Nineteen-year-old Sandeep Kumar and his brothers did something quite unusual. They quit school to pursue sepak takraw, a Southeast Asian game played with a rattan ball.
Predictably, their parents were livid. “When I first told them about the game, my parents were very angry,” says Sandeep, the son of an autorickshaw driver. But the boys were adamant, despite it being a very tough world out there. Sandeep, for instance, struggled to find a financier for a recent visit to Thailand for the King’s Cup, the sport’s world championship.
Finally, a doting grandmother lent him the Rs 15,000 he needed. He vindicated her faith and bagged himself a silver, that never really made the news anywhere. But for Sandeep, it is a labour of love. “Still, I cannot keep asking for money every time.”
What he’s hoping for is a job in the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, or the Border Security Force. They, along with the Manipur police, are the only ones who employ sepak takraw players. The Manipur police, however, hire only Manipuris.
“If I don’t make it however, I am thinking of doing a menial job to sponsor my interest,” says Sandeep.
It’s not much different for others who are valiantly trying to live life in pursuit of a passion few understand --- be it sepak takraw, ball badminton, cycle polo, wushu or korfball.
Take 17-year-old ball badminton players from Delhi, Anurag Yadav and Akshay Bajaj. The sport is not an Asian Games discipline nor does it have a world championship. So why play it?
“Because it’s something we love,” says Anurag. “People say, ‘you want to play, play cricket, what the hell is this ball badminton. It won’t get you a job’. Sometimes we get upset but then, we get back to playing what we love most and it calms us.”
Akshay is more direct. “My choice of sport cannot be decided by society.” It isn’t just an unusual individual here or there who pursues these sports. There are organised (and disorganised) federations too.
The sepak takraw federation gets an annual grant of Rs 10 lakh and reserves half for sub-junior competition. The ball badminton federation used to get a grant of Rs 12 lakh but infighting has cost it that grant. It hasn’t received any grant since 2004.
So what hope do those who play ball badminton have? A job in the Indian Railways. And, despite its lack of a profile, four ball badminton players have received the Arjuna.
While ball badminton has been around for years, sepak takraw and wushu, a martial art with shades of wrestling, were introduced here in the Eighties. Interestingly, India’s done pretty well in wushu, winning over 100 medals at the international level.
And then there’s cycle polo, a variant of polo, in which India’s won four World Cups. The difference from polo is that instead of horses, the players ride on cycles. Sounds like fun.