This is not a story you hear every day, at least not in India.
It is the story of a young woman who went on her first serious trek in the mountains when she was five; of a family who saw in their daughter not a girl but a sportsperson; of a teenager who did not even try to play football but ended up representing her country in the sport which is dominated by men; of a young professional, armed with a master’s degree from England, who decided to turn her back on the bucks and follow a dream; of a ride that is far from done, a Himalayan journey; of an ordinary person doing extraordinary things.
This is the story of Jyoti Ann Burrett.
It is 6.30 on a wintry morning outside the Haridwar railway station, and a grumpy group has gathered around two vehicles that will take them up into the hills. Their destination – Kuari Pass, at 3900m above sea level, a trying but achievable high.
As the sun begins to trace its leisurely arc, the group is divided into the haves and have-nots. Those who have enough legal tender are huddled around a stove sipping masala chai, and the rest are in a queue outside an ATM.
In this wintry discontent, the entourage was delayed by a trio of Delhi girls who were, it was assumed, fashionably late. When they did show up, every prejudice in the audience was reinforced: One so fair Snow White would have asked one of her seven dwarves to fetch Fair and Lovely, another with hair so luxuriously long Rapunzel would have considered coming out of retirement and the third, clearly the leader, appointed or otherwise, hefting brand boxes of gear from Nike to Lowe Alpine ticked off.
It turned out that they had nothing to do with arriving late, their train being behind schedule, but this did not stop either the tut-tutting from the more mature members of the group or eye-rolling from the young men who were keen to befriend these strange yet lovely creatures.
‘I wanted to be a serial killer’
There was almost no chance that Jyoti, who joined the Burrett clan of Dehradun on the 18th of September 1989, was going to escape the seductive embrace of sport. Grandma Celine played hockey for India, grandpa Stanley was a long-distance runner in the army, father Philip ran marathons for Delhi well enough to be in India camps and brother Justin chewed up the roads at his own pace.
Genetics is one thing, and even here young Jyoti had an out. Her Sikh mother, Neelu Gill, did not ump, hit or catch professionally, but was the enabler that let others run wild. When she was only 13, Jyoti lost her mother to cancer, but this did not deter her from choosing what to do with her life.
“If I tell you what my early career ambitions were, you will laugh at me. My first hero was our maali. I spent all my time running around behind him in our garden. Then I wanted to be a bus conductor. My brother would be the driver and I would be the conductor,” recalled Jyoti. “The next was after I watched the movie Se7en; I wanted to be a serial killer.”
Say that again? When it is put to her that serial killer is not really a career choice, the 27-year-old laughs. But, it was not so funny when authorities at her school contacted Jyoti’s parents, themselves teachers, alerting them about her disturbing ambitions. What seven-year-old turns in an assignment on what they want to be when they grow up with a detailed application to be a serial killer?
Before you think Jyoti warranted intervention back then, listen to the rest of her aspirations: baker, air-hostess, lawyer, veterinary doctor. At least one of those was aided by a professional career-guidance expert. And she was obsessive about each phase, diving deep into worlds she knew nothing about.
The drive from Haridwar was mind-numbing, back-breaking, a passage that had to be endured rather than enjoyed. In the advance vehicle, seated in the worst possible space, the rocking, spine-killing back section of a Tata Sumo were those Delhi girls. We assumed they were all there, for at any given time one was supine and out of sight, another slouched like the world was coming to an end while the third sat guard.
At meals the footballing threesome – the other two being Dhwani Kitchlue and Sanjana Rishi who play for Delhi – were the most normal of the group of 22 that set out to climb a random mountain in Uttarakhand. Normal, to the extent that Dhwani would not eat anything that had dhania in it, had a thirst for warm milk that could put Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s three-litre-a-day regimen to shame and Sanjana would be using her mobile phone like a divining rod, looking for signal where there was none, while a stream gurgled not far away.
Reaching Joshimath even in darkness was a relief, if breathing was less than easy for the non-athletes on the trip, at about 1900 m above sea level.
