The Maidan in Kolkata is a scrapbook of multiple sports photographs in motion. From a distance, all you can count are the heads. There is no dress code. There are goalkeepers in denim pants diving for a save and batsmen running in dhotis. A teensy corner of the largest urban park in Asia belongs to Jungle Crows Foundation – the rugby club. JCF, founded by Paul Walsh with the help of a few more enthusiasts in the city, made rugby the food for survival for thousands of kids who once had to beg for one meal a day.
It was around 4 pm when we entered the premises. It was a weekday, and the sun was about to set. One of the kids rubbed the little muck over his palms and started a bull run. He snaked past the opponents to earn five points for a try. These match simulation drills perhaps help them in top-tier tournaments.
“We have to play in every condition. We are used to playing in the rain,” says Pratap Kundu. His childhood is straight out of Danny Boyle’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. At the age of 11, he fled his home in Siliguri. “My stepfather did not like me. So, I ran away and stayed at Sealdah station for six months. I had made some friends, and we would barge into big trains such as Rajdhani Express when it entered the platform to look for leftover food. I used to beg at times, and we would collect plastic bottles to sell them off," he tells Sportstar.
Kundu took shelter in Don Bosco Ashalayam – a non-profit organisation involved in the rehabilitation of street children. “The rule is you have to go out and fend for yourself after finishing Class XII. So, I got attracted to rugby while in school. I wanted to play for India,” he adds.
There is a tie-up between the Crows and Bosco. "Our coaches used to train the kids there. It developed from there.”
“I was a British diplomat posted in Kolkata with a job. I started exploring things and found out what was going on in the city. Then I saw people were playing rugby, so we started a little team. At that time, there was no agenda. Rugby is not an expensive game. There are no infrastructure costs. There are more stories like Pratap, Karan, and Sukumar and we must keep doing this. It is about making rugby exciting to young people to drive them towards better things in life.” — Paul Walsh
An odd job at a furniture company that belonged to Paul’s friend took him closer to his goals. He finished college while working part-time. Injury issues ruined his chances to play for India after 2019, but he handles the programming operations of the club at present.
The club is funded by individual donors and through the corporate social responsibility activities of fitness brands such as Decathlon and CultFit.
Making India players
The club opened gates in 2004. It slowly came up through the ranks and has produced a few Indian internationals. The under-17 team has been national champions. The exposure changed the way the kids’ approached life. They realised that playing rugby could offer experiences such as a first international flight with a free meal.
Sukumar Hembrom, an India player who returned from a camp in Bhubaneswar, went through a similar grind before enrolling with the Crows. He made his international debut at the Asian Championships in Jakarta in 2018-19.
“When I was studying at Don Bosco Ashalayam, I saw our seniors playing rugby. I was not taken to the ground then since I was very young. At our hostel, we were not allowed to go out except for school hours. It was a strict environment, and we wanted to go out and play. My life changed the way I went to the ground,” he says.
Sukumar never had a family. He was rescued from Sealdah station by the officials who were involved in scouting the kids.
The 23-year-old’s dream is to represent India at the Los Angeles Olympics.
Karan Rajbhar, a 16-year-old from the slums near Taratala, is inspired by the story of Sukumar. He wants to play for India and serve in the army. His connection to the Crows, however, was food. “We used to see Pratap bhaiyya and others play. During a tournament, they offered us food and chocolates. We started going regularly for the food. Then we started attending training sessions and I don’t know when I ended up playing the sport regularly,” he says.
Karan lives in a house made of plastic sheets with three sisters and parents. His father is an alcoholic, while his mother works as a housemaid. “Whatever my father used to earn, he would spend it on alcohol and not give a penny to the family. My mother had to work in five houses. She took a loan and built a house but repaying the loan was difficult. I started working as a delivery boy in hotels.”
Kundu adds that the club tries its best to solve these problems. “We get worried when we see they need to work. We try to push them towards jobs in Decathlon and Cult so that the connection with sports is not lost.”
Though rugby is not shown on television in India, the online streaming links are shared among the players on their smartphones. “There are lots of Facebook live broadcasts of the 7s. When there are 15s, we get the links of the platforms and it is distributed over WhatsApp,” he reveals.
Spreading wings and changing mindsets
The operations of the club are not limited to Kolkata. It has spread its wings to Saraswatipur in North Bengal, Haripur in Jharkhand, and Bengaluru in south India.
The Haripur belt transformed the lives of several young girls whose families believed in early marriage.
“My father used to think he would marry me off earlier. But now they feel we can play rugby and do something in sports. All our senior brothers in JCF have spoken to our families time and again to assure them,” says Barsha Kumari, who wishes to attend an India camp in the future.
Across the cities, there are training sessions twice a day, thunder, lightning, or rain. And there are motivational talks by players. “A new topic is discussed. Our last session was on girl power,” says Kundu.
The American Center across the road often helps with scholarship opportunities and recently, Walsh – who is from the United Kingdom – struck a partnership with Bristol Bears for shared learning, an exchange programme of sorts.
Once the training was over, the players sat down in a huddle to discuss the learning points. The sun had set by then, but their play area was all lit up with energy and passion.
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