Morsinghi, Himachal Pradesh: Morsinghi is a village you have probably never heard of if you do not follow Olympic sports, or handball to be precise. It is here that this sport out of sight of the Indian masses has found a beautiful home surrounded by hills in the Bilaspur district of Himachal Pradesh.
Situated 29 km from the district center of Bilaspur, Morsinghi is home to a handball nursery that houses more than 50 girls, ranging from U-10s to Indian internationals.
Coming from remote villages in Himachal Pradesh, these girls dream of representing India at the Olympics and having a better life in a state where the tough topography allows almost no dreams to grow.
The inspiration behind their dreams - is former Indian handball players Snehlata Chaudhary and Sachin Chaudhary.
The dream was partially achieved when the senior Indian women's handball team put one foot into next year's World Championships through their giant-killing act at the Asian Handball Championships. For context, no senior Indian handball team has ever qualified for the World Championships.
Snehlata and Sachin, the famous handball couple, have dedicated their lives to their sport. They have two objectives - firstly, to take Indian handball to the Olympics and secondly, to give kids from remote areas a reason to live and dream.
Multiple stories in Indian sports history confound belief, but this is not just another story. It is a magical revolution that overcame basic challenges such as tough climatic conditions, lack of any indoor handball courts, and most importantly - no finances.
Usually, magic has three parts:
The Pledge - Start from a remote village
To reach where it all started, we have to go back to 2010 to Navgaon, another remote village in the Solan district of Himachal Pradesh, where Sneh Lata was posted as a school teacher.
"I used to coach a few kids in my village but when my job posting came, it was in the village of Navgaon. I took these kids with me to Solan," Sneh told The Bridge.
"While I was training these kids in Navgaon, the girls of the village started coming to me to ask about handball. They were amused by the game. The locals had no idea about the sport but the kids took an interest," she said.
To understand Navgaon, one has to understand that this obscure village is very unlike most places we see. The girls, who Snehlata said were 'amused' by handball, were all facing marriage by the age of 18.
"Navgaon falls on the border of Bilaspur and Solan and the area doesn't have much. The girls never had a platform. I think the sport of handball gave them a ray of hope. I am lucky to have found these girls who showed the dedication that I wanted," Snehlata said.
The beginnings of an obscure sport in an obscure village were more or less as can be expected. The first tournament that Sneh's kids participated in ended in a loss.
"I was down and so were the kids I was training. But the loss made me more determined to take the training forward and turn these girls into winners," said Snehlata.
From 2010 to 2015, Snehlata trained a batch of girls who would then go on to represent Himachal Pradesh on the national stage and win medals. The achievement was so huge for the village that the locals protested when Snehlata was transferred to Bilaspur a few years later.
But like the first act of magic, Snehlata had shown something ordinary to the kids which to them was anything but ordinary.
The Turn: Moving back to Morsinghi and starting the Handball nursery
In her pursuit to train the kids and give them a platform, Snehlata was ably supported by the former Indian handball captain and her husband Sachin Chaudhary.
"It is all her dedication and realization of the dream of giving back to the sport which gave us everything. Sneh started with a place that didn't have much ambition. When Sneh started it, her school supported her. Sneh's dedication to the sport was the seed for this dream," Sachin told The Bridge.
The journey from Solan to Morsinghi was not easy for the couple. Both of them left a well-established system in Solan to move to a village without much access and facilities.
"We were lost for some time after moving back to Morsinghi, and so were the kids we had trained," Sachin said.
While the couple figured out their way forward, the kids trained in Solan were making waves at the national level, such that each of them became the breadwinner for their family.
The result of those five years showed a new path for the girls in nearby villages. News of these kids doing well in every aspect of life traveled faster through the state of Himachal Pradesh than the HRTC buses plying on the mountain roads.
"Once we figured out where to start, the task was to cut out a handball field in a mountain that had been untouched for years," Sachin said with a smile, unveiling the couple's magnum opus - a miraculous handball ground cut out from the mountains itself.
'Where there is a will, there is a way' is a cliched proverb, but when you see kids in jerseys taking a shot at goal with the sun setting on the Himalayas on this ground, you find new meaning to the proverb.
A routine that Snehlata started to keep herself busy was now shaping up into a dream higher than the mountain peaks which surround the nursery.
Like the second act of magic, this ordinary sport introduced a bunch of kids and made them do extraordinary things.
The Prestige: Putting India on the International handball map
Usually, it is said that the final act of magic is the toughest one to pull off as it has a lot of twists and turns.
The first level of difficulty came when the kids who had trained all their lives on the muddy field had to take to the polished indoor court.
"Honestly, It is difficult. Going from an outdoor field to an indoor court changes the dynamics of the game. The physics and techniques involved in the indoor court arena are much different. The ball used in indoor courts is a gum ball which we can't use here," Sachin explained.
It was tough for the girls. But for a group who had been through several twists and turns on their journey from a remote village of Himachal to representing India, they adapted, like they always had.
Morsinghi Handball Nursery is essentially managed by the students themselves, who function like a team to handle daily chores, ably guided by Sneh and Sachin.
"We struggled with a lot of things at times. From providing them with the facilities to world-class equipment, it was never easy. But we never gave a second thought if something was needed," Sneh said.
Apart from the financial hardships, the hardships of changing a narrative are also difficult. "A lot of my motivation apart from medals is to provide these kids with a healthy lifestyle and to dream of a better life," Sneh said.
Many of these kids have seen massive improvements in their lives after securing jobs through their achievements in handball. This has kept them away from one of the most menacing problems among the youth in surrounding areas - drugs.
A Handball future
Six players from the Morsinghi Handball Nursey featured in the Junior Indian Handball team, which made its debut at the World Championships last year. This was just the start of pushing Indian handball forward, with the senior team also set to put their names among the contenders for the World Championships.
With the Asian Games in sight, the dream of moving India up in the Handball circuit looks more realistic because of the senior women's team's recent exploits.
"People talk about savings and everything but our savings are these trophies won by these kids or the fact that these kids are giving their families a better life," said Sachin.
"I never had thought that we will come this far. We have grown as the kids grew up. This is my biggest achievement," Snehlata said.
As the sun sets and the big halogen lights illuminate the arena cut out from the mountains, one kid drenching in sweat and powered by determination takes another shot at their dream, much like how several attempts were needed throughout human history to cut through the mountains here.
In a country like India which is full of stories, this story can be called anything - magic, revolution, or maybe just some ordinary people doing something extraordinary - but such stories must be told to the upcoming generations.