Aa gayi bat-ball wali, humein bhi khilwaon (Here come the bat-ball girls, play with us too)”. The sniggers follow the group of girls as they walk through narrow lanes, past a landfill that was once a field, and an open drain to reach the dusty park in Rohini’s Sector 28. It’s 4 pm on a scorching October day. Two groups of boys, who were until now lolling about, begin playing gilli-danda on either side of the girls, hemming them in. Cuss words and snide laughter fill the air.
The girls walk on, unfazed. They have been called names before. Leading them into the field with confident strides is a short 17-year-old with her hair cropped short. Kavita, who goes by one name, occupies the middle, measures out a pitch, all 22 yards of it, and fixes the wickets on either side. She decides to bat first. Medium-pacer Champa, 15, gears up for her first delivery just when Kavita stops her short and instructs her on how to position the arm correctly. Everybody listens to Captain Kavita.
If a film were to be made on Kavita’s life, its title could well be Main Mithali Raj Banna Chahti Hoon. “I have read all about her. How she loved Bharatanatyam, and how her father sent her to be coached in cricket because she was lazy,” says the teenager of the cricketer she idolises. What she has learnt most from Raj, by devouring the footage of her game on YouTube and television, she says, is single-minded focus. “I used to get distracted even when the audience cheered. But when she takes to the field, she observes every small detail,” says Kavita, who belongs to a Dalit family originally from Uttar Pradesh.
But even the formidable Indian women’s skipper would have foundered in the battles that Captain Kavita and her teammates fight every day. Against the place they call home. Shahbad Dairy.
The Yellow Line of the Delhi Metro snakes to a stop at Samaypur Badli in Outer Delhi. Six kilometres away, the highway runs past a cluster of slums, scrubland, abandoned factories, dirt tracks and narrow lanes lined with open-brick houses. This is the neighbourhood of Shahbad Dairy, one of Delhi’s most unsafe places for women and children.
In 1986, when a slum behind Azadpur Mandi was gutted in a fire, its residents were resettled in this unwelcoming place, till then home to dairy farms. Over the years, people in search of better livelihoods from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal have settled here.
In the day, men, young and old, are sprawled out on the streets, many in a drug-addled haze. Some are huddled over card games in parks, blowing smoke ringlets and leering at school girls. Violence is commonplace. Children are not allowed to step outside their homes after dusk. Those without toilets at home are not given dinner, lest they have to venture into the public toilets and go missing.
The Shahbad Dairy has one of the highest rates of missing children. According to the data obtained through RTI by the NGO Saksham, around 107 children went missing in Shahbad Dairy during January-September 2016; 18 children were raped in the same period. In September this year, a report, “Missing Children in Delhi 2018”, released by the civil society organisation Alliance for People’s Rights (APR) and Child Rights and You (CRY) stated that 6,454 children went missing in Delhi in 2017, of which Shahbad Dairy police station’s jurisdiction (including Dairy and nearby areas) accounted for 152 missing children (42 are still untraceable). A year before, it reported the highest number of missing children (162).
“It is one of the most vulnerable areas as far as missing children and overall crime against children are concerned. We have found girls from this area trafficked to the farmhouses of Haryana and Punjab,” says Krishna Bansal, state coordinator at APR.
“Dairy ka mahaul mujhe achha hi nahin lagta,” says Kavita. “If girls step out, men and boys catcall, whistle, pass comments or even try to grab you. Even if you step out to the bazaar, they will follow you home,” she says.
But that did not deter Kavita, who has always loved sports, from slipping out early morning with her younger brother to play. Three years ago, to her surprise, at the park she saw three more girls bowling and batting — and one man urging them on.
When Santlal, 44, first came to work in Shahbad Dairy, he found it a place of “spine-chilling sights”. The social worker from Chitrakoot, UP, arrived in Delhi and started the NGO Saksham in 2007. The streets in the Dairy were dangerous for girls; groups of boys would block their paths; children on way to school would be threatened by drug addicts into paying them money or their bags would be snatched.
The public toilets were and remain breeding grounds for crime. Dairy has 19 now, Santlal says, but most are unusable — there is no water supply, nor electricity. If there aren’t snakes, there are groups of boys or men hiding to harass, abduct and even rape girls/women. Often, videos are made of women who go to the thickets and forests nearby to relieve themselves. “As a result, as soon as girls turn 12, most are sent away to their villages to be married,” says Santlal.
