Praveena and most of her teammates had to wait far too long to savour even the little joys of life. Like going to the cinema. Or chomping into a burger. The 22-year-old didn’t even know how it looked like until she was in the 11th grade. Twelve members of Jeppiaar FC, plying in the Indian’s Women’s League, were raised in a government-run children’s home in Cuddalore, a coastal district in Tamil Nadu. Most of these girls have a single parent, who were forced to enroll them in the home due to financial constrains.
Growing up, they were confined to the four walls of the home. “We were packed into a van and sent to school and later brought back to the hostel. We hadn’t seen the outside world at all,” Sumithra Kamraj, the skipper, recalls.
The home subscribed to a few local newspapers, which the children didn’t have access. Once a week, they watched the television. A movie, mostly. They eagerly awaited that day. These girls, then, would have hardly envisaged that they would one day rub shoulders with the best footballing talent in the country. When they were hardly assured of daily needs such as clothing and food, playing in the national football league hardly ever crept into their consciousness. The food was strictly rationed and asking for an extra serving was futile. No matter how hungry you were, all we got for dinner was two idlies,” says Prathibha, who was one of the scorers in their first league-win.
What they really longed for was love. Every Sunday they would allow parents and guardians. Those who had one were considered lucky. “We would go out in the waiting area, hoping someone would turn up, but went back disappointed on most occasions. We would stand there and watch other children interact with their guardians. That was one of the toughest moments we have had to endure,” Praveena recalls . She had lost her father when she was only five and her mother and elder sister have moved to her maternal grandfather’s house. She visits them only twice a year: Pongal and Deepavali.
But hope arrived in the form of Mariappan, a government school physical education teacher. He used to teach football to the boys of the home. Intrigued by their training sessions, one fine day, a few girls walked up to him and asked if he could teach them too. Hesitant initially, the retired school headmaster obliged after seeing their interest.
“To be frank, we were never interested in the sport. We saw that the boys got to go out of the home for various tournaments and thought it is one way of getting an opportunity to see the world. Of course now we love the sport too,” Sumithra says.
Sumithra and her teammates’ desire to see the “outside world” started getting fulfilled as they started to take part in several tournaments both in the state and out. They won cash-rich tournaments like CM’s Cup four times. Players of the winning-team get Rs 1,00,000 each. All the girls, upon Mariappan’s guidance, opened fixed deposits. The girls not only excelled in sports but also studies too. “That was one of my conditions before taking them onboard,” Mariappan says.
After school, the girls had to move out of the home. Most of the girls enrolled in St Joseph’s College in Cuddalore where the management headed by Fr Ratchagar allowed them to study free of cost. Pratibha, who is doing her Mphil in Physics, wants to pursue research. Praveena, also doing her Mphil , wants to find a decent job and help children like her to come up in life.
Every girl in the team has a heart-wrenching backstory. Football didn’t change things overnight. Praveen says the staff at the home were not pleased with the idea of “girls going out and playing”. “We would just return from practice and they would ask us to clean the utensils or sweep the floor. Many times our jerseys were found in dustbins. ”
From last year onwards the players have been representing Jeppiaar FC, managed by an institute-appointed coach, in various tournaments and have qualified for the country’s first women’s league.
Close brush with death
They also had a close brush with Tsunami. They were supposed to practice at the local beach in Manjikuppam the morning of that fateful day. But a miraculous last-minute change of plan averted a massive disaster. “We had never heard the word Tsunami. We were being told the sea is foaming. We were on the way to the beach but we met sir who told us to practice at the local stadium instead as he was busy,” Pratibha said.
The girls have developed a strong bond while helping each other to through many tumultuous years. They have rented a house near their college, go out for movies and cook their favorite dishes. In Delhi, they went shopping at Sarojini Nagar. “My mother doesn’t even know we are here. All they know is that we are safe and doing well,” says Praveena.