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Bengal’s rugby players on the back foot

Gurvinder Singh | Updated on October 18, 2019 Published on October 18, 2019

Rough and tumble: Barring a few well-established clubs, most rugby players practise in open spaces such as the Maidan in central Kolkata   -  IMAGES: GURVINDER SINGH

Despite being the frontrunner of rugby in India, Bengal is yet to provide many of its players, especially the women, with dedicated stadiums, changing rooms and medical aid

Taslima Khatun is almost always on the lookout for a life-sized statue. A member of Kolkata’s Young Rugby Club, the 27-year-old player frequents the Maidan — a stretch of green dotted with football and cricket clubs in the heart of the city — for practice. And she can change in and out of her sportswear only if she manages to find a secluded spot behind a statue or a hedge. There is, however, no option if she needs to use a toilet while at practice. Khatun— like her teammates — has to wait till she gets home on the outskirts of Kolkata to be able to do so.

Yet there is something that keeps her going. A regular at state- and national-level rugby tournaments for the last seven years, she is fighting two battles at the same time. The first is to keep her family from marrying her off. The second is to give rugby a chance to thrive in a nation obsessed with cricket. Or even in her state, despite the fact that West Bengal won the junior rugby nationals for girls in June this year.

“Unlike cricket or football, rugby in Bengal has to fight very hard for survival,” Khatun says as she takes a break from a practice session at the Maidan. “Most of the players here are from poor families and we have never had changing rooms, toilets, physicians,” she says, her voice trailing off as her eyes follow a few passers-by making lewd gestures at the group of girls at the scrum.

Her story is but one among the dozens that players at the rugby session narrate. In a city that still takes pride in its rugby connection — the first game on the Indian soil was played in Kolkata back in the 1870s — there are hundreds of players who are awaiting infrastructure and financial support. Kolkata still has an annual rugby tournament — the Calcutta Cup — that sees a clutch of local clubs at play. The sport is also a part of school curriculum apart from being popular among several city-based organisations that work with street children and orphans (Future Hope, founded by British national Tim Grandage, being one example). But there are few facilities for players.

The odds are heavier against women players. Take the case of 18-year-old Priti Halder, a fruit-seller’s daughter who was part of the team that led Bengal to victory against Bihar in the finals of the junior rugby nationals in Chandigarh. “It is becoming increasingly difficult for my father to spare money for my commute to the practice sessions and other related expenses,” she says. She refers to the welcome the winning team was given at the Howrah railway station on their return from Chandigarh. “Members of the rugby union [Bengal Rugby Union] and some government officials came to receive us. They promised to help us with better facilities. We were quite upbeat and kept waiting for them to contact us again. That didn’t happen,” Halder says.

The eldest among three siblings, Halder says that it’s her passion for the sport that keeps her from giving up on rugby. She admits that life would have been easier had she opted for cricket, football or kabaddi instead. There would at least have been a dedicated space for practice, she points out.

Barring teams such as Future Hope and Calcutta Cricket and Football Club that are better off and have financial back-up, others — YRC, Jungle Crows and Adivasi Rugby Foundation (ARF) — find it difficult to keep themselves afloat. “We get reimbursed for travel by the rugby union while participating in state-level championships but nothing is given for the inter-state club matches. A lot of money goes from our pockets,” Shailen Tudu, the founder of ARF, says. Most of the players in his team are daughters of labourers employed with the tea gardens in North Bengal.

The other area of concern is the absence of accident cover for the players. Mala Saren (25), an ARF player from Bankura district in Bengal, says: “Injuries are common in contact games such as rugby — even during practice. But the medical aid the union provides is limited to big matches. It is difficult for our families to afford long-term treatments, even if the clubs are pitching in.”

Like Saren, Khatun and Halder believe that a sports quota for rugby players will help players get jobs in government offices. “We cannot concentrate on our game if we have to keep worrying about subsistence. People who play cricket or football make decent money, but what do we get after dedicating the best years of our life to rugby,” Saren asks, adding that some of her disheartened peers have hung their boots.

The Bengal Rugby Union is not blind to the plight of these women, but stresses that the situation cannot change overnight. President Lav Jhingan adds that rugby has changed the lives of these players by giving them a platform. “We are in talks with parties for funding and infrastructural developments. Such matters take time. You can’t plant a sapling today and expect it to flower tomorrow,” he says.

Never say die: Taslima Khatun (27), a member of Kolkata’s Young Rugby Club, with a teammate. Khatun faces stiff opposition from her conservative family who want her to give up rugby

 

Until then, Taslima Khatun will need the statues and the hedges.

Gurvinder Singh is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata

Published on October 18, 2019
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