As the light dims quickly on a December evening, a National Highway whose number is hotly contested begins to go quiet. It’s barely 6 in the evening, but in Bastar, darkness brings silence.
From behind a wall along the NH though, just outside Dimrapal village, there is sound of loud chatter and laughter. Eight girls are lined up on an open field, 10 metres apart, with two of them watching from the sidelines.
Neelawati crouches, her body tense. The voice of a wizened old man pierces the air. “Go”, he says — and Neelawati flies.
The screams around her are raucous, the girls egging her on. But even amidst the din, 87-year-old Dharampal Saini rings out clear and stern. “Kadam lambe kar, kadam lambe kar (Take long strides),” he urges.
A hundred metres and less than 13 seconds later, Neelawati stands next to him, dwarfing the man that’s changing her life, and those of many others like her. Saini allows a little indulgence. “Tu nationals mein hamaara naam roshan karegi (You will make us proud in the nationals),” he tells Neelawati. All the 15-year-old says is “Tauji”, and touches his feet.
The girls are residents of Saini’s Mata Rukmini Devi Ashram, among the 350 who live and study here. Every year, over 150 of them take part in sports competitions across the country, with 30 to 40 training the year round to contest at state and national levels in several disciplines.
The ashram has 37 such branches in 37 different villages of Bastar, some in the worst Naxalism-hit areas.
But it wasn’t always like this. When Saini first came to Dimrapal in 1976, 15 km from Jagdalpur, his idea of a residential ashram for tribal girls was met with aggressive hostility — even in this “pure and untouched” place, he says. “I came here because my guru Vinobha Bhave always said that the best work happens in places which need it the most.”
From the beginning, everybody discouraged him. “When I asked for land, the district administration gave it, but said I would have to return it after a year because no tribal would send his or her girl to school. We had a team of four, and we went village to village. They were welcoming people, but would shoo us out when asked to send their daughters to our school. They were mistrustful of everything — schools, roads, modern medicine.”
For the first six months, Saini had only four students at his Dimrapal ashram. By the fifth year, he had 40-50. “We cured one person of his fever with a tablet — the villagers only used ‘jhaad phoonk’ — and they began to trust us.”
Teaching the girls sports was an after-thought, Saini laughs. “The girls would be restless in class, constantly climbing trees, walls to run away. Then a district forest officer said to me, ‘Saini sahib, you played sports in school, teach them that value. These young girls, by the time they are three, walk kilometres barefoot to the bazaar with their mother to collect forest supplies. They have immense pace and stamina’. So I started teaching them sports. In 1982, 14-year-old girl Mangal Mode won the first national medal for us, in discus throw,” Saini says.
A board in a classroom lists the other national hours that followed, but only till 2011-12, when space ran out. So the rest of the laurels are recorded in two registers, kept in the same room.
The honours have come in karate, archery, athletics, discus and javelin throw, kabaddi, volleyball, handball, softball and football, bringing in both financial and infrastructural aid.
G P Singh, who was director for Sports and Youth Affarirs between 2008 and 2012 and is now the Raipur IGP, says, “This ashram is doing a great job. It is beautiful to watch the talent of these tribal girls being honed. All they needed was opportunity, and in these areas with Naxal presence, there are not many others who dare do it.”
Pointing out that the department holds a state-wide marathon with attractive prize money every year, “when at least four or five of the top ten are from Dimrapal”, Singh adds that the government has given the initiative full backing. “We encourage them to participate in competitions across the country, give them funds if needed for equipment. Once a girl won for several years, and we asked her what she did with the money. She said she bought a tractor for her father.”
Five minutes after he watches Neelawati run, Saini leaves the ashram and crosses the NH to another field, where the institution’s football team is practising for the Subroto Cup. Pointing to a young girl in a blue T-shirt, he says, “Watch Kavita”. In the seconds that follow, she plucks the ball from the sky, and drops it dead at her feet. She feints one way, and weaves the other, before taking a shot that cannons off the post.
Saini says he does all he can to give girls such as Kavita the necessary stamina. “This is a Gandhian ashram, so I can’t give them meat for protein. But we give girls who play sports extra helpings of gudh, chana, milk with Complan, and dry fruits. The football team lives together in one dorm, and I tell them to watch football matches. So even after practice, they talk about their games.”
Saini’s room is spartan. What stands out is the wall where the trophies and medals won by the inmates are stocked, glinting with gold and silver.
Her eyes on that wall, a smiling 15-year-old says, “All we want is to make Tauji proud, to add to that trophy cabinet. Football makes us forget everything — the Naxalism, how we have nothing. If we play well, we go to other cities all over the country, see things there.”
Talking about a visit to Delhi for the Subroto Cup, where they saw “the Prime Minister’s house”, she adds, “Humein sapne dikhte hain (We see dreams).”
Back in his room, Saini has a visitor. He knows what she has come for, and assures before she can say anything, “Le aaya hoon. Kal maidan mein milega tumhen (I’ve got it, you will get it on the field tomorrow).”
The girl clarifies that she has been asking for a tyre. “Tauji showed me Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, and in it Milkha trains dragging a tyre tied to his stomach, to strengthen his legs. My 100-metres time is 12.52 seconds. It has to come down to around 12 for the nationals. Now I’ll start training with it,” she says.
Tomorrow again, Neelawati will fly.