They might live in makeshift homes and rarely get a bar of chocolate, they have something that others don’t — gold and silver medals.
Sixteen-year-old Puja Mahato, 15-year-old Laxmi Mahato and 11-year-old Rupali Sardar of ward No. 80 in Taratala are state-level kickboxing champions, The trio recently won gold and silver at the Wako India West Bengal State Kickboxing Championship – 2021 held at Jalpaiguri on November 13 and 14.
Around 50 marginalised girls from Taratala had signed up for a kickboxing training programme by NGO Child Rights and You (CRY) since January this year. For them, it was the first-time ever at kickboxing, though some of them had already trained in karate. Thirteen went on to compete at the state-level meet with nine reaching the national round.
“I had no clue what self-defence was all about,” said Class V student Rupali, who would just watch others train for kickboxing at the local ground from afar. “I loved the way you could punch your opponent. I wanted to learn it, too,” said the kickboxing star, who is training hard for the national leg of the contest.
With both parents working as daily wage earners, four-square meals, a train ride and state recognition were all dreamlike to the 11-year-old. “I am dying to share all the stories with my friends when I go back to school,” she said.
Taking part in the kickboxing competition led to many firsts for the 13 girls, who boarded the general compartment of a train to Siliguri on November 11. “It was my first-ever train ride and an exciting journey. So many of us returned with medals and made our parents proud,” said Class X student Puja, another gold medal winner.
Puja works in a shop and teaches smaller kids to sustain her education. “I started training in karate, before kickboxing, because I wanted to go out and have fun like my sister would do. Soon the training became serious for both of us,” said Puja.
For sister Laxmi, a silver medal winner here, the stay itself was a first. The girls were put up in Woodridge International School where the competition took place. “I had never seen a school so big, forget staying in one. We would be served nutritious food every day. Only, I wish the meals were a little spicy,” said Laxmi, also a black belt in karate.
“I put in four hours of practice on Sunday mornings and two hours on weekday evenings every day,” she said.
Mentor and special educator of the Taratala project Mou Ghosh said: “These children live under the most trying conditions. Most live in homes with barely an asbestos sheet as their roofs. The potential for dropping out of school was high among this lot. We started giving life skill training to around 445 children in the area. Kickboxing has come as a ray of hope for many kids here.”