Karuna Purty from Khunti district in Jharkhand was only around 11 years old when first saw girls playing hockey in her village, Bariatu. Back then, all she could do was maintain distance and watch from afar as the children, no older than she was at the time, played this fascinating game.
“I found it interesting to see how a ball is controlled and carried across the ground with a stick to score points,” she recalls.
Eventually, she was able to try her hands at the sport herself, while in school. “We had a dedicated class for games, so I started playing hockey. There was no one to teach as we had no coach. The activity was more for leisure,” she says.
“Bas ball ko dandi se bhagana, aur agar goal post main chala jaye toh point milta hain. Itna hi pata tha game ke baarein mein. (All I knew about the game was to push the ball with the stick, and that if it went through the goal post, I’d earn points,” she tells The Better India.
Needless to say, Karuna, now in her forties, is more than well-accustomed with the sport, having attained much success as a national-level player. Today, she trains tribal girls from her village in the sport, and many have gone on to become national and international players themselves.
Rookie to professional
Her own journey with the sport, however, did not start off smoothly. Not all members of her family were encouraging. “My grandmother was against me playing the sport. ‘How will it benefit you?’ she always asked,” Karuna says.
But her love for hockey was such that she’d find any and every excuse to play the sport. “We could not afford a kit or even a hockey stick. I used to make sticks of broken branches of trees and bamboo, and played the game with other friends,” she says.
Before leaving home, she’d give an excuse of washing utensils or heading out to collect water from the well nearby. “I’d take clothes along, or a pot to fill water in. I’d play with boys and girls at the nearby ground until dusk, and return home after completing the chores. But my mischief did not go unnoticed, and I received plenty of scoldings for my behaviour. It was all worth it though,” she says.
Karuna says her elder sister played a crucial role in making her a national player. Observing the former’s passion and command over the game, her sister learned about a hockey selection tournament and took her along. “I was selected at the age of 12, and coached first under Rajpal Singh Sidhu, and later with Narendra Singh Saini. They played a crucial role in teaching me the technicalities of the sport and preparing me for matches,” she says.
She started playing Under-14 category matches, but says she struggled. “I was not used to wearing hockey shoes and felt uncomfortable. At times, they were not the right fit. Before I got used to them, I’d just remove my shoes and play. I was never comfortable wearing a skirt and ensured that the length was always below the knees. At times, the coaches poked light fun at me,” she says.
Recalling one incident, she says, “One time, I made a minor mistake during the game, and the coach asked if he should issue a yellow or a green card. I looked at my co-player in confusion, seeking an answer. She suggested yellow, and I replied the same. The coach realised that I was that naive, and was kind enough to issue a green card eventually.” Karuna later learned that the green card is issued as a warning for a minor offence, resulting in two minutes of suspension. Meanwhile, the yellow card meant a five minute removal from the game.
Over time, Karuna shaped her game and improved upon it, participating in various competitions at the district and state levels. In 1988, she made it to nationals. “I continued to play until 1992 for various tournaments. However, my family’s financial condition demanded that I quit the game and look for a job instead,” she says.
Karuna applied for various government jobs, but was rejected by the police services for not meeting the required criteria. A year later, she bagged a job with Air India, Delhi.
After working for a year, she once again tried her luck again with the national trials. However, an illness prevented her from regaining a full level of fitness, and she was unable to find a selection in the game. She returned home and decided to pursue higher studies while working on her fitness. But her family’s financial situation was still preventing her from following her real dream.
She tried to apply for labour work with a government department, but was turned away for being overqualified for the job. To earn a living, Karuna spent some time coaching students at the State Hockey Training Centre (SHTC), Bariatu, to earn Rs 2,500 a month.
However, her life took a turn when one of her sisters, who was working as a domestic help in Delhi, passed away due to an illness. “The landlady who knew our situation realised that my sister was the only major earning member of the family. After she passed away, there was no financial source for us. The landlady was kind and offered to pay for any expenses for my studies. I expressed my desire to become a hockey coach at the National Institute of Sports, Punjab,” she says.
Dream for an international player
In 2016, Karuna completed the course in coaching with landlady’s help, and joined SHTC as a permanent coach. Since then, she has churned out national players like Albella Rani Toppo, Rima Bakhla, Dipti Toppo, Phulrani Manju, Niru Kullu and others.
“I have coached at least 35 national players, and many of them are already part of the national hockey team. Of course, they are training under different coaches now. But they started coaching with me,” she says.
Balo Horo, a national level player from Jharkhand, says, “I was training in my native at Govindpur and later directed by my coach to train with Karuna madam in 2017. Since then, I have received training which has helped me compete at under-14 national games in Haryana, Hisar, the under-19 category in 2019 and sub-junior category in 2021.”
The 15-year-old hopes to become an international player in the coming years.
Karuna says that a lot has changed about the sport since she first started playing three decades ago. “The rules, the quality of equipment, and the turf have also changed. The government is paying more attention to the coaching and the nutrition that players receive. But we need synthetic turf to train and create capable players that can compete at the national and international level,” she adds.
Karuna feels content about following her passion and helping create future players in hockey. “I could not become an international player, but I hope to train one from Jharkhand. That is my wish to contribute to the sport and make India proud,” she adds.
Edited by Divya Sethu