Football cures addicts in cricket-crazy India!
A frail-looking man named Diosiam jogs on to a football field in an upmarket New Delhi suburb, followed by a band of keen-looking players -- all of them ex-drug addicts or living with HIV/AIDS.
They warm up on the slushy field as a small crowd gathers to see them in action, not a common sight in a country besotted by cricket.
But football is now being used as a therapy for those trying to put their lives together after years of drug abuse or who have been sidelined by society due to their being infected by the HIV virus.
"Football has turned out to be one of our major successes... in helping bring people back on track," says Shantanu Chowdhury, 46, a programme manager with non-governmental organisation Sahara which operates a treatment centre here.
"The game helps our inmates not only to gain fitness but also acts as an instrument of empowerment. It has helped them boost their morale and lead a healthy life," says Chowdhury, an ex-drug addict who has been working with the organisation for nine years.
Some 200 people are at any one time involved in various therapy programmes run for the past 28 years by Sahara in the south Delhi suburb of Greater Kailash, according to Chowdhury.
While women are engaged mainly in handicrafts, men focus their energies on football -- and a rock band they have formed at Sahara, which terms itself "a therapeutic transitional community".
"Football has made me feel part of society as it has brought me back into the mainstream," says Diosiam, 33, who like many Indians uses only one name.
"I was fed up with life but could not get out of drugs. During rehabilitation, football gave me a zest for life and I now play in Delhi's A division league," he says with pride.
Diosiam, who has been at Sahara for eight years -- first to kick an addiction and later as an employee -- is one of seven players from Sahara who are good enough to have made it to the Delhi league.
Diosiam's cousin Sawmpau, who died of AIDS a few years ago, was instrumental in inculcating football in their daily routine and a tournament is organised in his memory every year.
Initially residents of Chittaranjan Park resisted the idea of allowing players from Sahara to play football on the local ground.
"Convincing the residents' association to let us use their ground was not easy," says Chowdhury.
"It took a lot of effort to make them understand that our players are normal people who made some mistakes in life," he says.
Now teams from Sahara regularly use the ground to play against each other or against teams from other parts of Delhi.
"(Local residents) come out to watch us play. Some even join us for a game, which shows that the stigma attached to drug users and HIV positive persons is eroding," says Diosiam.
Most players on the Sahara teams are from northeastern India, where football is more popular than cricket, but some foreigners from Iran and Nigeria living in India on permits have also joined up.
Diosiam, who hails from the northeastern state of Manipur, feels football has helped forge a strong bond between Sahara inmates and has also helped them create an identity.
For some, he says, football heralds a new beginning in life.