In 2008, Saksham organised the first police-public meeting in Dairy where the residents could voice their concerns. Children and women were organised into self-help and protection units. The NGO began as a child activity centre and a safe space for children — they could come here to seek help with homework, studies or to simply have someone hear them out. Santlal started a sports club in 2016, with three girls — sisters Champa and Kavita Mahesh, and Tanu — despite the opposition from their families. “At first, I thought he might be their Papaji, but one day I mustered courage and asked, ‘Uncleji, kya main bhi khel sakti hoon? (Can I play too?)” recalls Kavita.
The number of players is now 75, most of them Dalits. With financial support from CRY, individual donors and his own funds, Santlal arranges for the girls’ cricketing gear, daily transportation, and monthly fees of Rs 16,000 at Hari Singh Academy in Rani Bagh, where they train thrice a week.
The story of the Shahbad girls is captured in Yasmin and Fazal Kidwai’s 48-minute documentary, A Sticky Wicket, which was screened at this year’s Public Service Broadcasting Trust’s Open Frame Film Festival in Delhi in September. A search for functional toilets in her ward had led documentary filmmaker Yasmin, the MCD councilor of Daryaganj ward, to Shahbad Dairy. “None of its houses back then had a toilet. Here, I met these girl cricketers. And I was drawn to their stories of individual triumph,” says Yasmin.
When Kavita began to play cricket three years ago, there were the usual whispers. “I told her that the neighbourhood laughs and pokes fun at us. They say, ‘She goes out to play, god knows where all she goes.’ But she didn’t listen,” says mother Usha Devi, 50, who works as a domestic help in Rohini.
Her father was afraid of the risks she was taking by walking out into the streets. “There is no safety here. Gali mein ladkiyon ka chalna bura haal hai. Kahin ladke chhed dete hain. Kahin murder ho jata hai (They get harassed by boys, some get killed). So, we keep nagging her: be safe, be safe,” says Bahadur, 52. A native of Azamgarh in UP, Bahadur arrived in Delhi 35 years ago in search of work. He slept on streets, and roamed Azadpur Mandi selling paan, something he does till date. His fears led him to buy Kavita a cycle to commute to school, and a smartphone to stay in touch. He also gives Kavita a daily pocket money of Rs10-20. While renovating his one-room jhuggi into a two-storey house, two years ago, he got two toilets built.
Not all of Kavita’s playmates are as fortunate. Champa’s mother Geeta Devi, widowed for 10 years, has no money to build one. In the film, she is asked: what if she needs to use the washroom after 11 at night? Champa says, “Rok ke rakhungi, lekin jaungi nahin (I will control, but won’t go).”
For each of the girls, playing cricket was crossing a line — and it meant lying, sneaking out and even putting up with beatings from angry parents. Champa’s eldest sister Kavita Mahesh, 23, recalls how she had to chaperone her to the early morning practice. One evening, when returning from training, 10-12 boys started throwing “aloo, pyaaz, tamatar” at them. “We gave them a piece of our mind. One boy came and slapped Chanchal in the middle of the bazaar.
Everybody stood watching, nobody came to our help. So, the three of us hit the boy back and rushed home,” says Mahesh.
The boys, armed with wires, followed close behind. That confrontation ended with the sisters being grounded by their angry mother. “Santlal Sir had to come home and convince her. ‘If you don’t let them out now, the girls will always remain confined to their house,’ he said,” says Mahesh.
Cricket has taken the girls places — to Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Chandigarh and Jammu and Kashmir. More than a year ago, at a meet-up organised by CRY, Kavita faced off against Michael Clarke, the former Australian captain who was visiting India. “He was out on my third delivery. I don’t know whether he got out intentionally, but it’s a big deal for me,” she says with a smile.
A medium-fast bowler who can also bat, Kavita was selected to play in the Under-19 national team last year. She played in a T20 earlier this year, where India beat Nepal’s 66-runs record in the finals. She has just appeared for this year’s national U-19 trials.
Last month, neither Champa nor Kavita could clear the trials for the U-19 Delhi team.
They faltered as they did not have proper sports shoes (with spikes) to train in. They slipped on the grass, and they hadn’t practised on coir mats, says Santlal. Barring a handful, most of the girls play in slippers in parks strewn with glass shards from broken alcohol bottles. Injuries and gashes are common. “They are also frail and lack the nutrition that an athlete requires — energy drinks, fruits, jaggery, dal, etc. Most parents can’t provide that,” says Santlal.
