In India, it’s a nightmare situation if a girl announces that she wants to play sports for a career and a living. All hell breaks loose especially when you come from a conservative place like I do. Back then, the only comprehensive reason for any girl to take up sports was the possibility of a comfortable job.
To be honest, that was my reason to take up hockey as well. I was 7 when I was drawn to the game and the only motivation riding me was the fact that being a hockey player would help me rid my family of poverty. It became a sort of obsession for me, growing up. The fact that my town, Shahabad, had one of the best coaching centers for women’s hockey played a huge role in me picking up the sport.
It wasn’t a plan. It wasn’t destiny. It was just a way out to suit utilitarian purposes.
Back then, my family situation was such that we could not afford an alarm clock. Practice started at 5 am every day and it was quite a task to wake up on time and reach the ground. My mother somehow managed to guess the time by looking at the sky each morning. That’s how she would wake me up to get ready for another fresh day of Hockey. If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have gotten any sleep at all.
While she may have been accurate for the major chunk of my early days in this academy, there were a couple of days when her sky-reading skills fell a little short of perfect. I remember how on one particular day I reached the ground at 5:02. My coach, Baldev Singh was furious and I got a proper earful before practice even started. After that, he told me to pay a fine the next day for being late- a sum of two hundred rupees.
The moment he pronounced that sentence and punishment, I was scared beyond my wits. For one, my father’s daily earnings were nothing close to the amount he was asking for and I knew that if I went and told my parents about this, they would probably put a stop to me playing hockey for good. Somehow, I mustered up the courage to tell my mother and I pleaded with her to make the amount possible before the next day.
She, for once, understood how important this was to me. But even though she tried her level best by borrowing from people around us, it was impossible to reach the figure coach had quoted. A hundred rupees was all she managed to give me. That night, I got no sleep. I kept thinking that I had just reached the end of my career as a hockey player. Somehow, I could not digest that thought.
The next day, I was right on time. I went and gave the money to my coach and, as expected, I got an earful for not paying up the fine when I had clearly made a major mistake. Anyway, he allowed me to play after a proper scolding but at the end of training that day, he called me and asked me why I had failed to pay up the amount he had asked for. The intimidated kid that I was, I managed to stammer out a reply about how 100/- was all my family could afford to pay. He smiled on hearing that. “I don’t want your money,” he said. “But you must have learned a valuable lesson from this incident, didn’t you?”
“Discipline is important if you want to pursue sports,” he said. “And unless you implement that in life, it will never reflect in your game.”
Till today, I make sure to be right on time whenever I have an appointment to keep. If necessary, I reach the place about 10-15 minutes early. I don’t even have to try anymore, punctuality just comes naturally to me now- like it’s a part of my personality.
The next day, Baldev sir returned an amount of Rs 200/- to me even though I had only given him hundred for the fine he asked me. He told me not to ask any questions and to resume with my training. But I was determined to leave no room for doubt. I had decided that no matter what, I would find a permanent solution to this problem- one that did not involve my mother having to go sleepless to ensure that I reached the ground on time.
My school used to have these handwriting competitions and the winner was awarded an alarm clock. I knew this and then, it seemed like the easiest solution to my problem. I cannot tell you how hard I practiced just to win the competition. Till then, hockey was the only thing which had seen that kind of dedication on my part so it was a little surprising to the people around me when I decided to practice writing like it was the end of the world.
But it finally paid off, thankfully. I won the alarm clock. That moment that they announced me as the winner, I felt like I had achieved the greatest thing I ever would. That was what I needed and I worked hard to finally achieve it. All those hand cramps from practicing my handwriting seemed worth it and for a long time, this clock was the only clock in my house.
At that point, it seemed that all problems were solved and done with. There was nothing standing in the way of me concentrating wholeheartedly on Hockey. Still, we had no concept of what the National team meant or the prestige that comes with being a part of it. During all this, I used to be a good student in school but that was partly because my family threatened to stop me from playing Hockey unless I maintained 80% till Std 12.
That wasn’t the only ultimatum I got, though. My Hockey academy coach had his own conditions. He once told me that he would only allow me to continue playing the game if he succeeded in making a good player out of me. If he failed, there really was no point to me carrying on my relationship with Hockey. I think, at that point, I had decided that I never wanted to disappoint him.
You know sometimes, you don’t believe in yourself but there’s someone else who does- someone who thinks you are worth the effort. Such people are the ones who should never be let down no matter what. They go out of their way to ensure that you live up to the standard you are capable of. So if someone else is putting in that time for me, who am I to argue?
From there, my academy went on to win the Gold in the U14 State Championship from which began my career in the National team. I don’t remember any domestic tournament that we finished in second place in. Winning the Districts earned us a sum of Rs 500/- each and you can imagine the ecstasy that was quite evident in each member of the team.
