There’s nothing like a good game to make you root for a nation. You could be the least patriotic person, but the sight of country brethren sweating and grunting and paining their way to victory has to tug even at your taut heartstrings.

And so I found myself swelling with pride at being Indian for the first time in a while as I watched Chak De!India, the film about a female field hockey team’s journey to the World Cup. It was a much-needed moment, coming after nine months to the day of my arrival from the US and at a time I’m awash with doubt over whether this nation will really envelope all in this tide of prosperity.

For a change, escapist Bollywood offers an answer, albeit a slim-chanced one, a place where such a playing field can be level and accessible—and that is the field itself. For women in India, especially, who might have been born into households where their arrivals were not cheered, athletics represents more than a pastime but a way out and up. That has been the case for the last three decades or so, but the regions from which these women hail are becoming increasingly far-flung —with a notably high number coming from the North-East.

Grateful for this point’s subtle inclusion in Chak De!India, my favourite scene begins with two males whistling at two young women, one from Manipur, the other from Mizoram, at a McDonald’s. Common enough, especially in New Delhi. But what ensues is rare: a rough-and-tumble battle of the sexes ending with the allegedly weaker side victorious. A team is built, not just united against injustices from men, but also in sticking up for each other.

This legitimacy and recognition is craved by young athletes from the so-called backward areas, perhaps as much as fame and fortune. Consider another scene where the north-eastern duo arrives at the training camp only to be greeted by a registration official as “guests". The athletes sarcastically thank him for welcoming them to their own country.

To make sure real life imitated the reel, I turned to Manipur native and award-winning boxer Mangte Chungneijang Merykom, now known as Mary Kom, to understand the desperation and determination that defines athletes in the region.

In 2002, she won the gold medal for India at the Women’s World Boxing Championship and went on to receive the Arjuna Award in 2004. I got a sense of her before we even began speaking; her mobile’s ring tone is Billy Joel’s She’s Always a Woman to Me, with lyrics like “She can take you or leave you …she takes care of herself… she’s ahead of her time … She can do as she pleases, she’s nobody’s fool."

Speaking from Imphal in halting English, she told me her father had been a rice farmer, her mother a housewife. “Many players in the North-East, we come from poor families. That’s why we can do hard work," she says. “Now it’s really different. I’ve gotten many awards."

Her success is remarkable in spite of her background, yet also because of it. She says she used to save up money to buy gloves and looked up to boxing great Muhammad Ali. “From different part of India, states like UP and Delhi, when we come out of the North-East, some people think we are like foreigners," she says. “Representing India is a big success for me."

Her husband, a footballer himself, notes the irony of women from the North-East excelling in areas such as judo, weightlifting, boxing, even as lawlessness marks their home villages. He said many hope to land jobs by playing sports for corporate or public sector teams. “Young generations don’t have a chance to get employment in our own states," said K. Onler.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Punjabi women took up sports as a way of uplifting themselves, says Kamaljit Sandhu Kooner, the first Indian woman to win gold in the 1970 Asian Games. Then, after 1975, South Indian women began making a mark. Now, it is the North-East’s turn.

“Competitive sports today is all about pain," said Sandhu Kooner, who serves as the director at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala. “They are naturally suited because of the lives they have led. The greatest motivations are monetary effects and social acceptance. Suddenly, overnight, you become a great hero."

Indeed, the recent heroes in patriotic films have fought enemies outside India, from Britain to Pakistan. Chak De!India cleverly suggests the real dividing force lurks within—and luckily can be conquered. Its appeal and message matters more than ever, especially as the fabric of this nation frays and rips into the countless Indias of cliché: rich and poor, urban and rural, Hindu and Muslim, on and on.

So it has come to be that young women from the new areas that make not even a mention in our national anthem—Jharkand, Manipur, Mizoram and many more—are the ones who embody its meaning strongest as they take to the field.

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