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The Hindu: Getting their goat (5/14/2018)
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The Hindu: Getting their goat

Saurya Sengupta

In Odisha’s Sundargarh, a decades-old hockey tournament where the teams face off for the grand prize — a fattened goat

It’s 4.30 p.m. in Bhawanipur village in Odisha’s Sundargarh district. The sun has begun to make its way towards the horizon, and the place wears a deserted look for the most part. The few farmers still to be seen are on their way home. But by the side of the arterial road, a small patch of land is just beginning to come alive. A large group of people armed with hockey sticks are huddled on one side, and more keep coming in. This is the final match of the ‘Khasi Cup’, a tribal hockey tournament, and the play-off is between Gajore and Medinipur villages. The winning team is awarded akhasi, a goat, a tradition that goes back several decades.

In these parts of Odisha, hockey is an obsession, much more than cricket or football. Residents grow up worshipping the sport. The Khasi Cup isn’t a single tournament played once a year. There are several Khasi tournaments played through the year, in all the villages, all sharing two common strands — the prize goat and that all players are tribal people.

Lost in time

“ Hum adivasi logon ke liye hockey humaari jaan hai (For us adivasis, hockey is life).” Lucas Ekka, the captain of the Medinipur team, tells me this hurriedly, before jogging off to huddle with his team. The teams take these tournaments very seriously. Thekhasiwill bring them pride, themurgior chicken, given to the runners-up, ignominy. “The tournaments have been around longer than any of us or any of our fathers,” says Ajit Xess, one of the organisers and a former regular player. “Our grandfathers played it too, so nobody can say when the tradition started or why.”

While its origins seem lost in time and unrecorded history, it’s possible to guess that hockey’s popularity here is grounded in its simplicity, the few resources and investments needed and, above all, its intensity. “Hockey is breathless, aggressive, and requires every bit of your energy,” says Deepak Kujur, a player on the Gajore team. “Much more than football, cricket or other sports,” and these players seem to welcome it.

Till not very long ago, says Sylvester Tirkey, another organiser, they all played with bent bamboo rods for sticks, and for the ball, they would wrap up a semul (cotton tree) fruit in tape and rope. “But around 20 years ago, we started buying proper balls and sticks and shoes if we could afford them.” And today, all 22 players I see are armed with top-notch professional sticks and balls.

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On the field, the match is about to start. There are no uniform jerseys, so the teams are split into ‘shirts’ and ‘skins’ — one team wearing t-shirts and the other bare-bodied. Gajore wins the toss and chooses to play in shirts. The Medinipur players take off their shirts and pile them up in a heap by the field.

The ‘hockey field’ is a square, undulating plot of land, roughly 100 metres on each side, punctuated with patches of grass and weed. Two football goals occupy either end of the pitch. To make them into the narrower hockey goals, a bamboo pole has been tied down vertically roughly midway between the posts.

What is missing conspicuously are shin guards; not even the goalkeepers wear them. And nobody seems bothered. In fact, the goalkeepers don’t have facial protection either. “We’ve played this way since we were children; we’ve been hurt on our shins, knees, faces endlessly. It doesn’t hurt anymore,” says Ekka, the Medinipur goalkeeper. When he grins, I see he’s missing a couple of teeth.

The 60-minute game starts, and the pace is relentless from the word ‘go’. There are no formations, but technique and guile are in ample view. Medinipur seems to monopolise possession, but Gajore is brutal on the counter-attack, especially down the left flank. Still, the game enters half-time with no goals. The break is minimal; some players run to the edge of the field to a bucket of water, grab a mug, splash their faces, wet their throats, and that’s about it. “They never seem to get tired,” Ajit says. “This is the fourth game they’re playing in two days, but it has no impact on their stamina.”

Interestingly, all games need not be of 60-minute duration; this changes depending on the time of day, the number of players available, sometimes even on whether the players want to continue playing or not. “If they want to keep playing, we can’t stop them,” Sylvester says.

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The government is aware of the madness that hockey is in these parts — it’s one of the reasons why one of Odisha’s many sports hostels was set up here, to house promising youngsters and provide them with training, education, and nutritious food.

The ones who aren’t playing today are probably in a sports hostel somewhere. Tournaments in Sundargarh have, in the past, provided great yields for the State and national hockey teams, the most prominent being former India captain and Padma Shri awardee Dilip Tirkey.

Born in a tribal family in Saunamara village, Dilip started watching Khasi matches when he was seven or eight. “I learnt hockey because of these tournaments,” Dilip says. “My father, Vincent Tirkey, was in the CRPF and used to play a lot of hockey. He later started coaching the village teams.” Dilip played in the village before entering the State team, but says he was “never good enough to even make the Khasi B-team!”

The tribal players try their best to get into a sports hostel or academy so that they can play professionally, but it’s not easy. They try till they are 13 or 14, the cut-off age. “There used to be selections in school; we used to try those,” says Sushil Kilpotta, 21, now in his first year at the Sundargarh Government College. “Some of our friends made it; we didn’t get through,” he says, disappointment writ large on his face. “There are some very talented players here, but opportunities are few and far between.”

The parents are equally willing to risk losing an additional hand on the farm if the child can make hockey a career. Ekka’s son Akash, for example, plays for the Odisha U-19 hockey team, and played in the Junior National Hockey Championships in Bhopal last year.

Boys only?

