Mumbai Multiplex | Level playing field

Meet Team Leher, whose girls choose school and football over shelling prawns for a living


Girls from Team Leher, including Kavita (centre, in red jersey), Mamta (right, red shorts) and Ujwala (right, in blue jersey) practise at a public ground. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Girls from Team Leher, including Kavita (centre, in red jersey), Mamta (right, red shorts) and Ujwala (right, in blue jersey) practise at a public ground. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

A group of men put up a stage on the teeming road that leads up to Ambedkar Nagar Colony, a maze of hutments spread over 60,000 sq. ft in Mumbai’s tony Cuffe Parade area. A banner announces that the “Great Indian Spider-man” will address the crowd—Gaurav Sharma, a 32-year-old martial arts trainer, is contesting the general election as an independent candidate from Charni Road, another poorly developed part of the otherwise rich Mumbai South district.

“He was my mentor,” says 23-year-old Parvati Pujari, a life skills trainer at Magic Bus, a non-governmental organization that spreads development through sports, where Sharma worked too. We are waiting for 26-year-old Gaurang Chauhan—a resident of the colony and Pujari’s work colleague—to arrive. Since 2009, the duo has been independently imparting football training to underprivileged teenage girls. In 2011, Pujari and Gaurang started training girls living in hutments in Lower Parel too—Team Leher now has over 35 girls.

*****

We’re sitting on the mezzanine floor of 17-year-old Kavita Chauhan’s one-room house in Ambedkar Nagar colony (no relation to Gaurang, other than the fact that their families, among others from the Banjara tribe, migrated from Karnataka in the 1980s ). It was on her insistence that Leher came to be. “I would see my brother play football, and I wanted to play too. So I approached Gaurang bhaiya, and asked him to coach me. He asked me to bring him a group of girls to coach.”

Parvati Pujari (extreme right) with Team Leher after winning first runners-up position at an NGO Football tournament
Finding interested girls wasn’t a problem; convincing their parents, was. Gaurang repeatedly came up against the discomfort of Kavita’s mother. “The parents in this colony worry what the neighbours will think. It’s not usual to let the girls go out to play,” he explains.

When the girls began practising at the Oval Maidan, a vast ground at Churchgate, they would wear half-saris. Soon, however, they figured out that if they must kick a ball, they must divest themselves of unwieldy skirts and slippers. They borrowed their brothers’ shorts, or lent each other spares; and began to save pocket money each week for the Rs.10 bus ticket to the grounds. As they began playing tournaments—Under 14 (U-14), Under 16, NGO cups like the Milind Deora football tourney and the ONGC football tourney—they saved the jerseys and shoes they would receive and reuse them.

*****

Reshma Pawar, a stocky 17-year-old who is the team’s defender, waits till all the girls—by now there are 11 of us in the room—finish reminiscing about their first win. In 2011, the Team Leher girls of Ambedkar Nagar took home the U-14 Bombay Gymkhana Cup. There were 12 boys teams and eight girls teams. “We lost the first game to Akanksha girls,” says Reshma, referring to the Akanksha Foundation which is involved in the education of underprivileged children. “But we defeated the same team in the finals.” The other girls pipe in with details. “We won the game on a penalty strike.”

“Sudden death!”

“What was the score? 3-all?”

“No, no, it was 2-all.”

Reshma supplies the details. Both teams had played a good game; neither side scored a goal. To decide the winner, each team was allowed three penalty shots. Kavita and 12-year-old Sapna Pawar, the team’s striker, scored the first two. Reshma scored the winning third.

“No wonder you remember the details,” Kavita tells Reshma.

None of the girls’ parents have been to school. Most of them work as contract labour or clean gardens in their more upscale neighbourhood. On Sundays, the mothers visit Sassoon Docks, where boats bring in fresh catch to sell to suppliers across the city. There, they offer their services to shell prawns and get paid anywhere from Rs.10-30 for a kilo. They earn Rs.300 after a day’s work. Till the girls joined Leher, all of them would accompany their mothers to the docks. “Now, most have stopped going to work. They stay at home, finish household chores and then do their homework,” says Gaurang.

