Currently the craze of the nation, the Sushant Singh Rajput-starrer MS Dhoni: The Untold Story chronicles the Indian cricket captain's journey from a ticket-checker at Kharagpur station to reaching the pinnacle of his sport. Unbeknownst to many sport fans, another Indian captain also forged a similar journey. Unlike Dhoni though, Sushila Chanu still continues to inspect tickets on the Central and Harbour lines of Mumbai's suburban railway system.
And, oh, she also captained the Indian women's hockey team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“When I started checking tickets for the first time, I didn’t enjoy it very much," said Chanu. "When I asked some people to show me their tickets, they would run away from me.”
Chanu started working as a collector when she was 18. “The senior officers would look at my face and would tell me that I looked like a 10-year old,” she laughed, while recollecting her initial days as a ticket-checker, even as Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu pulled a “Vijay Goel” and disclosed to the world that he is not the best with names, even if they are his "family members".
Not your average TC
But Sushila Chanu is no ordinary TC who earns a monthly salary of Rs 26,000. She is chirpy, speaks freely and does not possess the airs of a typical sportsperson, a fact which comes through during a telephone interview.
Considering this lady led the national team out at Rio 2016, the biggest stage of them all, the sense of candour is refreshing. We chat in Hindi, and speak and joke around as though we have known each other for years. Any fears of her well-renowned media shyness are laid to rest as she opens up with a refreshing brand of brutal honesty.
“Kaam nahi chal pata hai (It does not suffice),” stated Chanu, talking about her meagre Railways salary. “When I am in Mumbai, I have to take care of all my expenses. Even when we want to go out and eat on Saturday or Sunday, sometimes we cook for ourselves,” said the captain, who shares a small flat in Sion with an ex-hockey player, also in the Railways.
The 24-year old from Imphal was selected as the captain with less than a month to go for the Rio Olympics when erstwhile skipper Ritu Rani was dropped from the team on performance and disciplinary grounds.
'Scared to talk to you guys'
Asked if she was nervous to receive the captaincy, she says that she does not have to do a lot of the talking. “There are senior players – Rani Rampal, Poonam Rani, Vandana Katariya, who do most of the guiding and talking and we listen to them. We train together and live in harmony. Truth be told, I was scared to talk to you guys (the media),” says Chanu.
Yet this is a woman who almost gave up the sport at the age of 12. Chanu was introduced to the sport by an uncle who pointed out the presence of a turf near her house when she was 11. “Prior to taking up hockey, I used to play all sports – football, boxing included. I was guided by an aunt, who was the only hockey player from my family,” she reminisced of her early association with the sport. She added, “Looking at me, my uncle’s son is adamant on taking up the sport but I’ve asked him to concentrate on his studies.”
She was heartbroken when she did not make it through to the Manipur sub-juniors trials for the North-East sports festival tournament a year later and was put on standby instead. “I quit hockey, only for the seniors and coaches to come to my house and convince my parents that I should continue playing hockey,” she said, remembering the time when she almost gave up hockey for good.
Moving to Gwalior to join the Sports Authority of India academy there, she became a part of the senior set-up by the time she was 20. Chanu recalled her finest hour in blue, “After playing some tournaments with the senior team, we were told that some of us would go for the junior World Cup in Germany. I expected to see my name there, but when I saw that I had been made captain, I was overjoyed.”
A bronze for Sushila and India
India went on to win their first ever Junior World Cup medal under Chanu’s captaincy, beating England to clinch the bronze medal. “When we came home, me, Lily Chanu and Pinky Thokchom were all given a warm welcome. Winning a bronze was the greatest moment of my life,” declared Chanu.
Speaking of Rio, where the women finished bottom of their group, is a painful experience for her but she is frank in her assessment, “We are great in our fitness levels but we are not as physically strong or as fast as compared to other teams, such as Great Britain. Hence, we are doing more of speed training now.”
The defensive centre-half who played with a heavily strapped knee in Rio has undergone surgery on September 15 and is expected to be out of action till March, has her sights set on Tokyo. Her next target is the World League Round 3, which also double up as Olympic qualifiers.
She also hoped that the women’s game will grow in popularity in the country and that sponsors will come in to help, but also knows that these things will not happen unless there are some noteworthy results on the pitch.
At the end of the day, Chanu is like any other 24-year old. A question about what she likes to eat elicited a joyful response. “I love eating from KFC, but our physical coaches have strictly ruled it out. I also like eating ice cream and dosas,” she gleefully added.
In her spare time, Chanu likes to watch sports. She has been following the NorthEast United team in the ongoing Indian Super League. She is very proud of the direction that Manipuri sport is headed in when informed that four players from Manipur are in the Indian football team, “Finally sportspersons from Manipur are getting noticed. There should be five representatives from Manipur in every national team.”