BENGALURU: Dressed in crisp uniforms, sporting the Hockey India symbol on their shirts, India’s top women’s hockey players greeted us with a warm smile and visible pride. After all, it will be the first time in 36 years that the women’s team will represent the nation in the Olympics. This is the first time ever that a women’s hockey team from India has qualified for the world’s greatest sporting extravaganza.
A feat that has put the spotlight on these gritty young women who hail from difficult backgrounds and a socio-economic status that is so patriarchal that it frowns upon a woman who sets foot outside her household.
Rani Rampal, the 21-year-old striker from Haryana, tells us her story. “I am from a little known village in Haryana. My father is a cart puller, we are a poor family. Back in the village, if a girl child plays a sport or even sets foot outside the house, it is considered a disgrace. Though my parents always supported me, they had to bear a lot of insults thrown at them only because I play hockey.”
For 23-year-old Poonam Rani, who is also from Haryana, things were no different. However, playing hockey has given her a life that she had never dreamt of. Jet-setting to countries across the globe for tournaments, wearing branded sports apparel, using smartphones, or even having a square meal was once far fetched. “I remember playing hockey wearing shoes worth Rs 50. I could not afford a hockey stick because it cost Rs 500. My father is a farmer and initially my family was against me playing hockey. It was really hard to convince them and looking back, I am happy I persuaded them. Back in Haryana kids play a lot of hockey and it was only after I started playing in the national team that I am getting to see the comforts of life. Today, my parents are amused that I travel by flight and have seen countries outside of India,” she says with a sparkle in her eyes and smile on her lips.
Living with the team here in Bengaluru, at Sports Authority of India, where they are busy preparing for the 2016 Rio Olympics, the women are full of hope and determination to achieve. “We perhaps would have been married if we were not playing hockey,” says Deepika Thakur, who will lead the country in the series in New Zealand which starts this week.
Away from home and their families, the women have found solace in each other, who stand by their teammates like soul sisters. “We dance, we sing and we make a lot of masti (fun). And if ever someone is feeling low because of any family problem, we talk to them and try to sort it out,” says Ritu Rani, who led the Indian team into qualifying for the Olympics in the World League held in Belgium last year.
“Since we have been playing together for a long time, we understand each other well. We know our strengths and weaknesses on and off the field and are there for each other and count on each other,” she adds.
With Hockey India providing them hefty cash awards and monetary recognition for their achievements, the women today have taken the onus of providing for their family. “We are able to give back our earnings to run the family. Nobody in our village talks of us badly anymore but are proud of us. It makes us feel happy,” says Thakur who won the best player award in the women’s category at the recently held Hockey India Awards here in the city. She was awarded Rs 25 lakh.
This June, when these women will take on the world’ stop teams to battle for the coveted medal, back in their minds, they know they have already won a battle back home – breaking free from the stereotype.