Sanjay Pathak’s club has earned the distinction of having sent several girls from Siwan district to national and State-level tournaments
Sanjay Pathak is a 45-year-old geography teacher at a government school in Bihar’s Siwan district. In his spare time, he also takes it upon himself to give sports training to the children in his school.
In 2009, when two girls from his school — Tara Khatun and Putul Kumari, both 11 — bagged gold medals in athletics at the Panchayat Yuva Khel Abhiyan in the 800m, 1,500m, 100m, and 200m races, Pathak not only discovered two sporting stars in the district, he also became acutely aware of the dismal lack of institutional support and sporting opportunities for such talent in rural areas.
“When I saw the medals around their necks, I realised the potential in these girls from Siwan’s villages,” says Pathak. So, in 2016, Pathak cleared up the paddy crop growing on some ancestral land he owned in Laxmipur village and set up the Rani Laxmibai sports club.
The club has since earned the distinction of having sent several girls from Siwan to national and State-level tournaments. “Although I am not a sports teacher, I decided I would hone these students’ sporting skills and help them reach international levels.”
Four years on, 25 girls from his club have played at the State and national levels in games such as hockey, rugby, football, handball, athletics, and ball badminton. Eight girls have represented India at international tournaments in football, handball and throwball.
But it was no cakewalk. The girls were routinely harassed. . “Young boys would trespass the ground, throw bottles, and play vulgar Bhojpuri songs.” Village elders taunted the teacher for allowing girls to play in shorts.
Pathak’s own school staff criticised him, neighbours and relatives hounded the parents. “But I was determined to fight. I used to clean up everything the next morning and start again,” he says. The response from the girls was enormous. Soon, Pathak convinced their parents to allow them to come for training after school hours. And to stay in the hostel in his club.
Not only did Pathak break patriarchal taboos, he also challenged caste-based discrimination. Dalit students are not allowed to mingle with other castes but Pathak ensures that everyone sits and eats together in his home and school. “Parents are not asked questions about religion and caste,” he says.
From dawn to dusk, some 100 girls practise every day at the club, which is a little smaller than a football ground and surrounded by green paddy fields. The day I visit, the sun is setting and its orange beam lights up a bunch of girls playing handball. Many of the skills that Pathak uses to train them he has picked up from YouTube.
Villagers watch from the edges of the field. I ask Jainarayan Singh, 46, about Pathak’s vision. Singh smiles: “Initially Pathakji’s dream sounded like madness to us, but now we all are very happy with his initiative. We are proud of the girls’ achievement because their victories have become international news, and the club is also a matter of pride for our village, district and State.”
“The best thing,” says Pathak, “is that these village girls adopted the spirit of sports despite the lack of a sporting atmosphere. I believe they also wanted to be financially self-reliant.”
Radha Kumari won a gold medal in handball at the national level in 2016. Today, she works as a sports teacher in a private school and has become her family’s sole bread-earner after her father’s death. Says her mother, Ramavati Devi, “Zila ka naam raushan kar rahi hai, aur hum iske saath hai (She is bringing glory to the district, we support her).” Sporting success has also helped many girls from underprivileged backgrounds to land that coveted government job. .
Tara and Putul have also played for Bihar in U-16 football, and Putul was selected for the national women’s team in 2011. Several of Pathak’s students are now part of the Bihar handball team, while a few have made it to the national team.
In athletics, Antima Kumari, 14, won gold in the national school games in the 100m race and Usha Kumari bagged silver in the 400m race in the tournament held at Haridwar in 2015. Amrita Kumari has represented India in the U-14 and U-16 teams at the Asian Football Confederation Cup, while Nisha Kumari was part of the U-14 in 2014 and 2016.
Salma Khatun, also known as the P.T. Usha of Siwan, has won several medals in school and State games. Her father Sudhan Ansari says that when his older daughter Tara started playing, relatives and friends criticised him for allowing her to play, and that too in shorts. “I did not listen to them; I believed that my family was my strength,” says Ansari, who repairs tyres for a living. “Today I am very happy. My daughter was doing better than my sons and so I sent my two younger daughters also to Pathak’s club.” Tara now has a job in Indian Railways.
Pathak even taught his students beach handball, coaching them to reach the State and national levels. For practice, they would travel to Patna, some 150 km away from Siwan, to play on the banks of the Ganges. Now, he has started to make an artificial sand ground in the village.
B.K. Sharma, the secretary general of the Bihar Handball Association, laments the negligence of sport by the State and Central governments. “The government sometimes allocates meagre funds to a few players doing extremely well,” he says. “But look at Haryana — it spends money on players and even provides some job security. If Bihar can also do this, it is obvious players will do well.”
Pathak’s success comes despite the lack of state support. His club does not have even basic infrastructure — no gym, no trainers, not even a proper ground. The one-room hostel houses 20 girls, with the older girls cooking for them all in a small adjoining kitchen. He is also aware that their diet is poor. “They should get at least four slices of bread, jam, butter, two bananas and an egg for breakfast but I can only provide dalia in the morning and egg once a week,” he says. “Sometimes I worry if I am harming these girls because they don’t get the nutrition they need.”
Pathak spends 25% of his salary to run the academy. But that’s not enough for food, kits, travel and school fees for residential students. Villagers and well-wishers have come forward with funding. A school called Bloombuds is one of Pathak’s biggest sponsors. Pathak’s eyes gleam with hope, “If I can give my students proper diets, a gym and other training facilities, they could win an Olympic medal.”
Says Nisha, who has represented India in football in Nepal and Tajikistan, “A lot of people compare Pathak sir with the Dangal film coach Mahavir Singh Phogat; but our coach is very different. Phogat wanted to achieve his dream through his daughter but our Sir has helped us achieve our dreams without imposing anything on us.”
And what is Pathak’s dream? “I want to start a trust like Mohun Bagan [Football Club] and bring in people from other States as well. The academy should keep growing even after I am gone.”
The writer is a research scholar at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia.