It is 6.30pm and getting dark. It rained in the afternoon and the playground of the government school in Saket is dotted with puddles of water.
In a corner, a group of raucous young students, who have just rushed out of their classroom, are changing into T-shirts with the letters OTHL. These boys who attend the evening school don’t want to miss their game of hockey at any cost before they head home. It’s a game that gives them the hope of a better future.
“My mother does not want me to stay back after my classes but I want to play hockey and get a job; I do not want to become a driver like my father,” says 10-year-old short and scrawny Karan as he rushes to join his hockey team at school.
For 13-year-old Feroz Khan, his teammate, hockey holds out similar hopes. “You see, cricket is rich kids’ game, it will get us nowhere, but hockey surely will.”
Like Karan and Khan, there are thousands of underprivileged children in the capital who believe that hockey has the potential to change their destiny. And the man who has drilled this belief into them is K Arumugam, 58, a Delhi-based IITian and hydraulic engineer-turned-hockey historian.
The letters OTHL printed on the children’s T shirts stand for One Thousands Hockey Legs, a programme Arumugam runs in Delhi and other cities to initiate children into hockey, which for him is both a sport and an instrument of social change.
“If there is a sport that can transform lives of underprivileged children in this country, it’s hockey. This open air game helps children develop personality, confidence, and leadership. I also use the game to impart training in etiquette, general knowledge, and spoken English. This is the game where it is easy to come up and get noticed,” says Arumugam.
Arumugam believes that common citizens, not institutions, can revive hockey. So in 2008, he founded the Hockey Citizen Group, a non-profit organisation to promote the game. OTHL, (One Thousand Hockey Legs) one of its projects, aims to initiate 500 school children into hockey every year in Delhi and other cities such as Chennai, Kolkata. Arumugam, who quit his cushy job as a scientist with the central government to promote hockey, has a lot of passion to achieve his mission.
Under One Thousand Hockey Legs, Arumugam approaches government schools, offers to repair their grounds, provides children hockey sticks, gear and coaches. The idea, he says, is to create hockey teams in schools and foster a hockey culture among the underprivileged.
“Most schools have cricket, football and basketballs teams but not a hockey team. Though I offer everything free of cost, seeking permission of the principal, sports teacher and the class teacher to start a team is not always easy,” says Arumugam, who is currently working with 18 government schools in Delhi, providing hockey training to 1,100 children. It costs him about Rs 18 lakh a year.
Arumugam, who lives in a twobedroom builder flat in Khirki Extension, spends about Rs 12 lakh a year from his pocket — not easy for someone whose only sources of income are his meagre pension and money from his writings on hockey. “Some money comes from donation from my friends.
Corporate sponsorship is difficult as companies back off because they feel I am into some kind of charity for government school children. But thankfully, this year I got some sponsorship in the form of equipment for the hockey tournaments I organized,” says Arumugam, also a hockey historian who has authored about 13 books on the game.
He regrets that hockey is now moribund in a city that once hosted as many as 40 hockey clubs — including the famous Independent Club, Wanderer Club — most of which are now extinct. “Institutional hockey has killed hockey clubs, which is quite a setback as far as encouraging hockey at the grassroots level is concerned. But I am hopeful that this game will be revived one day,” he says.
“I am neither a hockey player, nor a coach. I am just a common citizen and hockey is my first love. I hire professional coaches to train our children,” says Arumugam.
He conducts friendly matches between OTHL schools (schools where he has created hockey teams) and organises Delhi Cup, an inter-OTHL schools tournament. Many of the underprivileged children he has trained have played at zonal competitions. Many others have got selected for their state teams to participate in the sub-junior and junior national championships. “It is just the beginning and I am sure we will be able to produce many players who will play for the country.”
Most students he is working with are children of rickshawpullers, masons, mechanics, and construction workers. Quite a few of them have been selected by the Sports Training Centre (STC) run by the Sports Authority of India in various cities. As we talk, two of his players-Zaseem and Amitcome and touch his feet. Both are leaving for Patiala where they have got admission at a sports training centre run by the Sports Authority of India. “I want to play for the country and if that does not work out, at least I shall get a good job under the sports quota.
My father, a construction worker, is no more and my mother is going through hard times,” says Zaseem.
Soon both turn to Arumugam and say, “Thank you sir, for everything.” A proud Arumugam hugs them and walks towards his car. The next day he is supposed to cheer OTHL girls at a government school in Janakpuri.