There may be support but no lenience is shown at home to the girls. They wake up at the crack of dawn to cook and clean, before they can make their way to coaching or school. Captain Kavita, the youngest of four sisters and two brothers — who, in Bahadur’s words, “bas left-right ghumte hain (loiter about)” — has to cook for the household. When Bahadur comes home in the evening, usually famished, and finds her yet to start cooking because has been delayed by evening practice, he is clearly displeased. “Sabse chhoti hoon iska matlab yeh zaroori nahin ki mujhe sab chhoot milti rahe. (I am the youngest but I get no free lunches) My brothers order me: ‘Get that thing’, ‘Serve us food’. They don’t even pour a glass of water on their own,” says Kavita.
She’s closest to the younger brother, besides her brother-in-law. She’s a little scared to open up to her parents. “Kyunki unki soch thodi old man ki tarah hai. (They think like old people). Mummy still chats and laughs with us. I am a little scared of Papa,” says Kavita, bringing glasses of water on a tray. She is a far more muted person at home, than on the field, where she is a natural leader.
Like any other girl, she watches films: her favourite films are Hrithik Roshan’s Krishh series and MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016). Ever since she’s started playing cricket, she has stopped watching TV: “there is just no time.” She is happiest in a pair of trousers and a shirt, though wearing shorts has invited neighbours’ ire. She wears her hair short, else it obstructs her vision on field — as does Champa. “I am mistaken for a boy and stopped from entering the women’s toilets,” says Champa with a grin.
Like most public spaces in Delhi, the parks of Rohini belong undisputedly to men. But at the Sector 28 park, the girls are claiming their 22 yards. “Shabaash. Ball zameen pe nahin patka,” Santlal’s cheers Champa. Next up is spinner Pooja, two fingers of whose right hand are missing. “When we see men standing by, watching us play, we feel apprehensive but also happy. When our brothers and uncles come to watch us play, we feel strong and proud,” says Kavita.
The men are grudging in their respect. “The boys who would earlier make a pass at them now ask whether their sisters, too, can play,” says Santlal.
“Empowerment of women is a multidimensional thing. It doesn’t happen overnight,” says Yasmin.
Champa’s is a moot example. Once a shy girl, she has learnt to answer back, and has even punched a boy when needed. Kavita is the leader of the lot but she is also sensitive to the rest. When she is not helping the girls with their shots, she’s telling them how to stay safe or negotiate with their parents.
“In A Sticky Wicket, there is no challenge, no drama, no larger-than-life heroes. But each girl is a remarkable story,” says Yasmin. The film itself has been a platform for the girls; they were present at the PSBT screening at Delhi’s India International Centre. It has amplified their voices and boosted their self-confidence. “Sports empowers you,” the filmmaker says and the young women agree.
Cricket has strengthened the girls, physically and mentally. Champa’s mother Geeta Devi, who wishes she had sons instead of three daughters, says in the documentary, “Buddhi aati hai ki jab hum cricket khel sakte hain toh ladko se kyun nahin ladh sakte. Inme atmavishwaas jaaga hai (They realise that when they can play cricket, they can also take on the boys. It has given them self-confidence.)”
Kavita agrees, “Cricket se taakat aayi kyunki hum puri jee-jaan laga dete hain (We get strength from cricket because we give it our all).” From not being able to answer back harassers, both Champa and Captain Kavita are now more assured about occupying the streets. “Haath thode-bahut mazboot ho gaye hain, koi ladka humse haatha-payi kare, toh humein ulta jawab dena aata hain ab (Our arms and hands are stronger. Let the boys try touch us, we can show them),” Kavita says.
The girls of Shahbad Dairy scoff at the dialogue from Dangal (2016): “Mhaari chhoriya chhoro se kam hai ke? (Are our girls any less than boys)?” They say they don’t need such validation. “Girls are very strong, they take care of parents, homes, and friends. They would do anything for the happiness of their parents,” says Nisha, 15, in the documentary.
Having seen a path that leads out of the Dairy and its bleakness, none of them want to give up on the sport. As Kavita says in the film, “Cricket khelungi aur cricketer hi banungi. Ten years later, I don’t want to get married off.” She wants to be on the field, teaching other girls how to be Captain Kavita.