The centre plaque in the trophy cabinet of the Singh sisters’ household in Varanasi has been left empty despite their 25 years of participation in basketball tourneys, local, national and international.
All five sisters – Priyanka, Divya, Prashanti, Akansha and Pratima – have played basketball competitively. For Prashanti, her Arjuna Award is the culmination of not just hers but all of their efforts.
In a candid chat with The Field, Prashanti said, “We hadn’t filled the centre spot because we were waiting for an award for our contribution and it took too long to arrive. Now, this [Arjuna] award will finally take its rightful place in the cabinet.”
Storming a male bastion
The third of six siblings (five sisters and one brother) hailing from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, Prashanti didn’t have to look too far for inspiration as sister Priyanka was already making waves in the circuit by the time that she wanted to take up the sport seriously.
The 32-year-old, born to an employee of the Allahabad Bank and a teacher-turned-homemaker, said that her quest was to break stereotypes. “In Banaras, no girl played basketball before Priyanka started. They used to come ask us, ‘Why is your mother washing so many clothes?’ I just wanted to disprove these people and the society. My mother told me that my job was to study and play and not to listen to these naysayers.”
All five sisters were trained by Amarjit Singh, who according to Prashanti, took pains to ensure that the girls played as much as they wanted. At 17, Prashanti bagged an Economic Honours seat at Delhi University but gave it up to join MTNL. “The economic pressure on my dad, who was the sole earner for a family of eight, so me and Divya decided to join MTNL on a sports quota.”
It was the same year, 2002, that was the breakthrough year for Prashanti. Having played in the nationals, she was selected for both the junior and senior India teams. While she debuted in the junior category, a SARS outbreak meant that a senior tournament in Japan had to be postponed till the start of 2004 where she finally earned her first senior international cap.
A clutch player
“Boskey”, as she is known within the family, had one of the first documentaries on Indian basketball focus, B Cube (Boskey Basketball Banaras) on her life and achievements.
One of her fondest memories of leading the team was at the Fiba Asia Cup 2011, where she put up a remarkable show despite being injured to keep India in Division A. “It was a must-win game against Malaysia. We were trailing by six points, but I bagged the last eight points to ensure that we wouldn’t get relegated.”
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Stubbornness is the key to her success, said her first coach Amarjit. “If you look at all the good players, they’re a bit stubborn. She’s very set in her ways and this quality of hers, to win at all costs, is what drives her.”
She became the first Indian woman to have competed in two Asian Games, including the Guangzhou 2010 edition, where the women took part after a gap of 28 years.
Despite winning 22 medals at the national level, Prashanti considered retiring altogether in 2012. One of the scenes for a memorable triumph over Korea in 2011, a first for Indian women, her exclusion from the team for the 2012 William Jones Cup made her want to quit.
“I had taken off two days but had come back to camp but they dropped me on the flimsy pretext that I had been absent for ten days,” said a visibly upset Prashanti. “I considered retiring from the sport.”
Basketball in India has hit a rough patch since the Basketball Federation of India split into two factions in 2015. That has affected Prashanti’s nomination process, who has had to go through the Sports Authority of India and the Indian Olympic Association, who can nominate three picks each. This year, she was nominated by SAI.
“It’s not about me but about all the players,” she said. “For three years, nationals have been de-recognised. We were to participate in the 2016 South Asian Games but the basketball tournament was declared not official by Fiba due to the IOA’s involvement in the BFI. Training camps and facilities have also been affected and Indian basketball has regressed.”
She added, “BFI have punished me and my sisters because I spoke out in the past. But as a former captain, I feel it’s my right to speak up on behalf of the players who have suffered due to this impasse. In 2013, we had our best ever finish in the Asia Cup (fifth) but in 2015, we were relegated and in 2017, we won Division B. But we’re not moving forward.”
‘Didi, click a selfie with me’
The introduction of a league for women is paramount, said Prashanti. “Women’s basketball in the country has four to five good teams. If a good player plays for a weaker team, there’s a chance she might not get noticed. A league with a PPP (private-public partnership) model may work.”
Satisfied on receiving the award, Prashanti’s immediate plans are to help sister Divya with the setting up of grassroots leagues on which the latter, a one-time assistant coach with the Indian team, has been working on for more than a year.
Having appeared on the cover of Elle and Vogue, there have been multiple modelling contracts that she has received but she laughed it off saying, “We even received offers to make a movie on the Singh sisters similar to Dangal, but we were busy with our commitments and that wasn’t the right time.”
There’s also huge respect for fellow awardee Bembem Devi. “Football is a sport where we didn’t win any medals at the Asian level,” said Prashanti. “Yet, she kept fighting for the sport’s recognition for 21 years. The award should have come earlier but she has shown unbelievable spirit.”
For Boskey, the real reward is not on the court or the award but the change that her rise has precipitated back home. “When I started, there were hardly any girls playing the sport in Banaras. Now when I go back, there are girls who call out to me, say Boskey didi, and click a selfie with me,” she said, before breaking into a smile.
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