‘I don’t like social media attention’
When you look at Jyoti from afar, she is the classic tomboy. Hair worn is worn short, slight of build and tanned, she is clearly an athlete. While she can be fierce on the field, and even off it – as her cameo in Nike’s Da-da-ding viral video proves – Jyoti is strikingly pretty and when she smiles her eyes betray a softness that you do not always associate with such ruthless sportspeople.
And, unlike so many celebrities of the Instagram age, Jyoti hates being the centre of attention, making her an intriguing interview subject. She is not shy, but she has no interest in marketing herself.
“I don’t like the limelight. I don’t like social media attention, to be precise,” she conceded. “I don’t like the whole posting and getting tagged and all of that. I like my social media to be limited to people I know, people I’m comfortable with. But today it’s hard to be like that. I don’t know what to say, what photos to shoot and when I ask I’m told to post a picture of myself working out. Who takes a photo of themselves doing exercise? It’s just an alien concept to me.”
It turns out journalists are not the only species Jyoti involuntarily repels. “I was in class nine when I first saw J,” said Dhwani, who is no shrinking violet. “We were playing for the same club and I did not dare talk to her. Her first experience of me was about six years after mine of her, when we finally spoke.” Jyoti acknowledges this disparity and the two can now laugh about it, having become firm friends since.
The third corner of this tiki-taka triangle, Sanjana, talks nineteen to the dozen, but is guarded when asked about Jyoti. “I’m generally an over-friendly person so I start a conversation with anyone around me,” said Sanjana. “But with her, no chance. We met when I was in 10th standard and I kept asking myself who is this intimidating person who doesn’t talk at all? It was much later that I got to know the real Jyoti.”
The real Jyoti is in evidence on the first morning of the trek. Ignoring the ski-lift at Auli, the group sets off on a fairly steep ascent, and, just as water finds its level, the pack was separated into those who romped up the mountain and the rest who huffed and puffed, battling self-doubt and looking for a way to quit.
Jyoti, built like a Sherpa, and breathing like one at altitude, wore rather than carried her rucksack. All sinew and muscle, here was a specimen born to run, built to climb.
The day’s walk was not long, but it was strenuous and an altitude gain of 2,000 feet is not something to sneeze at. At Gorson Bugyal, a meadow appeared as if from nowhere, a cluster of orange tents signalling that we had reached camp.
Boredom led to footballing dreams
The footballing Jyoti hates camp just as much as the trekker loves the feeling of reaching yet another stage in a punishing journey. The first two times she was called up for an India camp, she concocted excuses to stay away. Which player, in any sport, spends a lifetime working towards a goal and then withdraws when the promised land is within touching distance?
Jyoti, who hopes to one day be India’s first-choice winger, started playing football only because she was excessively bored and began juggling, watching videos on YouTube and deftly replicating the footwork. While she should not be expected to idolise a ball-striker, given her admitted lack of ambition to go down that path, Jyoti is taken with the man the Italian media ofter refer to as Er Pupone, the Big Baby. Francesco Totti is not just the top goal-scorer and most-capped player for Roma, and a World Cup winner with Italy, he’s someone who can be a winger, when he is not shoring up the front line or creating opportunities from the midfield.
“My problem is that my left foot is really weak. I don’t really know whether I should make my right foot so good that the other one doesn’t matter, or whether I should try and work on my weaknesses,” said Jyoti, conceding that India’s winger is equally comfortable with either foot. “I’m still one of the younger players on the team. I feel that there’s something left to be done yet. I have more to do in this sport. I’ve not achieved everything I can. Which is why I keep going back. And which is why I have this dilemma every time I’m called up.”
It was her time in England that gave Jyoti the validation that allowed her to overcome inhibitions and give playing football for India a real go. Jyoti, who was good enough to be a part of Tottenham Hotspur’s pre-season training, got lucky in working with Richard Brown and Leigh Begam.
Today, with India, she has many questions about her own game, about what she needs to do to improve, about how she can contribute more, and no-one to turn to. If this was a 27-year-old male cricketer, the coaches would be lining up to offer help. But this is women’s football in India.
The driving winds of Gorson Bugyal make for an uneasy night’s sleep. From high in the hills the cold air goes the bone, layers of fleece, sleeping bags and tents notwithstanding.
