Rugby is not a popular sport in India, but it is handing girls in remote pockets of the eastern part of the country a purpose in life and helping them surpass societal inequities that dog the gender in most parts of the country.

From the tea gardens in Siliguri to a village in Odisha, the physically taxing game of rugby is attracting a number of young girls who are ready to get their hands dirty while getting into the rough and tumble of it all.

On Thursday, a few of them will transcend all such hurdles and get a chance to represent their country in an international tournament. Twelve players, most of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds will travel to France and represent India at the Rugby Sevens Under-18 event at the Paris World Games.

For 17-year-old Sumitra Nayak – captain of India’s junior rugby team – Paris was just a dream. Hailing from a village in Odisha to becoming the captain of the Indian team has not been an easy one. Nayak was a toddler when her father abandoned her family. Her mother was left with three children to bring up. Life has been tough but Nayak doesn’t regret any bit of it.

“In my family, I have a younger brother and a younger sister along with my mother. My father abandoned us and got married to someone else. Then, we shifted to Bhubaneswar where my mother used to work as a maid.”

However, when Nayak was 10, she did meet her father and that was the last time ever. “I met my father for the first time when I was 10. My mother said no when I asked her if I could go see him. But, then I did get to meet him. He worked as a labourer back then,” said Nayak.

Rugby happened in 2008 and since then Nayak has never looked back. Paris isn’t her first trip abroad. Nayak flew to England to play in the under-14 Rugby championships at the Allianz Park.

Sumitra Nayak
Sumitra Nayak

Rugby in the tea gardens

However, the same cannot be said for the five girls from West Bengal who will be travelling abroad for the first time. Their passports had arrived just last week.

For Rima Oraon, Lachmi Oraon, Punam Oraon, Sandhya Rai and Suman Oraon, Rugby was a sport they had to play without their families knowing. Their parents work in the tea gardens, in a village where a herd of elephants often drop by. Belonging to Saraswatipur, near Siliguri these group of teenagers, however, fought the odds to play the sport.

The conservative approach of rural life in India was the main hurdle.

“Initially, we didn’t tell our parents that we are going to train for rugby. It was only later they found out that we are playing a sport which they didn’t even understand. They stopped us from playing the sport. Some said it is not good because we wear small dresses,” said Lachmi.

Some villagers even thought that the people who taught these girls rugby would eventually sell them.

“Once during a club game we had to travel to Odisha, so then people said that ‘these people will sell you by luring you and promising you to take you out of this place’. It was only after we started playing in district then state level competitions that we could convince them that we are not cheating them. We have been playing rugby for four years now,” said Sandhya.

However, once winning trophies became a habit the villagers realised their folly. “The thinking has changed. The villagers who used to make fun of us when we came back winning tournaments by questioning us, ‘where did you purchase the trophy and medals from?’ This cannot be for real. I am sure you are doing all this to show off. They are the same people who take pride in our achievements today,” said Suman.

From left: Suman Oraon, Lachmi Oraon, Rima Oraon, Punam Oraon and Sandhya Rai.
From left: Suman Oraon, Lachmi Oraon, Rima Oraon, Punam Oraon and Sandhya Rai.

The Eiffel tower

Now all they can think about is playing the sport they love in Paris. “We have only heard about the Eiffel Tower,” said Punam.

“In Paris I know about this big tower that everyone has told to see. I don’t know the name but I will definitely go and see it. I have seen it on television and I am eager to see it. It was my dream. I play and study. With Rugby I get to travel also and meet foreigners also. I get to learn a lot of from the exposure I get,” said Nayak.

“I will get something I like for my mother and I will get a lot of chocolates for my brother and sister.”