For 20-year-old Sandhya Rai, a rugby player representing India, it took four years, a series of news coverage, and photos in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris to convince villagers in her area that she plays rugby and excels at it.
Sandhya’s parents are tea labourers, who spent their lives plucking leaves in the Saraswati tea estate of Baikunthapur forest, located in east Siliguri, West Bengal.
But Sandhya chose to lead an entirely different life.
The national rugby player is the only Indian among the top 32 ‘unstoppable’ women players from Asia, part of Asia’s Rugby’s Unstoppable Campaign. The campaign aims to promote the sport among girls, and highlight inspiring stories of women who battle all odds to achieve success.
Rugby was introduced to Sandhya in 2013, when some players from the Jungle Crows, an amateur rugby team from Kolkata, came to train children in the village.
‘Rugby: Not a girl’s game’
“There are many hardships in village life, and I have faced many challenges since my childhood,” Sandhya says, adding, “Girls never played any sports in my village. Only boys were allowed to play, the girls were confined to schools or house chores. When I started playing rugby with other girls, people called us names, demotivated us, and even questioned why we were playing a sport meant for boys.”
Trouble escalated for the girls when they decided to give up their churidars (a traditional Indian dress) and trousers for shorts. “Running in lengthy trousers was uncomfortable, and hence, we started wearing shorts. The villagers did not take this well, and failed to understand our needs,” she says.
Sandhya adds that none of the villagers had ever been out of the village boundary for any purpose. The village is so remotely located that electricity reached the area only recently, and pursuing higher secondary education in the area is rare. “When the villagers learned about the team travelling to play tournaments, they doubted us. They even scared us saying that we will be sold in the cities and face such other atrocities. It was difficult to convince them otherwise,” she recalls.
Even when the team earned a trophy in a national tournament in 2015, the villagers alleged that it was bought, Sandhya says.
Earning the village’s trust
Things changed when, in 2017, the team represented India at the World Paris Games. After sharing pictures of their trip, which included one with the Eiffel Tower glittering behind the girls, the villagers believed and eventually started supporting them.
Sandhya says that after local newspapers and other media hailed their success, the villagers felt proud of their achievements. So far, nine girls have made it the national rugby team from her village. The young girl says that her unending struggles and drive to never give up have made her “unstoppable”. “I remember being very aggressive and ignoring whatever the villagers were saying about us. They did not understand our perspective, and all of us had to fight various personal battles,” she says.
Khelo Rugby and the Jungle Crow Foundation (JCF) is supporting Sandhya’s education and other finances.
Sandhya is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Sports Management from the George Group of Colleges, Kolkata. Her days are spent waking up early, training students in her village, and then self training for the remaining hours. “I wake up at 6 am,” she says, adding, “I miss sleeping. If I get one day to myself, I spend it all just sleeping.”
She also says she doesn’t follow any particular diet or nutrition regime. “I eat whatever I please, and burn all the calories by running a lot. The diet does not affect my game,” she chuckles.
Watch Sandhya speak how Rugby changed her life.
Sandhya wants every girl in rural India to fight societal prejudices. “Girls should focus on what they wish to achieve, and find someone who can support them through it. It always helps if the parents are supportive too. I would not have achieved what I wanted without the support of mine,” she tells The Better India.
The young rugby player also wishes for the government to promote the sport and provide financial assistance for better performance of the team. “Many aspiring players drop out due to lack of funds. If supported, we can achieve a lot more,” she says.
Harinder Singh, general manager at JCF, says the village now knows what rugby is, and people have begun prioritising sports and education. “When we started in 2013, the passing percentage of Class X students was less than 30 per cent. In 2020, it increased to over 65 per cent,” he says. He adds, “As for Sandhya, her life journey is a true representation of what unstoppable means. She truly deserves the title.”