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This 18-year-old broke out of his Taratala ‘basti’ to play rugby for India

‘It is my only way out,’ says Arjun Mahato, who was scouted by Khelo Rugby when he was eight

Vedant Karia | Published 09.10.23, 05:36 PM

Photos and video content: Soumyajit Dey; video editing: Somak Sarkar

The most striking thing about Arjun Mahato isn’t his rugby skills, which have earned him a call to the India Under-20 team. It is his maturity beyond his years. Arjun shared his journey from being a vulnerable boy in a slum to a promising sportsman with My Kolkata.

Born in Bongaon, Arjun’s father died when he was just two months old. His mother and aunt raised him and his brother. Growing up in the slums of Taratala wasn’t easy for the Mahatos. “Raising us without my father was very difficult for my mom and her sister, more so because of rampant hostility in our area. My mother is the only one who works in our family, and she would earn Rs 3,000 when we were young. How do you supplement the education of two kids, let alone run the house?”

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Rugby had no presence in Arjun’s neighbourhood. He grew up playing cricket, football and kabaddi with the boys of his para. When he was eight, a chance visit from Akash Balmiki, (head coach at Jungle Crows and a rugby player who has represented India) changed his life. “Akash bhaiya brought a unique ball with him and asked us to play a fun game.” While the kids weren’t initially interested in the sport, Akash had come bearing gifts. “He gave us Parle G biscuits and juice. Humne socha, football khelne se kuch nahi mil raha, rugby khelne se khana toh milega (I get nothing from playing football. At least with rugby, I’m getting some food). We started learning how to play rugby just because of food,” Arjun chuckles.

He showed promise and was brought by Akash to the legendary Crow Field at Maidan. Soon, he became a regular feature at Khelo Rugby’s winter camps. There is a twinkle in Arjun’s eyes as he reminisces, “We got even more food there! Humein pehle kabhi bread-anda nahi mila tha (I had never had bread and eggs before). We just thought about finishing the games and getting back to eating!” Gradually, his motivation towards the sport transitioned from nourishment to passion, and he began taking his training more seriously.

One of the biggest reasons behind this was how rugby brought together his favourite aspects from three sports. “In football, I would enjoy kicking a ball. I also had fun tackling people in kabaddi. In cricket, I would relish throwing around a ball and catching it. Rugby brought the three together in perfect union,” he said. Tackling quickly became his favourite part of the game. “It was very motivating to take down someone bigger than me. It made me feel empowered.”

Arjun made it to India’s under-20 team in August this year

Arjun made it to India’s under-20 team in August this year

The seniors noticed his promise, and the weekly training sessions soon turned into training at Maidan four times a week. In 2018, Arjun played his first competitive match representing Future Hope’s under-14 team. “The tournament was a celebration of Future Hope’s 30th anniversary, and I got to play against athletes from around the world. Even though we lost, it instilled a desire to keep doing better. Mujhe chance mila tha, aur maine soch liya ki isse chorna nahi hai. (I thought I shouldn’t let go of this chance)”, he said.

From that moment, Arjun kept working on himself. In 2021, he finally got a chance to represent West Bengal in the National Games. Since then, he has represented the state’s under-18 team every year. In 2022, he finally had a shot at the next level when he got a chance to play for the India under-18 camp, but wasn’t selected. In August this year, he fulfilled a lifelong dream when he was selected for the India under-20 team. “It was my first time representing India, and I felt very proud. Kabhi socha nahi tha, par hamesha se sapna tha. Ab toh aur bhi dur jana hai (I never thought much about it, but it was always a dream. Now I have to go further),” he smiles.

He confesses that he grew up watching his seniors graduate to wear the prestigious India jersey, and always harboured a desire to join the elite club. “It is a matter of great pride for rugby in Bengal that institutions like Future Hope are providing opportunities to underprivileged young boys and girls. Arjun has the entire Rugby fraternity’s applause and blessings,” says Lav Jhingan, president, Bengal Rugby-Football Union.

