TOUCHDOWN SARASWATIPUR

t2oS travels to the unlikely cradle of Bengal’s Rugby revolution

  • Published 13.08.17
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We started with very few children, about 10 girls and eight boys. Now we have a few hundred kids. In the beginning, I had to go around convincing their parents to let them play but they didn’t want their girls running around in shorts. and now they want them to play in more tournaments!
Roshan Xaxa,
Jungle Crows coach, who moved to Saraswatipur in 2015 (instead of Goa) to further the Khelo Rugby cause

Rolling tea gardens. Misty mountains in the distance. A deviously placid river lapping at its brink. Tall forest trees standing sentry for amiable, scrupulously polite people. That’s Saraswatipur for you. This little village in Jalpaiguri is an eight-hour journey if you board the Shatabdi Express at Howrah Station and disembark at New Jalpaiguri, and another 40 minutes on the road to the tea gardens. But you’re unlikely to visit it. Unless you happen to know the managers of the tea estates, it is implausible you will have a concrete structure to put up in.

What took us to Saraswatipur then, you ask? They play rugby.

That’s right.

ENTER CROWS AND AN EGG-SHAPED BALL

It’s a village almost solely of tea pickers and others who work on the tea estates. Schools are some 8km away, so playing truant is the acceptable norm. Who cares about school anyway when passing Class X board exams seems unlikely and there are always job openings at the tea gardens. There isn’t much more to life other than tea leaves and a spot of drunken revelry after hours, or fooling around in the woods.

Then the Jungle Crows swooped into the village four years ago with an egg-shaped ball, calling for volunteers and tempting the young ones with organised revelry. Of course, it raised suspicions until the brave ones, turning a deaf ear to naysayers, plunged into the field, racing their way to success, going on to play in international and national tournaments.

It took a priest from Siliguri, now based in Calcutta, who made weekly visits to Saraswatipur and held mass at Mother Teresa Church, to notice that too many children were spending their days fruitlessly. He invited Paul Walsh, founder of sports and social development organisation Jungle Crows, to add purpose to their lives. Adding purpose to seemingly destitute lives happens to be Paul Walsh’s particular forte, but more on that later.

RUGBY AND RESPECT

“I met Paul when I was in Calcutta, so I thought of calling him when I noticed that these children weren’t really doing anything with their time. They’d go to the forest or waste time near the riverside. We had a creche for the mothers to leave their babies behind when they went to work at the tea gardens and we had a primary school, but the older children needed more to hold their attention,” said Father Matthew George, who left Siliguri three years ago and is now the secretary of the Don Bosco Society in Calcutta.

These days there are more children in Saraswatipur playing rugby than not and there are more kids watching from the sidelines, waiting their turn, than kicking up their heels in the forest. Thirty-six-year-old Anand Lakra teaches English at Father Paul Memorial School, which is a secondary school that prepares the children for senior school. He has noticed a significant change in the rugby-playing kids. “They’ve learnt to respect each other, they’re less distracted and more focused than they used to be, and after school they head to the field to play and not just fool around.”

ROLLING BUT NOT ROWDY

We happened to witness the Kichad (it means ‘mud’) Rugby Tournament in Saraswatipur on August 6, which had 295 participants, all under 14, 133 of them girls. What was startling was not the manner in which they played the game, which sure was impressive, but the military discipline they maintained at all times. The little ones had been trained by older players who have been on the field for a few years now and are between 16 and 18 years old. These are the “young leaders” and their world is not thwarted. There are serpentine queues and measured cheers instead of cheeky retorts and curses for rivals. The spirit of sportsmanship has been carefully honed.

“They’re very attentive. They’re more attentive than the city slum kids and smarter too. We gave them leadership programme tasks and the city leaders took five hours to finish it while the Saraswatipur kids took three,” said Peter Fernandes, programme manager for Khelo Rugby, an initiative by Jungle Crows that gives its young members valuable lessons in sociability and discipline.

THE WARM-UP

Warm-up means sprinting to the end of the field. Four boys from the village are currently scuttering around trying to get their passports as India got a late call-up to next month’s Under-17 Asian Rugby at Chinese Taipei (Taiwan)

SPORT FOR DEVELOPMENT

Khelo Rugby was formed in 2009 and the tenets of the programme have been sharpened to aid education and employment among the underprivileged children.

The initiative was awarded the Spirit of Rugby partnership by World Rugby after the United Nations General Assembly declared April 6 as the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace (IDSDP) in accordance with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which highlighted the role of sport in social progress.
“The Saraswatipur kids didn’t know anything about life outside the tea gardens. Neither do their parents. So they can’t instil ambition in their children. We organised a career counselling camp in May to explain to them their choices and what they must do after passing Class X,” said Peter Fernandes of Khelo Rugby.

THE ‘TROPHY’

The young leaders were given chicken as prizes for having trained their teams well. The prizes were fried for dinner!

