On the second day of Art of Play’s inter-school football event in Ambala we had programmed the girls matches, the boys/girls’ semi-finals and finals. It had rained the earlier night and was drizzling the morning of the matches as well. All the markings we had done for our two football fields on the first day had vanished. Google, on my phone forecasted rain till 11 in the morning. It seemed like a gloomy day, to me- it felt like we were headed for a disaster in our very first tournament.
We started to mark up the football field in the drizzle, hoping that the clouds will clear, and the sun will show up eventually. The matches were scheduled at 10 am, we were working on the field since 7 in the morning. At 9 am we started receiving calls from almost every school team, asking us if the event was happening at all, given the rains. Our coaches assured the teachers that, there was not much rain at the venue and even if it rained the event will still happen.
Till around 10 am there were not many on the field expect for the Art of Play’s team. My heart was sinking, all the hard work and planning was threatened to go waste. At 10 minutes past 10, the sun appeared through the clouds, so did the first team of the day, a team from a village 30 kms from Ambala, Shehazadpur. It was their girls team, all of them in their salwar kameez uniform.
The moment they saw us the girls came running to the football field. They were all so tiny, so thin I wondered if they could really play football all day long. One girl out of the group stood out, Varsha, if not for her athletic built for her haircut. “Such swag!”, I said aloud to a team mate.
We told the teacher that the girls needed to change into their jerseys, the matches would start in another half an hour. There was a slight hesitation amongst the girls. What happened? I asked, “Didn’t you get your jerseys?”. One of the girls in the group suddenly asked their teacher, “Sir, so should we wear those SHORTS. Are we allowed to play in SHORTS?”. My head twirled a little bit.
“Whattttt!!!!” Why do they need permission for this? Who is he to allow or disallow them? My reality is still not theirs, such different Indias we live in. It’s 2018. Fascinating!
“Phir kya (Then what)? The teacher said, “Go change.” The girl who asked the question smiled from ear to ear. The pure joy on her face for getting to do something that was so trivial for me, left a lump in my throat. This was no time to get emotional I told myself. I had a whole day of the event to deliver.
The girls changed and ran to the field with a football in their hand. In their jerseys they looked free, ready to conquer the world. They started their warm up, with one of our coaches on field. The coach came and told me to focus my attention on one girl, Varsha. “Just watch her play”, he said. She will blow your mind.” I nodded.
In 10 mins the match started, my eyes were fixed on Varsha. After the initial kicking of the ball between the two teams, Varsha finally managed to get the ball at her feet. Off she went almost like the wind! She found her gaps as if there was no one on the field expect for her. It was magical, almost too good to be true. Her body, her movement, her control of the ball, her body balance at such a young age, was stuff of champions. I may not have played football, but an athlete can spot an athlete.
The matches progressed further. By the semi-finals, Varsha had already scored 4 goals- the only girl to have done so. She scored her fifth goal in the semi-final and a reporter who was sitting next to me said in Hindi, “Kamal ka hai woh ladka! Kya technique, kya balance, kya control? Wah! Par madam ladkon ko kyun khela rahe hon ladkiyon ke saath. Mixed teams kyun?” (What a guy! What technique, what balance, what control? But, Madam why are you making the boys play in the girls team?”)
I smiled at him and said, “Ladki hain sir! Ladki hain. Jisne goal mara abhi who ladki hain.” (She’s a girl sir. She’s a girl. The one who hit the goal is a girl.”) I said ladki (girl) three times in that sentence. It wasn’t planned but, that’s how I said it. I think every girl reading this blog will understand, why so!
By the end of the final, Varsha, had scored her 6th goal of the tournament and led her team to victory. She played from all positions- defence, attack, mid-field while striking those goals. She received the ‘best player award’ and two random people also gave her a 500 rupee note each, as blessings. Later in the day she described this to be “the best day of my life”.
The real prize for me though, was when the official government football coach of Ambala district noted her contact details in his diary. “I will try and talk about her to the district selectors I know. With proper training she can do some great things for the Ambala football team.”
By the end of day two, the Art of Play team was so exhausted that we sat on the ground of Rajiv Gandhi stadium, for almost an hour. Not talking to each other, mostly in silence. Lying down under the twilight, my mind and body numb with exhaustion, the only thing I could think about was- Varsha, celebrating her last goal and me telling that reporter, “Ladki hain sir! Ladki hain. Jisne goal abhi mara who ladki hain.” (She’s a girl sir. She’s a girl. The one who hit the goal is a girl.”)
After a month in a new job, in a new city, in a new role it suddenly dawned on me wherever I was, whatever I was doing it felt right. So right!