Zaffar Khan, a young Indian of Afghan parentage, is furious. “I’ve lost all respect for you guys,” he tells the Armenian boys in English, minutes after they’ve walked off the rugby pitch to protest against what they believed were a series of poor decisions by the referee. The opposition, a local outfit called the Jungle Crows, is still out in the middle.
The seven players who wait, hands on hips, include Mesulame Serukalou, a Fijian, and Sailen Tudu, a Santhal from Purulia in West Bengal. The motley crowd of spectators includes everyone from a foreign diplomat to a burqa-clad mother. Listen carefully and you can hear people talking five-six languages.
The scene that played out in June on a rain-swept afternoon at the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club (CC&FC) in the posh Ballygunge area of Kolkata typifies the way the game of rugby brings together different elements of the city on a patch of trampled grass. Every monsoon, when rugby is on, the club gates open to all sorts of people who otherwise would have had no access to the elitist institution with limited membership from the upper echelons of society.
Rugby remains a niche sport in Kolkata, as it is in the rest of the country, with a dedicated group of followers. It is a small but diverse group.
“Rugby is quite special in building communities,” says Paul Walsh, who founded Jungle Crows in 2004 when he was still working with the British deputy high commission in Kolkata. S.M. “Dada” Osman, former president and rugby captain of CC&FC, agrees. “It is in the ethos of rugby: It is a contact sport but teams get cheered out of the field by their opponents; whatever happens in the game, players from both sides share a drink afterwards and take part in singalong.” All this, together with the strange attraction of amateur sports, means rugby continues to draw people from all walks of life.
The diversity of Kolkata’s rugby community can be explained by history. The Calcutta Football Club (CFC), football meaning rugby, was founded in 1872, mainly for the large community of British expatriates and military personnel stationed in the city at the time. It is the oldest rugby club outside the UK. The original club closed down in 1878, was revived in 1884 and then merged with the Calcutta Cricket Club of 1792 vintage in 1965.
As happens when any new sport is introduced in an area, there are neo-converts. Here, it was the Armenians, a Christian community of mainly traders from West Asia who had settled in Bengal and other parts of the country long before the British.
“The Armenians started playing rugby soon after the CFC was founded,” says Moroth Vasant Kumar, a south Indian settled in Kolkata who has been involved with the game for more than 50 years, from his time at the La Martiniere for Boys school. Vasant Kumar remembers strong Armenian teams making their mark in the Calcutta Cup, a tournament that traces its history back to 1890. “There would be working men in their 30s, and they were a very good side.”
Over time, the Armenian presence in the city shrunk and now rugby is played only by the boys, and sometimes the girls, of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, where Armenian children from Iran, Iraq and Armenia are still sent for their education. “Rugby is like a tradition for us,” says Armen Apelian, who was sent by his parents from Tehran, Iran, to the Armenian College as a 13-year-old in 2003. “It is the only game we play. Even when we’ve got a football in our hand, we play rugby with it.”
The game also gives the Armenian students a chance to socialize. “We’ve got friends in the other rugby teams. They are our brothers,” says Apelian, who has played rugby for India thanks to the International Rugby Board rule which allows you to play for the country you have been residing in for three or more years.
The absence of older heads in the current Armenian team sometimes results in acts of petulance, like the one during the Georgiadi 7s Invitational Rugby Tournament 2012.
Other non-military teams that have been part of the city’s rugby scene from the beginning are Calcutta Police (now Kolkata Police) and La Martiniere Old Boys (LMOB), made up mostly of former students of the school. Initially there were many Anglo-Indians in both teams along with expatriates, but that changed after independence as more and more Indians took to the game. This coincided with social clubs allowing Indians to become members.
The next step came in 1988 when Englishman Tim Grandage, then a banker, set up Future Hope, a foundation, to provide a home, education and healthcare to street children. Grandage also introduced rugby among them. “We grew up amid a lot of violence. Rugby gave us an opportunity to channel our aggression,” says Sanjay Patra, who came to Future Hope as a seven-year-old in 1990 and studied till class XII. He pursued rugby coaching courses in New Zealand, England and South Africa and was in the support staff of the Indian Sevens Men’s Squad at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games.
When Walsh founded Jungle Crows with a couple of mates from the deputy high commission, the rugby space opened up further. “We decided to have no specific membership rules. The club’s basically open to anybody who wants to come to the Maidan and practise,” says Walsh. That explains the presence of Fijian student Serukalou in the team.
Youngsters such as Zaffar, whose parents migrated to India in the 1970s when the Russians moved into Afghanistan, and Tudu, who grew up in what is now the Maoist belt of West Bengal, joined Jungle Crows to take up the game. It took them places, literally.
Tudu joined Hartpury College in Gloucester, one of the top rugby colleges in the UK, to do a sports diploma. He finished it in 2010. Last year, Zaffar was invited back to Afghanistan to train the newly formed national U-19 team. He is currently studying sports management in Wales. Both Tudu and Zaffar have represented India in rugby.
It was Zaffar who came up with a programme called Khelo Rugby to take the game to children living in difficult conditions in different parts of the city with no access to organized sport. “The idea is to bring communities together,” says Zaffar.
Since its launch in 2010, Khelo Rugby has grown. “We now have five community coaches training kids in 12 locations in the city and on the fringes, including the dumping grounds of Howrah and Salt Lake,” says Abhishek Singh, who took over as programme manager after Zaffar moved to other things. The programme, running on a budget of Rs 9-10 lakh per year, currently covers around 400 children in the 8-14 age group through training camps and competitions.
A recent tournament played on a dusty patch in Khidirpur, a port area in the south-west part of Kolkata, had members of the rugby team of the British Royal Air Force (RAF), known as the Spitfires, doubling as coaches and referees. “We are here as part of the outreach programme of the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office,” said squadron leader Tim Barlow, the director and coach of the Spitfires. Barlow and flight-lieutenant Rory Wood, who captains the team, have been to Kolkata twice in two years with the Spitfires for Khelo Rugby.
“In the United Nations’ Declarations of the Rights of the Child adopted in 1959, the right to play is given as much importance as the right to education,” says the British deputy high commissioner to eastern India, Sanjay Wadvani, a regular visitor to all rugby activity in Kolkata. “What I like about Khelo Rugby is that though it is based on fun, it also teaches children the importance of discipline and teamwork.”
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