The Field as a Stage
The girls who play for Yuwa make eye contact when they speak. Talk to other girls in the village, and they demurely drop their gaze and tend to mumble. Participating on a team gives girls a very noticeable boost of confidence that is made all the more apparent because it’s such a contrast from their peers. I didn’t realize the extent of Yuwa players’ confidence until I watched them play in a match in another district of Jharkhand. This event took place in mid-September, but even if this post is belated, it’s a story worth relating.
At 6:00 on the morning of the match, about 25 girls arrived at the Yuwa House, ready to go. Coach Anand informed me that the mini-bus would arrive any minute, and that the match was about “two or maybe two and half hours away.” Not bad. Regardless of the cramped conditions of the bus, it would be a chance for me to see more of Jharkhand countryside. The girls charged around the house, eager to get on the road. Based on their energy, you never would have guessed it was so early in the morning.
The mini-bus didn’t show up until 9:30. Yes, that’s three-and-a-half hours late. This didn’t seem to faze anyone, least of all the girls, who took the extra time to do each other’s hair in elaborate braids and show off their dances moves. About 40 of us (including the players who wanted to come along to cheer for the competing team) piled into the mini-bus that was meant for 18 passengers. Several of the older boys rode on the roof when no more could fit inside. We heroically defied designated vehicle capacity, and set off on our journey. One girl sat on my lap, and the two girls on either side of me promptly borrowed my arms as pillows and fell asleep.
Including a handful of stops to pick up more passengers and buy bananas, we drove for six hours. It got a bit stuffy and I lost feeling in my legs, but the girls were admirably free of complaints and still buzzed with the same anticipation they had had at 6 am. I kept thinking about Anand’s original estimate of this trip lasting “two or maybe two and a half hours.” It was at this point that I made a mental note never again to trust Anand’s judgment of time or distance.
Just when I thought we must be arriving at the field, we stopped at a roadside dhaba (a diner for truck drivers and travelers) for lunch. Apparently the political sponsors of the match were paying for the players’ meal. Although it seemed like a bad idea to eat a lot of food immediately before running around, the girls all ate their weight in rice and vegetables. I still marvel that girls so small can eat so much rice.
Bellies filled, the girls and I piled back into the mini-bus and set off once more. I had imagined that this match would take place in a stadium, but our vehicle turned onto an unpaved road and began a long and bumpy trip past villages and rice fields. And suddenly, when we were seemingly in the middle of nowhere, our bus came upon a clearing with a massive gathering of people. My jaw dropped. The crowd was improbably huge and packed around the designated football field. Without any proper bleachers, people had improvised by stacking themselves in rows to watch the match, climbing onto surrounding roofs, and even taking to the trees to get a view. At one end of the field sat a stage with premium seats for politicians and other big egos. Police officers wearing red berets and wielding sticks patrolled the area to keep order. All of this, to watch the Yuwa girls play some football.
The Yuwa girls and I were ushered out of the bus and guided through the crowd by the police officers. Everyone had been waiting for our arrival. I felt like we were extremely important. I was also very conscious of being the only foreigner in a crowd that must have numbered in the thousands. I wasn’t the one about to play a match in front of this crowd, but I couldn’t help but feel jittery and nervous at the prospect of so many spectators. The girls, on the other hand, seemed utterly cool and composed. They held their heads up and focused on their warm-ups. Their body language was all confidence: of course there should be a crowd this big to watch their match.
After the Big-Shot politicians had their chance to flamboyantly and gratuitously introduce the match and its participants, the game began. The opposing team of girls was noticeably older and bigger than the Yuwa team. I prowled around the edge of the crowd taking photos and marveling at the intensity with which the girls were playing. They were awesome. Despite the obvious disadvantage of their size, the Yuwa girls were out-playing the other team in every one-on-one situation. And the crowd, like most crowds, loves a tough underdog: the cheers were almost entirely biased for Yuwa.
The final outcome of the match was 0-1, with Yuwa scoring the winning goal in the last five minutes of the game. The crowd, which had otherwise been impressively orderly, collapsed onto the field in celebration. The teams were quickly surrounded by the police and chaperoned over to the politicians’ stage for the presentation of awards. I thought this award ceremony would be a quick ordeal, considering the fact that we had over six hours of driving in the mini-bus to get back to Hutup. I didn’t realize that the ulterior motive of this entire event was the local politicians’ self-inflated need to speak in front of large groups of people. Thus, we all sat quietly for the next hour and a half while each of the Big Shots blathered on about things that could not possibly have been important.
We didn’t get back to Hutup village until almost three in the morning. Our ride home involved Hindi sing-a-longs, a wrong turn that cost us about an hour, many failed attempts to sleep on the cramped floor of the mini-bus, and a 1:30 am stop at a dhaba for dinner. The team filed into the Yuwa house and promptly crashed on the floor to sleep. Not once in this entire day did I hear one of the girls complain about being uncomfortable, hungry, intimidated, or tired. It was tough imagining how a group of American 12-year-olds might have dealt with a similar situation.
The girls’ confidence I witnessed in the match isn’t confined to the football field. After noticing the near universal enthusiasm for Hindi music videos and dancing, I thought it’d be pretty easy to organize a Yuwa talent show. This was definitely an accurate observation. The kids were so eager for a venue to show off their moves, I didn’t need to explain the concept of a talent show more than once to get a startlingly enthusiastic response. My efforts to arrange the event quickly took on a life of its own.
Pictures can speak louder than words, so I’ll just share some of the photos I took during the talent show. The performances were 90% dances, plus a couple of comedy skits and speeches in English (two about Ghandi and one about football). I led a group of girls in a clumsy rendition of the “Cha-Cha Slide”, which went over well with the audience despite being repetitive and not nearly as exciting as the girls’ Bollywood dance sequences.
To conclude this post—which is meant to be a salute to the confidence of Yuwa players—I want to share with you how to obliterate confidence in rural India. Buy a realistic rubber snake. When Franz came back from the U.S., he brought an exceptionally convincing fake cobra. The kids’ reactions to finding this thing in various places around the house were priceless. They would scream and sprint out the door, sometimes running all the way down the street. Once convinced to come back, however, they were eager to pull the prank on their friends and elicit similar over-the-top responses.
By far the best fake snake reaction came when a group of about fifteen Yuwa players were waiting for their auto-rickshaw in the house. Out of pure coincidence, the kids were all gathered around a National Geographic picture book about snakes. Franz quietly approached the group holding a basket covered with a shawl. Once in the middle of the circle, he lifted the shawl to reveal the snake. It was like a bomb went off. Everyone screamed, some fell backwards, and those who kept their balance were outside within seconds.Unfortunately, I don’t have a video of this moment.
Bottom line? Given the absence of fake snakes, Yuwa girls got confidence on stage, on the field, and off the field.
A note on the backlogged-ness of the blog: I am currently OUT of India and in Battambang, Cambodia. I’ve got another post in the works about Darjeeling, but I’ll catch up to the present moment eventually.