A WORLD BEYOND

Vision, ambition and career options are only some of the side-effects of taking to the rugby field in Saraswatipur. The Khelo Rugby programme saw its first two kids pass the Class XII exams and now they will be going to college on a Khelo scholarship. Five kids are currently interning with Decathlon in Uluberia, studying and playing rugby at the same time. The kids now know a whole world exists outside the tea estate, where they won’t have to work in the factories like their father or pluck leaves like their mother and earn Rs 3,500 a month.

THE GAME

Continuity is the key issue in rugby. You have to keep the ball moving even after being tackled... and move they did!

WHEELS OF CHANGE

Thirty of the senior kids now own bicycles which they’ve earned from Jungle Crows by being exemplary members of Khelo Rugby. Crows coach Roshan Xaxa is up at 5am and heads to the field with the first batch of kids at 6am. The next session is at 3pm after school. What’s great is that the older kids can now ride their bikes to school. So there’s less reason for them to not attend it. Of course, some of them still don’t, but there’s definitely less fooling around now, such as looking for wild mushroom to eat in the jungle.

LIFE LESSONS

The older children, the young leaders of the Khelo Rugby programme in Saraswatipur, are learning how to deal with the responsibility given to them. “We used to yell at the younger kids but our coaches weren’t yelling at us; so we changed tactic and tried to make them understand instead, and that worked better,” said Sandhya.

According to Harinder Singh, manager of Jungle Crows, she is something of a celebrity at out-station tourneys where players from other states ask to take selfies with her. She was one of the five girls from Saraswatipur who represented Rugby India at the Paris World Games in July, placing fifth at this tournament that India was invited to for the first time.

Houses in Saraswatipur are raised on stilts to protect the inhabitants from stray elephants on the rampage, which is a frequent occurrence

TACKLING THE ODDS

The girls had to tackle many of their own villagers before they could tackle their opponents in France. “All my neighbours complained to my parents because I wore shorts and played with the boys. The same people came and congratulated me after I returned from France!” smiled Sandhya who, along with a bunch of others, has shown that a whole new world exists beyond their boundary line. “I want to play rugby for India and go to France,” said 12-year-old Remejus Barla, who’s definitely not the only one with these ambitions in this North Bengal village.

On the other hand, not all parents were dissuasive. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to play. Play hard, study hard. That’s how life should be. God knows, I wish I could have played a game like this when I was growing up,” said Lalita, Suman’s mother. While for Santi, Swapna’s mother, the villagers had warned her of grave consequences for letting her daughter play rugby.

“Everyone used to say they’ll take my girl and sell them, but I didn’t believe them,” she smiled. A picture of Suman and Swapna, along with Poonam and Chandra, adorns the wall of the shamiana off the playing grounds. The four led India to fourth-place in the Under-20 Asian Rugby Sevens at Hong Kong.

“All my neighbours complained to my parents because I wore shorts and played with the boys. The same people came and congratulated me after I returned from France!” said Sandhya, here with mother Pokchi and brother Pramod

A CUPPA TEA AND ... ON THE FIELD

As for the man who turned this little village into the rugby capital of Bengal, he relinquished a cushy job in the British Foreign Service to facilitate the social integration of children who needed him. So, who is Sir Paul Walsh? This former British diplomat displayed a keen sense of humour and a brain that moves faster during a game of cards on a long train journey than his feet do during a game of rugby these days. And all he really needs is a cuppa tea to get him through the day, a habit his mother instilled in him when she refused to let him miss school even though “my head is hanging in my hand, Mum. But she’d say, have a cuppa tea and get yourself to school. That’s what I tell my boys now. Have a cuppa tea and get yourself on the field.”

Which is what t2oS did at Saraswatipur, only to suffer a heroic defeat at the hands of the young rugby champs of the tea estates.

I met Paul (Walsh) when I was in Calcutta, so I thought of calling him when I noticed that these children weren’t really doing anything with their time. They’d go to the forest or waste time near the riverside. We had a creche for the mothers to leave their babies behind when they went to work at the tea gardens and we had a primary school but the older children needed more to hold their attention

— Father Matthew George, who left Siliguri three years ago and is now the secretary of the Don Bosco Society in Calcutta

A lot of people say, ‘Sport can come later, we need to feed people’. But I feel we need to give these kids aspirations. It shouldn’t just be about survival. Some of them have played for India in Hong Kong and France… it’s amazing.

What Lies Ahead

Three or four years ago, I would have said we are going to be big, big, big. We had a programme in Chennai, in Pakistan, in Bangladesh. One of the greatest things that we ever did was a videoconference between kids in Calcutta and Karachi and we finished with a game of Antakshari. But we burnt our fingers a little because we tried to grow too quickly and couldn’t really keep up with all the increasing expenses. So then we had to scale it back. But Zaffar got a job in Bangalore and now he’s building it up again in a different way.

If you think of Saraswatipur, it’s grown organically. Growth has to be gradual, organic, it has to be progress with low cost. Loads of kids in Manipur play rugby but there’s no programme over there. I’d love to see Khelo there, I’d love to see more kids in eastern India playing rugby.

–– Ramona Sen and Rwitoban Deb
Pictures: Paul Walsh, Ramona Sen and Rwitoban Deb

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