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WOMEN DAY: Story of a gritty mother of two (3/8/2013)
--K. Arumugam
WOMEN DAY: Story of a gritty mother of two

A call from the maternity ward: Burning desire to play for India again

It was the summer of 1999. A call from Pritamrani Thakran completely took me by surprise because just a week ago, I had got news of her delivery. As the phone rang, I thought she would be in the hospital. And she was indeed. I was a bit embarrassed by that call too. I had delayed wishing her on being blessed with a baby boy, and she was already on the other end. I cursed my idea of planning a visit to her home in Sonepat -- a district headquarter town about 80 kms from New Delhi -- rather than wishing her on the phone. Had I delayed that all-important visit? Certainly not. In fact she was in a hurry, something I understood during the course of discussion that followed. The customaries were cut short, and Pritam came to the point.

“Arumugamji. I want to play again”.

“You will certainly, Pritam,” I replied half-heartedly.

“I am not talking about playing for Railways, for India.”

“Why not Pritam, but now…”, she interrupted before I could complete.

“I can’t wait. At home I will work (on) fitness. I already spoke to Kuldeep, he supports me fully”.

undefined I tried in vain to request her to go slow, her first priority should have been health and her baby and the game could come later -- advices normally expected in such situation. She refused to listen.

“You will support me Arumugam Ji, dekhna mein phir India kheloongi”

The last line of the conversation, in fact, was the point of return for Pritam’s second innings.

Pritamrani, the only daughter of a farmer from Jharsa in a suburb of Gurgaon -- a bustling Delhi suburb -- started playing hockey during her school days. It was in the late 80s. Short, agile, mischievous, domineering in attitude, sports was to her liking. Thankfully, it was hockey that she chose. At 14, when she had made it to her State team, Haryana, the National Championship too came calling to Gurgaon.

The little dynamo, declared the best player of that premier tournament, celebrated with a ride on Vicky -- a motorized two-wheeler presented by state chief minister Devi Lal. Pritam’s hockey career – that included 17 illustrious years thereafter, a world record perhaps -- had taken off.

It was exactly 10 years later that I had got a call from her on my office landline number. It was a crucial phase.

It is not easy for girls in India to take up sport beyond schools. Even playing during school time was a difficult proposition for someone like Pritam. The region she hailed from was notorious for its male female sex ratio. It meant gender discrimination was all pervasive. She was lucky to be born in a family that supported her right from the school days, even though she continued to face hassles when outside home. Those did not count for the young Pritam, who loved hockey beyond explanation.

But those were hurdles she faced a decade ago. Now, she was a star, a dashing forward. She was no longer an uknown girl from Jharsa. She was now the Jharsa ki Rani (Queen of Jharsa). This was how the media portrayed her in the 90s. Pritam was not an obscure achiever. The nation knew her as the first woman hockey player in 15 years to earn Government of India’s Arjuna award. It could not be denied, as she had led India to the Asian Games final at Bangkok the previous year. It was India’s first Asiad final in 16 years, the first one coming in the inaugural number in 1982.

The star was now a mother too. This time it was a battle of a different kind. Mothers playing international hockey was not common, so will Pritam break the barrier? Will she overcome both the domestic obligations and those of her own body?

undefined A couple of months later, a newspaper ran a story on her with a headline: Pritam works for return with bricks. Without waiting for return to Railways hockey – her employers -- she had started working on her fitness by lifting bricks in her home yard. She did many other odd things too, that could slowly help her to feel that she can make a comeback. Her husband Kuldeep Siwach, an India camp player, stood by her.

Pritam, now a mother, wanted to get into the Railways team. The first step was to be in the Northern Railways team that would play the Inter-Railways. This inter-institutional competition, an annual feature, is veritable ‘Olympics’ for any Railway girl. So much is at stake for the girls in this tournament that many call it the Olympics. The Railways is considered the gateway for the Indian national team. Simply put, if you are not in the Railways, you are not in the national team, as this department formed bulk of the Indian national team.

To Pritam’s disappointment, she was overlooked for the Railways main team. Still, she stayed connected to hockey, waiting for her chance – which came in the form of the National Games in Ludhiana, Punjab. This time she chose to play for her state, Haryana.

Pritam played so well that it brought her what she wanted – she was back to the centre-stage and much talked about. The nine goals scored showed her will-power and the mother – who had not played any level of hockey in the last one and half years – was back to where she belonged. That was the stuff Pritam was made of.

undefined The brilliant showing assured her return. It got her another shot at the national team, and another enchanting spell commenced. Her patented quick dive into the striking circle to deflect a cross, on the run reverse shot to bemuse even the best of goalkeepers, outrunning her rivals, the things that made her a star, were all on display.

None could make out that the sparkling centre-forward was in her late 20s, and had a child to rear. Many would refuse to accept the facts simply because they did not connect. What they witnessed on the turf was a player at her best -- nothing else struck, nothing else mattered. It was Pritam’s success. She brought her game to the fore keeping the off-field struggles and strife in the background. Last thing she needed was sympathy. No, she was playing because she was the best available talent.

