The real Chak de story
There is little to distinguish Shahbad Markanda from the rest of Haryana. Like most towns that dot this northern Indian state, it is overwhelmingly male — in outlook, in character, in preferences.
A few miles from Ambala down the GT Road, it also has the dubious distinction of having among the worst child sex ratios in the country - around 740 (girls to a 1000 boys) according to a 2005 mid-census. Till not very long ago, female foeticide and female infanticide were rampant here, and in families that were barely managing to make ends meet, not having a male child (read: a bread-winner) was not an option.
On the face of it, to be a woman here is clearly not an advantage. But scratch beneath the surface and you find an incredible story, one of courage in the face of extreme adversity; of a generation of women who have used sport to change their lives and that of their families and, most importantly, a story of how they are re-shaping mindsets and social consciousness.
Girls, girls, girls
Shahbad has produced about 30 women’s hockey internationals, while over two-dozen girls have got jobs in the Railways because of the sport. For most of them, hockey was the vehicle that took them away from poverty and helped them carve a name for themselves in a totally male-dominated society.
"In the beginning, my parents were somewhat hesitant about letting me onto a hockey field. But I convinced them and they never regretted it," says 20-year-old Ramneek Kaur, her family’s lone earner. "My father died last year and I got a Railways job only because of hockey."
Shahbad's most famous family perhaps, is the Sainis, four of whose daughters played for India. Kiran Bala, Simarjeet Kaur, Balwinder Kaur and Gurpreet Kaur, the daughters of two brothers married to two sisters, all have Railways jobs and raised the family’s profile in their community.
Gurpreet, now married and settled in Punjab, gave birth to baby boy last year. But she wanted a girl. "What girls can do for the family you can't expect from boys," she laughs. "We're living proof of that".
Six Shahbad girls were part of the Doha Asiad bronze medal winning squad, five in the silver medal winning squad in the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games and 10 are currently attending the national camp for the Olympic qualifiers in Lucknow.
The girls give most of the credit for this societal change to a person many call a Renaissance man, Baldev Singh, Deputy Director, hockey in the Haryana Sports Department. "I worked for four years in Shahbad between 1982 and ’86 and built up a rapport with the locals, so when I returned in 1992, people trusted me enough to allow their girls to come to the hockey field," says Singh.
Money and much more
The job incentives are obviously a huge motivation. "I want my daughter to became a hockey star one day and hope that the sport will better her life," says Om Prakash, who enrolled seven-year-old daughter Reeth in hockey classes three years ago.
And Reeth is picking up the sport very fast. You ask her name and age, she takes a while to answer but ask her to dribble and she's off in no time.
A bunch of women from here have shown the city's rather conservative fathers what hockey and determined women can do. Suman Bala, a 10-year India veteran, has earned about Rs 75 lakh in awards. She has built a multi-storey house. Saroj has won Rs 50 lakh. Jasjeet used part of the Rs 30 lakh she has earned to help her brother settle in Australia.
Seventeen-year-old Ritu Rani, part of the Doha bronze medal team, is waiting to turn 18 and get a Railways job. "It's nice when you have lakhs of your own and can support your family like a male child," says Ritu, excused from the national camp for her final exams.
But it wasn't always easy for her. "We were initially ostracised by the community for allowing Ritu to play hockey. Now, they all want their girls to play hockey," says Ritu's brother Sunil Kumar.
Finally, there is 13-year-old Rani, perhaps the national camp's youngest player. The daughter of a manual labourer, she is certain that one day, hockey will take her family away from a life of abject poverty. Her mother stands behind her, somewhat shy, somewhat scared. But ask what she wants her daughter to be and she brightens, "An international hockey player".
For the people of Shahbad, this is the real Chak de story.