Baldev sir, however, insisted that we all have the prize money transferred to our own individual accounts. He knew that, mostly, all of us came from poverty-stricken families and he did not want the amount to be squandered away.
“Only when you are stable can you help your family,” he always said. For a long time he kept our bank passbooks with himself and anytime we wanted to spend money, we had to go and ask him. Such good money management ensured that by the time we reached the national team, we had at least some money in our respective accounts.I cannot say it was much- but it was enough and a respectable amount.
The idea behind that was to teach us to spend our money properly. Once we had a stable bank account, it even gave us some motivation to play because we could see that our hard work was being duly rewarded and we could actually survive because of Hockey. That was an impetus to fight more, to cover more ground and overcome bigger targets.
In 2005, I was selected in the National Sub-Junior camp and, truth be told, I had no idea about how any of it worked. I had no idea that that was where selections to the national teams are done from. It was just that my name came up, and I arrived. My coach here proved to be another hard taskmaster. As a part of our training, he asked all of us to lift weights amounting to 80kgs.
In those days, my whole body weight was just 36kgs. So essentially, he was asking me to lift an amount greater than double my own weight. At first, I refused but he insisted that I would have to do this if I were to stay in the Camp. I was new, whatever little resistance I had, crumbled and I quietly set to work. Predictably, I got a major back injury and was out of play for nearly a year.
Only an athlete understands what you go through when you’re injured. Voluntarily giving up the game is one thing but injury? Your hands are tied, there’s nothing you can do except wait for your body to recover. It’s probably the most difficult time in the life of an athlete.
Personally, I had given up hope. I was told that I would never return to the national camp as I was too weak. My coach at the camp told Baldev Sir that I did not have the strength and stamina needed to play for the National team.
That statement inevitably hurt the ego of the man who had once promised to make me give up hockey if he failed to make me a good player from the country. Slowly, but steadily, intense physiotherapy and work helped me regain my health. Once again, Baldev sir stepped in at a juncture where I had given up hope.
I resented him a lot back then. In fact, I myself had given up going for training because it was that painful and I did not think the effort was worth it. But I had to rethink it soon enough because I knew that if I did not turn up for practice, he would reach my home and force me to go. “You, of all people, are not giving up hockey,” he kept saying. Looking back, I realise that this perseverance adds to the already huge debt that I owe him- one that I can never hope to repay.
I resumed playing in 2007 and got another shot in the National team when my performance in the Guwahati nationals caught the eye of the selectors. The next year, I got my debut in the national team as I played in the qualifying matches. We finished fourth in the qualifying rounds but it was still a huge deal for us. To be honest, I had no inkling of what the Olympics were. I only knew that I was playing for India and I had to give it all.
Little snippets of education like this teaches one to be a leader. There are two ways to learn- from other people and from the mistakes you make on your own. For my part, I have always believed that good leaders must have had good mentors. Leadership isn’t natural as most people like to believe. More often than not, it’s the result of slow and painful progress-both physically and emotionally.
If you want to change something, that process has to start from you. You just cannot sit around waiting for circumstances to suit you before you take any step. In a particularly tight corner during a match or even in life, it is important to take the plunge if you think there is the slightest chance that you can make a difference.
That fearlessness is what makes people look up to you. As a captain, that’s important. Not only do you have the burden of an entire nation resting on you, you also have to shoulder the team that looks up to you. During trials or practice, there are people to mentor you. On the turf, you’re alone. And in a match situation, you have a split second to take your decision and it’s irreversible.
Tough situations where you literally feel backed up to a wall, they teach you a lot. For one, they let you know the exact depth of your passion for whatever it is you are doing in life.
You know, coming from a state like Haryana, the difference in passion between a male and a female athlete is clearly visible. The boys always got it easy. They had no one to oppose them. For the girls, they had their task cut out for them. Every player in my academy had a burning desire to do well, they all had somebody they had to prove wrong. For my part, even though convincing my parents took time, it still felt easier than continuously fighting my relatives and extended family. We had become the laughing stock back then.
Now that tune has changed into congratulations whenever they see me perform well.
Ultimately, that is what I want. I want to break the stigma that girls are any less than boys. I want to be the one that people in my hometown and state hold up as an example of to teach their daughters that they have the world before them which won’t be limited because of their gender. I want to win the ultimate accolades for my country in Hockey so that more women take up the sport.
I have come a long way since. I came from getting my Olympic Qualifiers debut in 2008 and not knowing what the Olympics meant to becoming the captain of the Women’s team. But I am not satisfied. Each day brings with it newer challenges and, as a leader, it is my duty to face them all. Only if I do, can I expect the rest of the team to be resilient.
For now, I am still in touch with Baldev sir. He has a simple thing he often tells me and that keeps me motivated. “Hockey has given you everything. Be sure to leave no stone unturned in returning all you have got to the game.”