Hesal (Khunti district)
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Nestled amidst sprawling paddy fields, Hesal is a tribal village in Jharkhand's Khunti district. Roughly 50 km from Ranchi, the village is situated in an area where left-wing extremists hold sway . Undeterred, every girl in this hardscrabble hamlet of 50 homes breathes hockey and aspires to play for India.
For thousands across the country , sport is often a way of overcoming life's unkind cuts. It has been a transmitter of dreams, a vehicle to a better future. Hesal found hope in hockey . And ever since midfielder Nikki Pradhan (see box) earned a place in the 2016 Rio squad, its self-belief has soared.
Other players, too, have shown the way . Medio Reshma Minju and defender Muktu Mundu are members of the Jharkhand women's squad. Nikki's cousin, Shashi Pradhan, has been selected for junior national camp.In recent years, Birsi Mundu, Etwari Mundu and Rukmini Dodrai have attended junior and sub-junior Indian camps.
There's more. Six girls, between 11 and 14 years of age, are being coached at centres run by the state sports department and Hockey Jharkhand. The enthusiasm seems to have rubbed off on the boys.Joseph Bhengra and Joel Bhengra have also participated in junior national camps.
“Hesal has become the cradle of women's hockey in Jharkhand. Besides Nikki, so many other girls are finding their way to the state squad and into national camps,“ said Hockey Jharkhand president Bholanath Singh.
Tribal hinterlands like Simdega, Gumla and Khunti have traditionally produced hockey players of international repute. Hes al's romance with the game goes back over a decade when Nikki's cousin, Push pa Pradhan, broke into the Indian squad. The defender, now retired, was part of the team that won the Asia Cup in Delhi in 2004. She also represented India at the Doha Asian Games in 2006.
Hesal owes a lot to Dashrath Mahto, an un assuming school teacher in neighbouring village Pelaul. Mahto played hock ey for Bihar and brought about a sporting revolution in these parts. “We learnt passing and dribbling from Dashrath sir,“ Minju said.
Both Pushpa and Nikki also received their early lessons from Mahto, who began training children out of his undying passion for hockey . “When I began, the villagers had no idea about hockey . Now, they are proud of these children and want the future generation to play the game,“ the 62-yearold retired school teacher said.
Lack of infrastructure is a persistent gripe, though.Incredibly , Hesal doesn't have a playing field of its own. Most of its younger players hone their game in Pelaul. However, there's a day boarding centre under Jharkhand government's patronage in Khunti town, about 8 km away .
But in Hesal, young girls practice under mediocre coaches provided by an NGO. They often play barefeet, risking serious inju ries that could end a career even before it takes off. But there's fire in their belly and a twinkle in their eyes.
At Hesal, the evening sky has just begun clearing.It was raining heavily since afternoon and eight-yearold Kitni Mundu was getting restless in her hut. As soon as the showers abate, she grabs a worn-out hockey stick and heads for the playground in Pelaul.
She manages to reach just in time as her friends -Chintamani Mundu, Mangri Saru, Pundi Saru and others begin warming up under the supervision of their trainer.
“We want to be like Nikki Didi. We want to play for India,“ proclaim Kitni and Chintamani. Others smile and nod in affirmation.