A young man is sitting on a railway platform bench. White uniform, black shoes. “What am I doing with my life? I’m a cricketer, but working as a TC, collecting fines.” That’s how the trailer for MS Dhoni’s biopic opens.
Calibrate for Bollywood drama, and the bottom-line is still this: Dhoni hated being a TC. The “untold story”, then, is about how he overcame this plebeian life: by excelling in sports.
Because that’s what sports does. It brings glory, fame, a crore-a-year national contract, endorsements, a spot on the Forbes list. Sure, it takes years. But you knew the name the day he made it to the squad.
Unfortunately, not all sports in India are equal. Ergo, neither are all captains.
It’s a muggy Sunday morning in September. I’m meeting Sushila Chanu (25), the captain of the Indian women’s hockey team, at the Railway quarters in Sion. She shares an apartment with another hockey player, also in the Railways.
It’s a quiet, leafy lane. Down the road, it even gets posh. On one end, parallel to the railway tracks, stand the quarters. They’re frayed, four-storeyed buildings, no elevators, some broken window panes on the ground floor, but otherwise clean. We ask two elderly gentlemen where Sushila Chanu lives. Blank. “She plays hockey…,” we offer. Blank. So we skip the captain bit and fish out the address instead.
Chanu’s on the second floor. An older lady gets the door – a friend, also in the Railways, a former hockey player. “Chanu’s taking a bath,” she says, and ushers us in.
A framed photo of Bajrang Bali stands above the main door. Inside, a calendar-art-ish Radha-Krishna hangs off a hook. It’s flanked by two national hockey team sigils: New Zealand, and Japan (India played both teams in Australia, in May, in the lead-up to the Rio Olympics).
The whole house, in fact, could be an elaborate game of spot the odd one out. Mundane objects interspersed with the remarkable, as if a delivery truck mixed up items from two houses – one set belonging to any middle-class household, the other to a reputed, national athlete.
On the fridge top, inter-state trophies jostle for space with vacation photos and a porcelain laughing Buddha. On the window ledge, there’s a sipper, combs, sunscreen, talcum powder, a bag of detergent, and a Team India photo. Another team photo, signed, from the 2014 Asian Games (India won bronze) has had to climb up a wall, almost to the ceiling, for lack of space below. The shoe rack has a few slippers and platform shoes, but is otherwise a jumble of two dozen sneakers in all colours imaginable.
Chanu steps out in shorts and a T-shirt, says hello, then disappears again to change into a fitted shirt and a pair of distressed jeans. At 5ft nothing, she’s petite, but wiry. A bead bracelet on one hand draws attention to powerful arms. On the other, she straps on a Casio G-Shock she fishes out of a bowl. “I love watches,” she says, breaking into an easy, affable smile. Right now, she could be just another 25-year-old.
She’s reticent. It’s evident in the few TV interviews the newly appointed captain did before Rio. She smiles through them, like a defence mechanism, to make up for the broken Hindi and the discomfort before the camera.
But on most days, she is just another 25-year-old. She sees movies at the PVR nearby. And she likes going to the mall. No one recognises her.
Back home, in Manipur, she says, “Abhi thoda pehchante hain… Zyada nahi.” The smiling defence is in place.
She’s just back from home, a long-due visit, post the Olympics. Between frequent trainings camps, and her job as a ticket collector at Masjid station, she’s only able to go once a year. She must miss the hills, the greenery, miss being home. But she says she likes it here. Mumbai affords her freedom. “Back home, it’s not safe at night. Girls don’t go out after dark. Here, you can go out any time.”
Chanu started playing hockey at 11. There was a turf nearby, and her uncle suggested she try the game, after seeing her interest in sports at school. She’s the only one in the family who ever played hockey. Her father’s a driver, her mother a housewife. Her sister runs a beauty parlour. And her brother’s trying to get a police job.
But Chanu nearly gave it up wasn’t picked for the state. “I didn’t think it would go too far, so I almost quit. But senior players urged me to get back,” she says. Eventually, she made it in open trials.
Evidently, all journeys have challenges. Some must overcome being ticket collectors. Others must earn it by playing for the country.
Chanu’s sports-quota Railway job, where she was recently promoted to a Senior TC, is her only source of income: she makes Rs 26,000 a month. That is, in a month when she’s done her full quota of duty. When she’s at training camp, or, you know, just leading the country at the Olympics, no big deal, she loses her daily allowance and makes even less.
Seem paltry and unfair to you? Well, it doesn’t to her. “It’s enough for my own expenses. I don’t have to pay rent. And when I’m at camp, the food’s taken care of,” she says.
But Dhoni can take heart. Even Chanu didn’t like the job, initially. “When you catch people without a ticket, they cry and plead. I thought I’d never enjoy that… But the job’s a necessity, so it’s something I have to do.”
But there are small perks. Sports-quota employees need to work half the day, so Chanu starts at 8 and is done by 1. She also gets special leave when at camp or a tournament.
Life at camp is all about discipline. Training twice a day, school for the younger athletes, strict meals – “We sneak out on rare occasions to get KFC” – and lights out at 10pm. Sounds like the sort of routine that makes national athletes.
Away from it, it’s a different story. Here, she still has a diet guideline (“not too much oil”), but cooks for herself. She gets to use the Central Railway gym in Parel, but doesn’t have a trainer. And – this is astonishing – Chanu doesn’t have access to any of the hockey turfs in Mumbai.
But that makes her journey all the more remarkable. Some of her other, senior teammates – the likes of Ritu Rani (former captain) and Rani Rampal (India’s star striker) – live at home, at Shahabad (Haryana), which has its own hockey turf. It makes a difference – the little town has produced nearly a third of the players in the Indian team.
Chanu wasn’t even expecting to lead India at Rio. “The team has players with more experience,” she says. But bring up Rio, and the smile fades, the voice gets apologetic. “We weren’t able to do what we’d done at other tournaments. It was a different level. The players were stronger, built better.”
It was a different level. India played all higher-ranked teams, including eventual champions England. For perspective, we had the same odds Kenya does in cricket of qualifying in a group with Australia, India, and South Africa.
But we made it to the big stage. After 36 years. And Chanu can be proud for being at the helm of that. “At the London Olympics (2012), we didn’t qualify. The girls saw the opening ceremony at camp in Bhopal. We wanted to get there one day.”
She reckons we can learn from the Rio experience, and perform better in 2020 (Tokyo). At 25, she’s mid-career. Tokyo, if we qualify again, is likely to be her last shot. She hasn’t given much thought to what after. “I’ll have to do longer duty hours if I don’t play hockey well” is her naïve answer.
She reckons the money and fame, even a Hockey India League for women, might come if the team improves.
Right now, the performance-and-reward debate is a bit chicken-and-egg. The government, even a luxury car manufacturer, jumped in after a wrestler and badminton player won medals. That’s not felicitation, it’s easy publicity.
Maybe they can show support to those who haven’t made it yet. The Chanus of the world will benefit from a fraction of the price of a BMW.
But for now, as we stand at Masjid station, shooting Chanu in her Team India jacket, she only draws curious glances. But the Station Master asks us to click a photo with her on his cell phone. For now, that’ll have to suffice.