Breakfast is carbohydrate heavy and Jyoti eats like a bird. She would not mind a generous portion of streaky bacon, but she eats her dalia and poha without a whimper. When done, she washes the plates and mugs of the triumvirate. One has hands that freeze even at sea level and the other has moved swiftly from breakfast to power nap.
The climb to Chitrakantha, at 3,361 metres above sea level, is an unexpectedly enjoyable one. The gradient is kind and the terrain not the type that threatens ankles. So much so that the crew decides that this is the evening to break barriers and bond. Huddled in the mess tent, a leaky gas-fuelled lamp providing more heat and unnerving odours than illumination, a party-game devised by Dmitry Davidoff in 1986, called Mafia in this group and Werewolf elsewhere gets under way.
Almost nobody understands what to do or how, and while she could have picked herself to be a policeman, a doctor, a villager or a call-girl (It was barman in the original version), our Jyoti appointed herself God. And she was unusually vocal if idiosyncratically benevolent.
‘You get a call and you show up’
Jyoti earns her chops as a personal trainer, putting her Sports Science expertise on the back-burner because it’s too niche to pay the bills. Playing football for India is all very well, but with money only disbursed for the duration of camps and tournaments, no young woman could get by only on a strong right foot. The Railways and other institutions offer jobs, which helps, but the real issue is a lack of game time.
“Till recently there was no league, there are very few tournaments and the season is very limited,” said Jyoti. “We don’t even know when the season is in any given year. You get a call and you show up. If only we could play football 11 months a year instead of three or four, we could actually make a living doing this.”
Going back to cricket, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, and before that, the state association a player represented, would have taken a keen interest in someone trekking the Himalaya. It might even be contractually proscribed. “Nobody knows what you are doing when you’re not with the team, which is most of the year,” says Jyoti. “They have not encouraged me to trek or dissuaded me from doing so, because there is no one in football thinking about what a player does with her time away from camps or tournaments.”
It’s the day. We’re expected to leave at 7am, well before the sun can warm us, and walk for approximately eight hours to the high point of our trek, Kuari Pass, and back. Amidst oxygen-saturation and resting-pulse readings, with the occasional blood pressure reading thrown in, an earnest push towards our very own summit begins.
At a little over 3,800m, it’s not especially high, but the air is rare enough for exchanges of Diamox, primarily a diuretic, and ribald jokes about altitude sickness.
A Kashmiri, Madrasi, Punjabi and a Pahadi walk in to a bar. This is not one of those jokes, and it was not a bar. Back in Joshimath, a quartet actually went in search of chai and maggi. Black tea was never in short supply on the trek and nobody actually had a craving for noodles.
Yet, this was an outlet. A chance to defy the rules that governed and cemented a group over a week that spanned going up a mountain and coming back in one piece. Someone had a cola, another chicken momos with enough chutney to kill a horse, and I smoked two cigarettes like there was never a chance to inhale again.
When we chose two of the four things on the menu, the last one to meet Dhwani leapt up to tell the cook to throw all his dhania away. And another was clear that Sanjana, the outspoken midfielder, would call for seven things before she knew what she wanted. And Jyoti? She did not say a word, because she did not need to. This trio have been on train journeys spanning two nights and three days, in which they’ve seen a woman run naked through the vestibules and been urinated on by a comatose man on a higher berth. They’ve been through a bit, these three.
To follow Jyoti up her beloved hills and back was maddening. Dhwani was confident her favourite J would not end up speaking to the journalist hounding her. Sanjana was asked to prove her fitness by the company that organised the trek, idiotically ignoring the fact that she was pounding her legs up and down a football field for 90 minutes.
In the end, Jyoti proves every day that she is what her family calls a great Burrett, a sporting Burrett. Not by smacking opponents with a hockey stick. Not by running distance when she prefers sprints. Not by avoiding reporters when she could woo words. Not by playing football when she could do anything else.
Jyoti is a great Burrett because she is unapologetically herself. She is the best Burrett she can be, and this is not something most of us can say about ourselves.