At one time, boys from the sports hostels could participate in the Khasi tournaments. “Only a few players would be allowed on each team,” says Tej Kumar Xess, district sports officer at Sundargarh. “It was almost like a foreign-players quota in the IPL!” Teams would often lie to get them in, but their physique and technical ability would be clear giveaways. Then, a few years ago, the players from the sports hostels were disallowed from playing in these tournaments. “It isn’t advisable to play in these conditions; they may injure themselves,” says Rajendra Kumar Singh, an athletics coach at the Sundargarh hostel.For now, the Khasi tournaments are dominated entirely by men. Even the Sundargarh hostel, run by the Sports Authority of India is boys-only, but this is a one-off. A lot of the sports hostels in Odisha have a majority of girls. The one in Rourkela, for example, has 75 girls. As for Khasi, it’s not that girls don’t want to play or that they aren’t allowed to, but there isn’t a separate tournament for women yet.

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The 23-year-old Luice Barla has scored for Medinipur, as the game clocks around 45 minutes. Team Gajore looks neither shaken nor perturbed, and their game-plan seems the same. In fact, neither team seems intent on defending. Clearly, they’re in to attack. Sure enough, Gajore scores within five minutes. The worry now is that the game will finish as a draw, and the tie will have to be settled with a penalty shoot-out. But with the day fast closing, light is in short supply. The teams must hurry.

This is, in fact, an off-season tournament. Most people are busy on the farm and the weather is unconducive. October to November is peak season for the Khasi tournament, and there are 20 to 25 tournaments continuously through the 60-70 days. Each tournament can have upwards of 15 teams participating, whereas this off-season one I am watching had to make do with just eight. “Not many people like to travel in the heat,” says Tej Kumar, “plus, there’s farm work.” In ‘Khasi season’, each team will take part in as many tournaments as it possibly can. If a team is knocked out in the first round, it can register afresh, in the hopes of a fresh draw. Some villages even have multiple teams (A team, B team, etc.).

The Sundargarh belt is mostly populated by the Oran, Munda, Kisan, and Kharia tribes, all of whom play. Teams aren’t split by tribes, but by villages. So, one team has members of several tribes, but there is never any tension or discrimination among the players. “We’re all part of the same village, and so from the same team. Why would we ever bother who is from which tribe?” asks Mathias Toppo, a farmer.

I prefer chicken

The organisers charge an entry fee from each team, anything from Rs. 151 to Rs. 601, depending on how many teams enter the tournament. The entry fee, in return, determines the size and quality of the goat and chicken. The potential for a larger prize, though, means more teams will enter the fray, so it’s a self-servicing cycle in many ways.

It’s not quite clear how the fee is spent — even the healthiest goat costs no more than Rs. 4,000, and the players fund their own hockey kits. The organisers are vague. “We use it in a fund for the development of the sport,” says Sylvester, dreamily. “We assure you there are no profits made from this,” he adds. The players couldn’t care less, as long as the tournaments are held regularly.

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The penalty shoot-out has begun. Gajore is taking first strike. Given the size of the goals, penalties are nigh-on impossible to stop, and each side sends in goals by the dozens. Finally, the experienced Ekka steps up for Medinipur, and plants his shin in front of Gajore’s sixth penalty. The fierce shot — which would have crumpled the best of us into sobbing heaps — doesn’t so much as sting Ekka.

The winning Medinipur players are in raptures. The Gajore players don’t seem the least bit dejected, quite looking forward to their chicken. “There’s nothing to be sad about. Between two teams, someone has to lose. We’ll win another tournament, for sure,” says an upbeat Kujur. “And I prefer chicken to mutton any day!”

All the players are either farmers or daily-wage labourers, whose incomes are neither stable nor even enough for anything more than the mere basics. But hockey is fundamental to their lives. It was Ajit and Sylvester who formed a Khasi team for Sundargarh town in 1994. “We save up all year if we have to, but we can’t go on without playing hockey for even the shortest while,” says Medinipur’s Prashant Tiga. Barla graduated school last year, and doesn’t have a job yet. He helps out on his parents’ farm.

“My mother scolds me whenever I ask for money to buy hockey equipment,” he says. “But whenever we bring akhasihome, she stops being angry.”

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Dilip Tirkey, whose term as Rajya Sabha member ended last month, now works closely with the Odisha government for the development of hockey among tribal people. He spearheaded the Biju Patnaik Rural Hockey Championship, which saw 1,500 teams take part from 900 villages. The magnitude of the tournament means that it is still underway, with the final rounds due to be played over the coming months.

The State government has also initiated the Tribal Sports programme, to promote sports and scout talent among tribal people. “We’re starting the programme across all levels — block, district, and State, and it is purely for tribal people,” says Vishav Dev, secretary of the Odisha government’s Sports & Youth Services department.

Apart from scouting potential talent, the programme serves another purpose for the government— drawing children away from the influence of left-wing extremist (LWE) groups. “Connecting with young people can wean them away from LWEs. Talented youngsters are housed in a hostel and we take care of everything from boarding to coaching,” Dev says.

The day has drawn to a close, and a shroud of darkness is descending upon Bhawanipur village. The victors are heading home, one of the players holding thekhasiatop his bicycle carrier. “We will be welcomed like kings,” Toppo says. “Our people will be ready with fruits and sweets, and some of them will be playing dhol and mandal when we enter,” he says. There’s one more step after that. A feast awaits, and it must be prepared.

“We will be welcomed like kings,” Toppo says, “Our people will be playing dhol and mandal”

There are no uniform jerseys, so the teams are split into ‘shirts’ and ‘skins’ — one team wearing t-shirts and the other bare-bodied

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