Harilal Singh earns his living from farming the family’s 15 acres — an unrewarding task given the number of mouths to feed. So he can only hope that his daughter turns out like her aunt Surinder Kaur, the 26-year-old captain of the Indian women’s hockey team, who has singlehandedly lifted her family out of poverty, paying for a new house and land with the prize money she got from various tournaments. Today, she has a six-figure bank balance.
But Surinder is not an exception in the tiny hamlet of Shahbad Markanda, 180 km north of Delhi. In the last ten years, under the keen eye of coach Baldev Singh, Shahbad has produced as many as 27 international players, each with a story similar to Surinder’s. And he promises “much more” in the future. “When we started this programme in 1993, we had only 10-11 students. At that time, the girl-players faced a lot of stigma. But after players like Suman Bala, Surinder Kaur, Rajwinder Kaur, Kiran Bala, Simarjeet Kaur, Sandeep Singh and Vikramjit Singh started to do well internationally — the attitude of the villagers began to change. Today we have more than 60 students over here, mostly under the age of 15. Now everyone wants their girls to play hockey — it’s their only way out of here.”
Finding Shahbad was a task in itself. Deep in the Jat heartland and with a population of 35,000, and a sex ratio of 750 (one of the lowest in urban areas), it seems to be an unlikely gold mine of hockey talent. Strangely, cricket has never been a draw here. As Harilal says, “Hockey is cricket over here — and it has been like that forever.”
Baldev Singh is responsible for the astro-turf stadium in Shahbad, one of the few in the country, the heart of all the action in Shahbad. Everyday, in the morning, and after school, girls cycle down to the stadium to practise the sport that could be their ticket to the good life.
One parent, Arjun Singh, tells me, “Being a hockey player of repute ensures a good match for the girls. I am poor — this is her only chance to do anything.” The girls love the exercise. As Rajwinder Kaur, who’s recuperating from a back injury and has just returned from the national camp, puts it, “It’s the only fun thing for us girls to do here.” Looking at the excited looks on the faces of six-year-old Amandeep and seven-year-old Navneet Kaur as they chase a ball on the turf, I think I can understand why. In a town where it’s not safe for a girl to go out after dark, Singh’s ‘nursery’ is like a free zone in a battlefield. But in all the hoopla over women’s hockey, it’s the boys who’ve lost out. Earlier both sexes played together in the stadium. “It was the close interaction and competition between both sexes that gave the women a real advantage over their peers,” says Gurcharan Singh, the father of Sandeep Singh, the captain of the men’s team. But now boys are not welcome. They have to practise on the grassy field of the nearby DAV school. “The boys don’t practise — they just roam around with their sticks,” a local tells me. So while there’s a generous crop of women hockey players from Shahbad, that of the men has been drying up. There are murmurs of problems and rumours of tomfoolery. But the girls and their parents are tight-lipped. But the trickle down of this is being seen, with crime and rising unemployment among the youth. Gurcharan has a different take — “The boys leave hockey for jobs which will earn them much more, but for girls in Shahbad, hockey is the only job opportunity.”
Perhaps it’s only fitting that hockey, India’s troubled national sport, should find new life in Shahbad and other places like it in the rural hinterland. As for the girls, they don’t want to play so that they can shift to a big city, or live the good life. They play because, as Simarjeet, who works for the Northern Railways now says, “It is the only thing we are good at, and it allows us to walk with our heads held high in the village. All I can ever hope to be is a good hockey player.”