Marriage and family. That’s what they’ve always told us. That’s what they said lies ahead for us,” says Rani Rampal, smiling. “Not anymore, though.”
The 21-year-old midfielder from Shahbad town in Haryana is headed to Rio, as a member of the first women’s hockey team to represent India at the Olympics in 36 years. But as Rampal’s life and that of her teammates show, this is not just a momentous sporting achievement. It is a measure of how close they have come to freedom.
Rampal is reminded of it every time she goes home to Shahbad, the cradle for women’s hockey as well as a deeply conservative north Indian town. On a recent visit, she caught up with a childhood friend, now married, who remarked how lucky Rani was to have escaped the life Shahbad had chosen for most of its girls. Rampal, who was just 15 when she made her India debut, agrees. “If I did not play, I would have been married by now,” she says.
Twenty-three-year-old Poonam Rani, also from Shahbad, was always told that girls should stay indoors as they would be “better protected from men”. When she picked up the stick for the first time, she was disowned by her neighbourhood.
Around 150 km away, in Roshanabad, Haridwar, things were not too different. Twenty-four-year-old striker Vandana Kataria started playing hockey when she was 11. But the hostile opposition her father and brother faced for allowing a girl to play forced her to pull out.
The young girl was distraught. Unable to see her misery, her father stood up to the pressure to ensure she continued to play at an academy in Roshanabad.
Poverty was the nemesis of Kataria’s future teammates from Orissa. Lilima Minz, 22, remembers how her family sacrificed a meal to ensure her needs were fulfilled. The daughter of a mine worker in Bihabandh Tanatoli village, Minz moved to the famous Panposh Hockey Academy in Rourkela in 2005 to continue playing. There, she would be joined by Namita Toppo, 21, and Sunita Lakra, 25, both from poor backgrounds.
Midfielder Renuka Yadav hopped on a bicycle every morning to supply milk in her locality in Rajnandgaon, a Maoist-affected district of Chhattisgarh, to keep her ambitions alive. Her parents worked as domestic help and were not able to meet the family’s basic expenses. At the insistence of her local coach, Renuka would later join an acclaimed academy in Rajnandgaon. Today, the 22-year-old is the first woman Olympian from the state. Another player recalls the time when she entered the room for a meeting. It was her first day in the national team. So conscious was she of her “low” status that she thought of sitting on the floor.
June 20, 2016. 8 am. An idol of Jesus is placed next to one of Lord Shiva’s in a room at the women’s hostel of Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Bangalore. Lily Chanu and Ritu Rani are both on their knees. One makes the sign of the cross while the other folds her hands. A short prayer and they are off to the turf.
It’s a wet monsoon morning and the team that will represent India will be selected today. Four years ago, they were an unassuming bunch of teenaged girls, many of them not even aware of the Olympics.
When chief coach, Australian Neil Hawgood, set them the goal of qualifying for the games, they didn’t know what he was talking about. For them, the Commonwealth Games was the biggest event. It was a comment on the state of women’s hockey in the country.
When they first met at a junior national camp, most of the girls gave each other curious stares. They were different in appearance, in how they dressed, in the languages they spoke and what they ate. It was an assortment of players from across the country: Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Orissa, Manipur and Andhra Pradesh.
Chanu recalls how she and several other girls had to improve their Hindi since that eventually became the team’s link language. “I was just 15 when I came to a national camp. For the first time, I was going to stay outside my home,” Rampal says. “The biggest difference was food. Our camp is usually held in the south and the cuisine is very different. But you get used to it.”
The simplicity of the players is what astonishes the all-Australian coaching staff. The men’s team swaggers around in flashy clothes and stylish hairdo. In contrast, the women are shy and retiring.
Many of them are still afraid of flying. “Some were crying and shaking during turbulence on our first trip to New Zealand in 2013,” Hawgood says. But they find ways to make light of it. During one of their recent trips abroad, the girls decided to play a prank on a new entrant to the team. They told her she would have to pay in cash for every meal she had on the flight. The player was almost on the verge of breaking down when the others showed mercy.
The orchestrator of most pranks is Deepika Thakur, the seniormost player, with 172 appearances. She is the most aggressive on field, along with Rampal. But Thakur is also the shoulder to lean on during tough times. “We all have our mood swings and Deepika didi and other senior players help us. Away from our parents, we rely on them for emotional support,” says Nikki Pradhan, one of the team’s youngest players.
At the camp, they stay in one block and have their meals together. Occasionally, they go for a movie. At other times, impromptu dance and quiz sessions help them spend time. Senior players like Thakur, Chanu and Ritu Rani make it a point to counsel the younger ones, trying to understand their problems and needs. But it’s not always serious. “Sometimes, we discuss our crushes too,” says Kataria.
But when on tour, the players rarely venture out of the hotel. The few times they do, it is to shop. Buying shoes — both turf shoes and designer sandals — is the collective fetish of this team.
Hawgood and his coaching staff often urge them to explore the cities they visit as they play across the world. Earlier this year, during a tournament in Darwin, Australia, the team’s scientific advisor Matthew Tredrea arranged a dinner by the lake at a national park. The girls, instead, chose to stay indoors. “Maybe, there’s a language issue and the fear of getting lost in an unknown city. Sometimes, we hover in the background to ensure they stay safe. But they generally prefer staying indoors,” Hawgood says.
Perhaps, it is a sign of their lack of confidence, a trait visible on the field as well. And that’s the concern Hawgood has as the team prepares for its biggest test in Rio. “Right now, there is a lot of pressure on them. There’s a lot of attention, which, at times, doesn’t help. This team does not know anything about Olympics because no one in 30 years has been there from India. But they will gain from this experience,” Hawgood says.
The coach’s priority is to ensure the Olympic qualification isn’t a one-off thing. But it already seems a daunting task. One of Hawgood’s biggest worries is that many from this team won’t even be a part of the squad for the 2020 Olympics.
The other ‘Rani’ from Shahbad, Ritu Rani, was dropped when the team was announced on July 12. Not too long ago, the 24-year-old midfielder was the cynosure of the women’s side. She was the captain, one of the mainstays of an inexperienced side, and recommended for the Arjuna Award in May.
Rani claims she was never given an official reason for her exclusion but her engagement last month was seen as one of the reasons. “Since then, questions are being raised about my focus,” she says.
But even before she was dropped, Rani had said she wouldn’t carry on till the Tokyo Games. “I have been away from home for more than 10 years now. It’s a tough life and I would like to do normal things like other people,” she says.
Hawgood knows that an exodus is on the cards, as the girls give in to social and familial demands. “I know that’s going to happen. We could lose more than half of this group. They all have to face different pressures. It’s one of the reasons why we need to invest in the juniors,” he says.
Nevertheless, their presence in Rio is a riposte to years of discrimination as well as a way to a better life. They have undermined and challenged the old order with their exploits on the field. Many of them have become the main providers for their families. Rampal says she has invested her career prize money of around Rs 70 lakh in a house for her parents in Shahbad.
Chanu, the captain, had seen enough sportspersons emerge from Manipur to realise it’s the ticket out of poverty. But it wasn’t poverty as much as her father’s risky job that motivated her to take up hockey.
A truck driver, her father transported goods from Manipur to Meghalaya on treacherous roads, where fatal accidents were common. Because of his daughter’s steady earnings, he does not need to do the work anymore.
Not many are giving the women’s team a chance to continue their fairy-tale run in Rio. But it is a team that will be remembered for shattering stereotypes and breaking new ground. In a week, they will take a giant step into the unknown. But it won’t be the first time.