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When sport is a reason to return home

- Every June, a himalayan nook welcomes back diaspora and dribbles
The volleyball final in progress. Picture by Shyam G Menon

For a fortnight this June, a playground in Munsyari drew crowds of people. They were residents of Kumaon’s Johar Valley and members of its far-flung diaspora.

June is Johar’s month of annual get-together. The magnet is that playing field.

It hosted competitions in various sports. Evenings featured football, coincidentally befitting the times — for, as the local competition peaked to its final by mid-June, in faraway Brazil the 2014 Fifa World Cup got under way. It became Munsyari’s season of football within a global season of football.

Munsyari’s football, however, went beyond the sport.

Over 60 years ago, in 1953, a group of students from the Johar Valley studying in Almora started the Johar Club. Their idea was to get together and keep the Johar in them alive through sports. Thus was born the tournament.

The first sport it featured was volleyball. For the first three years, this annual ritual was hosted in Almora. In 1956, it shifted to Munsyari. It has remained there since.

According to Sriram Singh Dharmshaktu, secretary of the Johar Club, the inaugural tournament in Almora drew half-a-dozen teams or so. By 1956 this grew to around 20 —mostly local — teams, including teams from villages like Darkot, Bunga, Sarmoli, Suring, Dumar and Jalat.

The variety of the sports also grew to encompass volleyball, football, carrom, chess, table tennis, badminton, etc.

Soon, teams from outside Munsyari started coming, among them teams from Lucknow, Delhi, Bageshwar, Thal and Didihat. No matter where a team was from, one thing stayed common — its members hailed from the Johar Valley.

This year, the tournament had 16 senior and 15 junior teams, including school teams. For the first time the event also featured girls’ teams, with four teams registered to play football.

These all-girl outfits were named after well-known adventurers — Bachendri Pal, Chandraprabha Aitwal, Sabita Dhapwal and Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu.

Further, in what was probably recognition of the growing popularity of running in India, there was a 15km run from Munsyari to Darkot and back.

There is no age restriction for senior teams. It was visible, for example, in the volleyball final where a mix of youth and age fought an engaging match.

In the Himalayas, cricket is popular. If you have hiked often, you would have seen villagers playing the game; a good hit typically travels down several terraces with a fielder chasing the ball and climbing back up.

In the mountains, big flat spaces are hard to find, yet there are regular inter-village cricket tournaments. Probably because cricket has its own established circuit, the sport hasn’t been part of the Johar Club’s annual tournament.

Munsyari is small enough for most people to know each other. Well known mountaineer and 2014 Padma Shri recipient Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu hails from Johar. June was his month to be home too.

A local hero and chief guest for an evening’s football, he was formally received in town and taken in a procession to the stadium. Years ago, Love Raj had been on a team playing football at the same annual event.

Ahead of the match, oblivious of the gathered crowd, his little son had fun kicking the football around in the stadium.

On the day of the football final, the two teams walked down the bazaar road to the stadium with their supporters, one accompanied by a traditional Kumaoni band and the other by a school band.

The small stadium was full of people; the nearby houses had people on balconies and rooftops just like cricket matches in Mumbai.

There were people watching from the roads uphill and some poised on top of rocks. There was no dearth of flourish, either, for the final ended in a penalty shootout with the goalkeeper for hero, a trend that would repeat itself at World Cup matches weeks later.

Interestingly, for a long time, the football here couldn’t accommodate teams of 11 players each because of lack of space. In 1970, with help from residents, the playground was enlarged. The team sizes went up from nine to 11.

Preparations for the annual tournament start in April-May. People contribute, some financially and others by helping with the organising. With so many landing up, it also becomes an occasion to meet friends and relatives. At heart, the tournament is a reunion.

The annual community reunion around sport in Johar was a reminder of a similar event elsewhere.

Far to the south, in Coorg (Kodagu), there has been the tradition of an annual field hockey festival. It started in 1997.

In the past, the region had been famous for talented field hockey players. A typical tournament saw people who had played at the state, national and international levels turn up to represent their families.

A difference between Johar and Coorg was that in Johar, team identities spanned roots in Johar for those from the diaspora participating as visiting teams, and to specific villages and institutions (schools, for example) in Johar for the local teams.

Either way, it was linked to a place. In Coorg, the idea of roots went deeper — to teams arranged under family names.

(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)