Arjun at training

Arjun at training

His talent was noticed by actor and Indian Rugby Football Union president, Rahul Bose. While attending the Khelo Rugby games, Bose was impressed by Arjun’s promise, and even went to his house to speak to his mother. “He came to our slum and asked my mom how she felt about the injury risk. She started crying.”

Bose also expressed his joy in meeting the families of players. “It gives me perspective into their lives and how tenuously their careers hang based on the pressing realities, be it economic, social or cultural. Arjun’s reality is no different. His story, like so many others in Indian rugby, is as exhilarating as it is unlikely. Couple this with his unassuming grit and fierce pride at wanting to do well for his country and you have the living embodiment of the current India rugby player,” he said.

Arjun gives a rueful smile as he shares his mother’s worries about the injury risk in the sport. His brother is currently due for surgery, due to a torn-ligament sustained on the rugby field. “Our family often asks us not to play, but injury is a part of every sport.”

But all play and no work also makes Jack a dull boy. Luckily, Arjun isn’t Jack. “Mere family ke paas itna paisa nahi hai, ki mujhe padha paaye (My family didn’t have the money to educate me). The greatest thing rugby has given me is an education,” he said. Khelo Rugby supported Arjun with scholarships for his tuition fee, books, and even his uniform throughout school. He is currently pursuing a degree in sports management at George College, Sealdah. “My life has always been around one phrase: padho aur khelo (Study and play). I don’t want to give everything to studies or rugby, and fail in the other one. I want a balance.”

Everything around his day is structured to keep this balance intact. Arjun wakes up at 6am every day and heads straight to Bhawani Bhawan, where Akash Balmiki continues to provide him fitness training. He returns home, only to have breakfast, followed by college. Four times a week, he cycles to Crow Field for training, returning home by 7pm, only to do it all again the next day.

Arjun’s face lights up as he shows off his cycle, another gift from Khelo Rugby to help him commute. He believes in giving back, and works as a community leader for Khelo Rugby, training approximately 100 children in slums around Fatehpur and Taratala. His role is to ensure that young, vulnerable kids find a purpose. “We teach them the basics at their local ground, and bring those who show potential to the Crow Field for more advanced training. Akash bhaiya honed our talent in Taratala, and it is my duty to spot future talent and grow it,” he beams. Jungle Crows founder Paul Walsh reflects on Arjun’s growth with pride. “It’s fantastic, the things our rugby-crazed children can achieve with resilience and perseverance. Whether they play for India or just dart about in their para they are very special," he smiles.

When he was selected for his first competitive tournament at the age of 13, Arjun knew that he wanted to play rugby professionally

When he was selected for his first competitive tournament at the age of 13, Arjun knew that he wanted to play rugby professionally

When asked what his life would have looked like had rugby not given him direction, he pauses for a bit before chuckling, “Awaaragiri karte. Basti mein rehke aur kya ho sakta hai? (I would loaf around. What else can you do in a slum?)” Arjun confessed, adding that there are always forces pulling you back. With just one earning member in the family, it becomes even tougher. There is rampant substance abuse among the youth, and he shudders, wondering if he would have also been afflicted by it. “Basti se nikalna bohot mushkil hai (It’s very hard to get out of the slum). But I want to get out, and rugby is my only way.”

His prowess on the pitch earned him respect, and stopped him from being preyed upon in the slums. It gives him the tenacity to deal with bullies, and the exposure has allowed him to identify the kind of man he wants to grow up to be. Arjun’s next target is to make it to the India senior team, a dream that gives him jitters. “It’s no small feat. I get nervous sometimes, thinking about how I’m just an 18-year-old, trying to walk on such a huge path and chase big dreams. But one day, I want to hear, ‘Ek basti ka ladka India ke liye khel raha hai. (A slumdog is playing for India!’”

Last updated on 09.10.23, 05:37 PM
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