leave Sher Shah Suri’s Kos Minars at Karnal in your slipstream and take the flyover to skip Kurukshetra. Now get off the highway. Today, Shahabad isn’t a passing dot on Google Maps. It’s the red balloon that indicates “destination”.
The town is littered with “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” placards and posters. To someone with mild dyslexia — such as this writer — the slogan of the central government scheme to arrest India’s skewed child sex ratio appears to be “Beti Bachao, Beti Badhao”. Badhao also means forward. And forward we march to the house of the finest woman forward this town — and the country — has produced.
Let’s just say that it’s a very modest house in a very humble neighbourhood. Rani’s father, Rampal, ushers you in. You have read about him, too. But contrary to those reports, he doesn’t pull a cart. His horse does. The living room is small and cramped. There are shelves on the walls but no doors. The setting reminds you of Hindi author Yashpal’s immortal story Purdah. Only, unlike the protagonist in the story, Rampal never “fell” on hard times. He has co-existed with it all his life.
On the table lies a Hindi newspaper. The front page has a report about illegal ultrasounds and foeticide. The back page has Rani’s picture splashed on it.
“Mushkil to tha shuru-shuru mein,” Rampal begins to narrate the story. Of how he and his wife — one semi-literate, the other illiterate — decided that their six-year-old daughter should not only be sent to school but also enrolled in the town’s hockey academy. There was no precedent in the neighbourhood. Relatives opposed them. Some even questioned the couple’s sanity.
Their efforts almost came unstuck on the first day. The academy, which was situated in Rani’s school, had a disciplinarian coach, Baldev Singh. “He saw Rani and he rejected her right away,” recalls Rampal. “He said she was too frail.”
The couple didn’t give up and went back the next day. “Perhaps he was in a good mood, because he relented and told Rani to run a few laps around the field,” Rampal remembers. “She did, and he was impressed with her agility. He agreed to coach Rani.”
Baldev Singh, who would later get the Dronacharya award, the highest decoration for a coach in India, remembers the incident differently. It wasn’t down to his mood. “The first thing that struck me was their poverty. But it wasn’t because she was poor or frail that I had declined. It’s just that as a rule we didn’t take any girl under eight. She was barely six, and looked even smaller. But she was so gifted that I had to relax the rule for her. And I am glad I did,” Baldev says.
She was the youngest in the academy, and in the years to come she would be the youngest ever in the Indian team. In 2009, even before she played with the junior national team, Rani made her senior India debut aged 14. Fourteen! Our collective idea of a child prodigy, Sachin Tendulkar, had made his India debut when he was 16.
It was an emphatic start; she hammered four goals in the final to give India the title. She finished as the top-scorer in the tournament. “That Champions Challenge tournament in Russia was also one of the stages of the London Olympics qualification process,” says Rani. “I had no idea then what the Olympics were, and why it was such a big fuss. I was playing for fun. For me, back then, the biggest deal was the Commonwealth Games,” she says, shyly.
It’s a statement that puts the Indian women’s hockey team’s latest achievement into perspective. The men in our hockey have grown up on the lore of eight Olympic gold medals. In fact, in all non-cricket sports nowadays, our performance in the Olympics is the main yardstick. The only time an Indian women’s hockey team has appeared in the Olympics was in Moscow 1980, and they were invited to make up the numbers after the West had boycotted.
In the absence of Olympic glory or even participation, therefore, India women’s hockey team’s most storied achievement remains the gold medal in the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Hence, Rani’s fascination with the CWG. To her, these three letters also mean hope and despair. She remembers the awards and the accolades that the Class of 2002 got. Some, like her mentor Suman Bala, were from Shahabad. Heck, their story inspired the Hindi film Chak De! India.
Rani remembers, too, the awards and accolades that the team of 2010, of which she was a part, didn’t get at CWG Delhi, having missed out on the medal round on goal difference. And the disappointment when the Haryana government opened its purse for all 2010 CWG medal winners from the state. Later that year, 15-year-old Rani was named in the International Hockey Federation’s World XI. But individual honours such as these don’t yield cash prizes. Her father had to keep spurring the horse to put food on the table.
“It embarrasses me and pains me to see my father having to drive the cart around even now. But there are no other options. I don’t earn enough,” says Rani, who works as a junior clerk in the railways. “But it’s my source of strength too. You earlier asked me why I don’t get nervous. I will tell you why. We were trailing against Italy, and in the sudden death, I was thinking about my father. I couldn’t afford to be nervous,” Rani says. Rampal nods approvingly.
Olympian Rani. Six years ago, she wouldn’t have given this adjective much of a thought. But today, it’s become a necessity, an obsession and a possible panacea even for her struggles. She feels that a shot at the Olympics will land her a job better than the one she has right now, and provide some sort of financial security to the family. She contrasts her position with Sandeep Singh, one of the two Olympians from Shahabad (the other being former hockey player Sanjeev Dang). Sandeep is a deputy superintendent of police with Haryana police. He lives in the posh HUDA society.
In hockey as in life, Rani and Sandeep Singh have few similarities. Sandeep is a good defender and a very fine drag-flicker. She is a striker who often doubles as a mid-fielder. Whenever there is a comparison across the gender divide, Rani is deemed to be more like Sardar Singh. Her electric speed, superior stick work, ball sense and confidence remind you of the current India captain. “Sardar Singh is here,” Rani says, bringing her palm parallel to her eyes, indicating a certain stature. “And I am here,” she says, lowering it all the way to her knee. But she is flattered by the comparison.
“Do you know we belong to the same community of potters?” Rani says. “And that he was also named in the FIH All Star in 2010? But he is a big, big name. And also a DSP,” she says. What remains unsaid is this: Sardar earns big bucks in the Hockey Indian League, too, while there is no such thing for a women’s hockey player.
While there is some envy and lament in Rani’s statement, there is also a bit of acceptance of a harsh reality. Rani and her ilk have overcome a rigid, feudal society. They have even become a source of pride in a town whose sex ratio (860) is significantly worse than the rest of the state (879) — which in turn is the worst in the country. But they are helpless against the inherent bias in Indian hockey, Indian sport and the Indian attitude in general. Encouraging its daughters to play isn’t a priority for India. Beti Khilao is not a slogan yet.
Ritu Rani: A product of the famous Shahbad Hockey Academy in Haryana, Ritu Rani, 23, is known for her ability to make precise passes and her keen eye for goals. Under her captaincy, India won bronze medals at the 2013 Asia Cup in Kuala Lumpur and the 2014 Incheon Asian Games.
Savita Punia: Punia is one of the main reasons India is on the cusp of qualifying for the Olympics. Her heroic efforts under the bar against Japan in the fifth-place playoff match contributed immensely to India’s cause. Two years ago, she was named the best goalkeeper of the Asia Cup .
Sushila Chanu: A ticket collector with Mumbai’s Central Railways, the 23-year-old was one of the key figures of the team that won the historic bronze at the 2013 junior World Cup, where she was the captain. She plays as a midfielder and is known to convert several scoring opportunities into goals.
Vandana Kataria: From Haridwar, Kataria started playing hockey despite her family’s opposition. In 2010 , she made her senior debut and has become one of the pillars of the team since then. She was India’s top-scorer in the 2013 junior World Cup, where India won its first-ever bronze medal.