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Sapna Pawar of Ambedkar Nagar Colony at practice
Kavita recently enrolled at south Mumbai’s Elphinstone College, but worries whether she’s made the right choice. She wanted to study mathematics, but the fee for private tuitions was too much—Rs.7,000 a year. So, she opted for arts. “We will study psychology and sociology, and we’ve never heard about these subjects. They sound interesting,” says Reshma, who has also enrolled with Kavita. Both girls, like most of their teammates, were educated in Hindi-medium schools but the textbooks they will be expected to learn from are in English.

Which brings us to a conundrum: Football may have changed their outlook to life, but there is a lot in their socio-economic context it cannot change. Gaurang, however, doesn’t buy that.

Devi Chavan, the team’s goalkeeper, joined Leher in 2011. Two years ago, the 13-year-old dropped out of school on her parents’ insistence, to supplement the family income. Now, she works as a help in a private school in Masjid, a locality in south Mumbai. Devi also assists her mother in shelling prawns. “My parents discourage me from playing football,” she says. Yet, whenever there’s a match or a practice session, Devi makes sure she is there.

“They make different choices. That is a sign of empowerment,” says Gaurang.

*****

Vasanti Mahadev Sawant, a 58-year-old Maharashtra Navnirman Sena party worker for Raj Thackeray, is busy with election work. The retired schoolteacher adopted her sister’s children—three girls, including Mamta, the 13-year-old captain of Leher’s Lower Parel team. They live in a one-room house in a redeveloped building that was once a slum cluster.

In 2011, when Mamta asked Sawant’s permission to visit the Oval Maidan, where a friend was helping Pujari with a girl’s football team, Sawant readily agreed. Later, both Pujari and Gaurang dropped by. They wanted to start a team for girls from Lower Parel and wondered if Sawant would encourage the girls in her locality to join?

Sawant, in her inimitable style, roused Mamta’s friends into action. “I told them, go play! Why are you thinking so much?” she says. “Many parents didn’t agree. I don’t see why. They should encourage their girls to learn something new, meet new people, and get new role models.”

There are 15 girls from Lower Parel now, who practise on weekends at the public grounds near Siddhivinayak Temple. Some girls, like 13-year-old Shivani Obale, a neighbour of 12-year-old Ujwala and 14-year-old Bandana Jaiswal, teammates and siblings, continue to practise without shoes. Others like Mamta have bought themselves rip-offs from roadside stalls.

Gaurang’s footballer-friends, like physical education teachers Shah Mohammed Sahim Shaikh, Amruta Chavan and Surekha Ghodeswar, among others, are volunteer coaches. In February, the Team Leher girls of Lower Parel won first runners-up position at the ONGC NGO Football tournament in the U-14 category.

Pujari says the game has taught these girls to be less inhibited and more self-assured. She offers the example of Ujwala, a diminutive girl with grey eyes and greasy pigtails, who would stay silent in school. She became gregarious after she joined Leher. Noticing the remarkable change, Ujwala’s schoolteacher invited Gaurang and Pujari for a meeting. “He told us to teach football to all the girls in the school,” smiles Pujari. The duo had to decline—besides working and running Team Leher, both are keen to study further.

*****

Team Leher has a lot in common with Magic Bus, founded by Mathew Spacey and Yuwa, an organization to help underprivileged girls in Jharkhand started by Franz Gastler. Another community-driven organization set up by Ashok Rathod called Oscar operates out of Ambedkar Nagar Colony to prevent boys from dropping out of school. All these initiatives use football to address larger social issues, and target young, underprivileged individuals.

In many ways, it feeds the desire to hear stories of triumph against all odds, yet the prejudice these children face, by way of class and gender, cannot be read down.

In the case of these girls, it’s a fight they find themselves tackling as a team.

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