Braving the blazing heat of the afternoon sun, they set out from their homes for a game they enjoy — cricket. These are the girls of Murailapur, a small village nestled in the Jaunpur district of Uttar Pradesh. Anyone watching them would not fail to be charmed by the spring in their steps, their animated chatter and infectious laughter as they walk towards the village cricket field, discussing good batting techniques and perfect throws of the ball.
But their journey hasn’t been easy. Till a few months ago, playing any sport, let alone cricket, would have been taboo for these youngsters. However, they have braved the odds and emerged victorious.
“Other than domestic activities that will help them win hearts in their sasural (the home of their in-laws) after marriage, girls in our villages are generally not encouraged to excel in anything else, not even studies. Hamare yahan ka culture nahin hai (This is not a part of our culture),” says Kanchan Bharti, a worker with Breakthrough India, a non-profit that has been working to transform gender norms, end violence against women and girls, and help increase the number of years they spend at school. Through its adolescent empowerment programme, it strives to empower them in the states of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Jharkhand, and Haryana, where early marriage and crimes against women are rampant.
And Kanchan would know. Hailing from the adjoining Udpur Gelhawa village (Badlapur district), the 34-year-old has fought innumerable odds not just to complete her graduation but also to become a part of Breakthrough about four years ago.
Working in Murailapur was a challenge for her because the circumstances here were far from conducive for any kind of change. “I have had doors slammed shut in my face by not just men but also women who said that they were happy with their age-old circumstances, customs, rules and regulations that they’ve been living with,” she says.
But persistence paid off and the ice finally broke when some of the women started understanding that Kanchan meant well. “Realising that my motives were honest, they started offering me support,” she says with a smile. And in the chat sessions, she first had with them, Kanchan would talk about the importance of education for both girls as well as boys.
This was not all. Kanchan, with Breakthrough’s backing, was working on the youngsters’ all-round development. After school, the girls would help their mothers with household chores – from cooking to washing, milking the cows, and looking after the younger siblings. “This was training that would stand them in good stead later in life. So, as you can understand, marriage (as early as possible) for their daughters has been the norm here,” says Kanchan.
This is where Kanchan played an effective role. After winning the girls’ confidence, she started focussing on the mothers to stress not just the importance of their daughters’ education but also leisure time, and more importantly, activities like physical games. The girls, on their part, were more than willing to finish off their share of the housework for an hour of sport — and the sport they zeroed in on was cricket.
But things weren’t as easy as they now seem. Resistance came, once again, from the girls’ fathers as well their male siblings: “Is this a game for girls? Kya yeh Sachin Tendulkar banegi (Will they become another Sachin Tendulkar)?” Kanchan recalls being bluntly told to stay away from the girls: “Aap hamari ladkiyon ko bhadkate ho (You are spoiling our daughters).” And the girls were threatened with thrashings should they venture out. It was only when they sought the support of the elderly womenfolk of their homes – the ones who understood that girls too needed some recreation – that permission came through.
“Humne bahut chunotiyon ka saamna kiya hai (We have encountered a lot of opposition and challenges),” says Sanjana Chauhan, remembering her forays into cricket. “Now there is a change in people’s mindset. The same bhaiyyas (brothers) who once said ‘hum tumhe maarenge agar tum khelogi (we will beat you if you play)’, now ensure that our ‘cricket field’ remains clean and free of unsavoury elements like the men who earlier sat around here drinking,” adds Sanjana, the captain and bowler of the Morni Cricket Team (yes, that’s the name the girls decided on).
And even if the two Morni cricket teams may not have the stipulated eleven members each, “we make do with less number of players,” laughs the 20-year-old Sanjana, adding, “The idea is to play and have fun.”
What keeps their folks back home happy is that the girls first finish their schoolwork and household chores and then leave for the ground.
“We get there by 4 pm thrice a week,” says Aanchal, 17. “Aur yeh sab possible hua hai hamari zid ke karan (all this has been possible because of our determination). We were clear that if boys can play cricket, so can we,” she adds. And with a smile she goes on to say, “Kabhi kabhi, hamare bhai bhi saath khelte hain (Sometimes our brothers too play with us).” And, needless to say, are surprised by their talents.
Her teammate Anjali’s mother, Susheela Devi, who often watches the girls play from the stands, can’t help but remark that their zeal and enthusiasm has brought so much positivity and happiness to their village. “We mothers seem to be realising our dreams through our daughters. Ab inki shaadi ki haemin itni jaldi nahin hai. Khalein, aage badein (Now we’re in no hurry to get them married off. Let them play, move ahead in life),” she says.
The girls’ fathers now want them to complete their studies and insist they attend school, too. “Yeh sab cricket ki wajah se hua hai (All this has been possible because of cricket),” says Susheela.
“Haan, yeh sab bahut mehnat karti hain to dekhna aage jayengi (Yes, these girls are working hard and will go far),” says the 22-year-old vegetable seller, Mukesh Kumar, whose younger sister, Roli, is also part of the Morni team. And when their brothers and other boys become the girls’ cheerleaders and say, ‘Ab tum log achcha khelne lagi ho (Now you girls are playing well) – “that’s a big moment for us”, says Sanjana.
Another big moment for the village was when a film was made on the girls’ cricket team. “Ma ne bola, ‘ladkon ki to kabhi shooting nahin hui, unpar kabhi film nahin bani. Tum log ne hamara naam roshan kiya hai. Aur mehnat karo’ (Mother said, boys have never had a film made on them. You have made us proud. Continue working hard),” adds a visibly proud Sanjana. “Indeed, that is what these girls are doing,” says Sohini Bhattacharya, President and CEO of Breakthrough.
“We have shown them the way – planted the seeds of dreams and aspirations in their heads to make them think and make life decisions for themselves.” No wonder the girls’ mission now is not just to finish their studies and perfect their cricket game with the coach-bhaiyya who trains them but also to join a cricket academy and get professionally trained in cricket.
“Hum desh ke liye bhi khelna chahti hain (We want to play for the country too),” adds Sanjana on behalf of all her teammates.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)