In 2016, when Sangita Kumari scored a hat trick at the Women’s Under-18 Asia Cup hockey tournament in Bangkok, a man in his late forties shed a tear while sitting miles away in a village in Jharkhand. As Sangita gave India a memorable victory against Chinese Taipei and bagged a bronze medal, the man in Jharkhand went on a trip down memory lane.
It was a surreal experience for Benedict Kujur. He was watching his 15-year-old student while she made millions of Indians proud. Seeing her score a tap-in goal in the first eight minutes of the game, he could only think of the ease with which she had done the same thing seven years ago.
That was when Benedict had spotted her for the first time in Karangagudi village of Jharkhand’s Simdega district, where she was struggling even to get one meal a day. The daughter of a daily wage earner, all Sangita had at that time was her love for the sport. Playing against some of the best names in the game as a teenager had never crossed her mind.
Like Sangita, five of Benedict’s hockey students have played at the international level in the last couple of years. They include Beauty Dungdung, Sushma Kumari, Alka Dundung and Deepika Soreng. Additionally, over 50 of his students have played at the state level.
And all of them could reach those platforms only because of the sheer passion with which Benedict started coaching them for free. His vision — to brew a hockey revolution in his district.
A primary school teacher by profession, Benedict learnt to play hockey on his own. In the early 2000s, he introduced it as a mandatory subject in the government school where he was teaching. Since then, he has been spending one hour before and after school-hours, training children.
The inspirational coach has left no stone unturned. Whether it was cleaning the ground by himself, using his salary to pay for a player’s nutritional requirement or making hockey sticks from bamboo, Benedict has done everything he can to keep his love for the sport alive and to help poor kids dream big.
“Not having infrastructure or money to play the sport should not be the reason behind killing a child’s dream or interest. I never pursued hockey professionally as I did not have a coach who could guide or motivate me. I wanted to play for the country, but when my passion was shattered, I decided to be the coach I never had. Today, all those struggles and hardships seem small when I see my students play at the international level,” he tells The Better India.
The Beginning: Branches to Hockey Sticks
Benedict was merely five years old when he saw a few teenage boys playing with and manoeuvring a dried fruit with the branch of a tree. Amazed at the boys trying to move the fruit around with a stick, he tried to imitate them.
Soon, he started playing that game at home with his siblings. That’s how he was introduced to hockey, quite accidentally. Since there was no source of entertainment back in the seventies when the district was majorly a forest, hockey and football became the most played games.
Like any other sports buff, he would save paper cuttings of any news on hockey. Television sets were introduced in his region when he was in his twenties. Benedict would sit for hours at a tea stall or shops to watch hockey matches. In an era sans YouTube, he learnt the techniques and strategies by watching games and reading interviews of players.
But that was all he could do. Coming from a backward tribal belt in Jharkhand where basic amenities like electricity and roads are insufficient, things like hockey ground and equipment weren’t even close to dreams. Moreover, he had promised a career path to his parents, and he had to fulfil it. After completing his graduation in English Literature, Benedict secured a job as a primary school teacher in 2003.
Though he never got an opportunity to play at the state level due to his financial situation, he wanted to use his position as a teacher to not only reignite his passion but to also introduce hockey at the school where he was teaching.
Amidst a resource crunch, honing talented children of the village and preparing them to play for India is no mean feat. He manually cleaned the ground behind the school and spent nearly a year convincing parents of class 1-5 students to let them stay in school for extra hours of practice.
When he started, the general tone was discouraging towards sports. Still, after learning the benefits of playing for the state (like getting food, accommodation, government jobs and stipend), parents came on board.
Since most of the students belonged to families engaged in labour work, buying hockey sticks, and even a ball was out of the question.
So Benedict went back to his basics and did the next best thing.
He started to shape tree branches like hockey sticks and would often use dried fallen fruits in place of a ball. Some years later, when more students showed interest, he started crafting sticks from bamboo.
“I was so happy when our bamboo sticks replaced branches. Something as small as this boosted us morally, and we felt like we could play for India. From crossing rivers to trekking hills, we have been trained in the most unfavourable conditions, but I guess that formed our foundation. Benedict sir’s running, and ball tackling techniques help me perform better even today. He has played an integral part in my career, and I am grateful for that,” says Beauty Dundung, who has played international matches as well.
The jugaad continued for some years until the Simdega Hockey Association spotted Benedict. Impressed by his students’ victories in local matches, they decided to support the talented students with proper hockey sticks and balls.
“Being a famous sport in the region, we often organise local tournaments between government schools and colleges. I met Benedict a few years ago during one of those matches. A small interaction with him was enough for us to see his dedication and love for the sport. His students have made the state and country so proud despite not having all the resources. It is commendable how he has managed to make the sport a household name in our district,” says Manoj Kumar, Secretary of the association.
Some help (like hockey sticks and shoes) came from private companies and NGOs as well, but it did not entirely resolve the financial problem that existed even after his students reached the district level. Maintaining a diet and taking them for tournaments across the district meant they’d need more money.
Benedict would often end up dedicating half his salary to purchase local cereals like maise and finger millet to meet their nutritional needs.
Even today, the infrastructural issues exist, and students do not have proper shoes to play the sport, but that does not deter Benedict from doing as much as he can.
“I know now that nothing can stop a wage labourer’s daughter from representing India internationally. Sangita is a prime example. If given better facilities, I am sure Jharkhand can produce more Sangitas in future,” he adds.
Get in touch with Benedict at [email protected]
(Edited by Tanaya Singh)