Having a ball

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Young girls from a Mumbai slum are using football to break new grounds. Sunaina Kumar reports

Getting her kicks Gulafsha Ansari during one of the practice sessions
Photo: MS Gopal

TARANNUM KHATOOM is a girl who breaks your heart. She is only 14 years old, but all signs of childhood have been obliterated. She smiles too rarely, speaks too softly and looks weighed down by an invisible burden. Six months ago, she had to leave school as her father took ill, and since then has been employed in a garment factory as an embroidery worker. The few hours that she is home are spent in housework and taking care of her three younger sisters. Her family of seven lives in a shanty in a Muslim basti at one end of Dharavi. The girl who never gets time off looks uncomfortable in the playground on a Sunday morning. Today is her first day with the basti’s all-girls football team.

The ragtag bunch of 30 girls will not let the scorching heat deprive them of their only play time. Before they get down to the business of football, they all join hands and stand in a circle. Each girl then steps into the circle and introduces herself. Those who are too shy to shout out their names are not allowed to step back until they do. The youngest in the group, Roshni (6) and the oldest, Ruksar Qureshi (19) don’t really have much in common, but they have these two hours of the week when they leave home and come out to play. With conservative families and lack of safe playing areas, the daughters of the neighbourhood have always been housebound. But this year one girl in the basti changed the norm. Now, every girl here dreams of being Gulafsha Ansari, the one who has travelled abroad, has been to the London Olympics and FIFA World Cup, whose name has appeared in newspapers, and who studies in the elite HR College of Commerce.

Gulafsha’s is the sort of story Danny Boyle would want to make into a film. She grew up in a family of three sisters and a brother. Her father Kamrulhoda Ansari used to sell bags on the pavement outside Hanging Gardens, until recently when he fell ill. Her two elder sisters were married off while still underage; Gulafsha (17) was lucky to escape that fate. It was football that saved her. She started playing the game through an NGO Magic Bus that works towards the betterment of children, using sports to inculcate learning and leadership skills. As member of the Magic Bus team, she travelled to South Africa for FIFA 2010 for the Football for Hope (football project for the disadvantaged) tournament. The next year she was chosen for a football camp in the US run by the Julie Foudy Foundation (a sports foundation promoting football for women), where her proposed community project to get girls from her area to play football was chosen as the best project in an online poll and got her a ticket to the London Olympics.

“Meeting the medallists and touching the Olympic torch were the most exciting parts of the trip,” she says. The wonder of travelling in an aeroplane is another joy which she can’t get over.

Dressed in shorts and a football jersey, her hair tied up in a sprightly ponytail, and equally at ease with Hindi and English, Gulafsha talks about the inception of the idea. “Sports has taught me how to stand up for myself, how to be confident. The best thing I could do was to share this with the girls from my basti. I went from house to house trying to convince families to send their daughters to play. After a month of this, we had 10 girls join us on the field, and now that number keeps increasing.”

With conservative families and lack of safe playing areas, the daughters of the neighbourhood have always been housebound

We are at her cramped shack located at the end of a narrow lane with open drains. Her medals are hanging near the gas cylinder, next to the pots and pans, a folder with all her certificates is kept with her college books and a copy of Wings of Fire,the autobiography of Abdul Kalam, which she is currently reading. All available space is occupied by football jerseys, sneakers, bottles of Gatorade, and Manchester United memorabilia. On a table on the side, there is a souvenir London mug which she brought for her mother. “My neighbours would question my decision to send out my girl alone to play a game like football. Then they saw how it changed her life and now she’s a role model for everyone around,” says her mother Juhi Ansari.

ON THE field, Gulafsha, standing in the middle of a circle, teaches the younger members of the group basic footwork. Sufiya Bano, 13, is the most exuberant of the lot. Her attire, a salwar-kameez and a headscarf, is not very football-friendly, but that does not hamper her in any way, she stays back to practise with the ball, even when the others wander off to seek shelter from the heat. “I attend evening school, so there’s never any time to play. In the basti, there is no space anyway, so I play at home. Since I joined here a few weeks back, it’s all I look forward to through the week,” she says.

The older girls have split up and formed another group. Ruksar Qureshi wonders if it’s too late for her to take up football full time, though she is occupied with completing her graduation through correspondence, her job with a PAN card agency and taking care of her younger siblings. “I never thought I could enjoy something as much,” she says. She has exhibited a natural spark for the sport and now dreams of playing for a football club. Her parents were not keen to send her out at first, but were convinced when Gulafsha’s mother assured them there would be no boys in the group.

Gulafsha, who has been a state-level player for Maharashtra and now plays for her college team, has set her eyes on making it to the Nationals. Her mentors at Magic Bus are quite sure she will, with her determination. Meanwhile, she has other things to do, fob off her mother from trying to get her married and make sure the basti has other ‘Gulafshas’, who get the same chances she did.

Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka. 
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