There were problems in the national team at that time, some natural, and some contrived, straight out of ego. One such event spoilt the smooth show. Pritam and her close friends in the team fell prey to a provocation, and uncharacteristically stayed away from a camp. Wisdom prevailed later, and she returned.

At Manchester in 2002, these girls brought smiles on every Indian’s face. Much against the odds, the Commonwealth Games gold glittered on our women’s team. At this stage, Pritam’s career was at her best. The 30-year old was the first to break away from the maddening crowd at the Delhi airport to rush towards her waiting son. Her family was there on that day too as she basked in the glory of the Commonwealth success.

The Indian team wanted her services further. India was hard pressed to win at the home Afro-Asian Games. It was early 2003. Her first coach MK Kaushik was back in the business, wanted continuity. He wanted her in the team as part of team re-building. But Pritam hesitated. Kaushik discussed the matter with me, and I played a mediator’s role. I felt it was strange on Pritam’s part to refuse. Why is she confused? Why was she losing interest? Was she tired? Or were the hefty monies that came with the Commonwealth Games the culprit?

I was in a state of confusion as to the strange attitude of the girl who discussed every aspect of her sporting career till then and often went by my word.

undefined A few weeks later, she rang me up. This call brought me to peace. She told me that she was expecting. She gave me freedom to choose a day to announce her official retirement. Somehow I could not organize that, thankfully.

Had it happened, India would not have had the opportunity to see a mother of two play for the country again.

Yes, it is not a fairytale but for real. It needs detailing.

She delivered her second baby in 2004. Shortly after, Pritam started a academy for girls. I visited the upcoming Academy along with some journalists. Her work got good exposure. Almost two years had lapsed. She was out of the Railways team -- not unexpected as youngsters were pushing hard. But she had not given up on playing. She, along with her long time colleague Manjinder Kaur, chose to play on an ad-hoc basis and it happened to be the Delhi team.

During the Delhi Nationals in 2006, the Delhi bench was a sight to behold. Pritam’s elder son was seated on the players’ bench, while a relative held the other baby in the area separating the crowd from the playing area. It was not that her family could not look after the children at home, but they wanted the children to witness their mother on the hockey field. Whenever substituted, Pritam would rush to her babies, pass a kiss or a cuddle -- sights one cannot forget. On several occasions, the elder of the two would snatch her stick, itching to enter the ground ahead of his substituting mother.

Towards the end of 2007, the National Championship was held in Jalandhar. She was the playing coach. Her team, mostly consisting of trainees from her own Academy, performed well. Novice many thought, but it was not. It was in the semifinal, and they went down valiantly to Bombay in the bronze match. The young team lost out only in the tie-breaker.

I saw her playing an year after in Jalandhar. She was good, certainly appeared better though it seemed that she had put on weight. Now, she wanted to play for India after being out of reckoning in the last three years. Fortunately or unfortunately there were no national selectors present during the National Championship. Fortunately, because it leaves room to persuade authorities on cases of merit. Unfortunately, because she could have easily got their nod straightaway.

“It’s our stupidity, madness or whatever you call, we did not play the Olympic Qualifier (2000). The Olympics is still a dream for me, given a chance I will go for Qualifiers this time, who knows we all might play Beijing (Olympics),” she stressed. That was the time I had just recovered from a heart attack and I did not want to take risk, roaming around for her return. But I was overwhelmed with her passion.

The process of her third recall began in the right earnest.

Former India player MP Ganesh, the Executive Director in the Sports Authority of India -- he was also treasurer of the Indian Women Hockey Federation – was contacted. He was sympathetic, and played a fair game. His view was not to prevent anybody from the camps. “To be in a camp is a player’s right, to select or not is coaches’ right,” he used to say.

The IWHF was not interested and the federation had their own reasons. Honestly, they had not witnessed the Jalandhar Nationals to judge her claim. Pritam was not called for the first camp at Lucknow. Later, after much work it was left to a doctor in Gurgaon to assess her fitness. This time she got the nod, attended the camp and made it to the Kazan Olympic Qualifier.

undefined Can anyone believe it? The last time she played for India was in the 2002 Asian Games. She was back after nearly four years.

The team stayed at the Youth Hostel in Delhi before leaving. They got a surprise kit from the Chak De India makers. Writer-lyricist Jaideep Sahni spoke to players to motivate them before they left.

She proved her worth at Kazan, scoring the first Indian goal. At least, I heaved a sigh of relief. Her return was my personal triumph as an unofficial promoter of women hockey.

India’s women hockey is full of Pritams, their commitments, their untold story.

This also proved other things: Merit counted, fair game existed, it was a level playing field for every stake holder. This completes the wonderful world of women’s hockey in India.

Extract from the first chapter of my book ‘Glimpses of Indian Women Hockey’ released early last year during the Women’s Olympic Qualifier, New Delhi.

PICS:
Top: Young Pritam
2nd from top: Mother Pritam with her first son during Delhi Nationals 2001
3rd from top: Pritam in Action
Above: Grand reception at airport on arrival after winning the Commonwealth Games gold

Note: This writer has covered women’s hockey for more than 20 years.

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