[originally published January 13, 2012]
It was her explosive laugh and mischievous grin that made me instantly like Bhagya. She reminded me of one of my feistiest friends from college, and her method of overcoming our language barrier by throwing playful punches immediately won me over.
I talk fast; faster when I’m nervous, even faster when I’m excited. Robin, I do not underSTAND you, she would plead, buckling over in laughter. SLoOoWwWw! She emphatically pushed her palms in the air to halt the flow of words coming her way. She and our friend Anna would burst into a fit of giggles.
Recently I revisited an interview that had been taped back in September the national camp. I was somewhat tickled (do people who are under 60 say that?) — there was my friend Bhagya on file #3. Anna, one of my RFS Pune teammates, had filled in as a translator to break down her Hindi and my accidental rapid-fire English tongue twisters.
At 20, Bhagyalaxmi Barik is compact, well-built and powerful in her attack. In all of my photos of her playing she’s wearing either one of two looks: the first, staring down her opponent, fierce and focused beneath a furrowed brow; the second, her mouth turned up in a giant smile.
Originally hailing from the Dalabhaga village in the northeastern state of Orissa, she’s been living at the Kalignia Institute of Social Science (also know as the KISS school) for the past five years. The school itself is remarkable: a sprawling compound in the middle of Bhubaneswar, it’s home to some 15,000 tribal children who receive free educational and vocational training (I had a chance to visit this school back in November!). KISS formed a women’s rugby team in 2007 after the boy’s Under-14 squad won an international championship in the UK. Bhagya had played lots of sports before — she decided to check rugby out. Why not?
She hated it.
“The first time I was afraid. I was not interested [in playing] rugby. I [usually] have full confidence in the game I am playing and I catch on quickly — but when I [was] playing rugby on the rugby ground, I was not interested. I [couldn’t] understand techniques and moves.”
She walked off the field discouraged and didn’t pay to much more mind to the game. It wasn’t long after that a coach came recruiting through the girls’ hostels.
“He looked [at me] and said ‘you start playing rugby.’ I said to him that I don’t know the moves, techniques or ground, but the rugby coach said ‘please come play’.” It was around this time that the Tag Rugby Trust (remember them?) came to town, bringing a tournament of a few hundred kids from surrounding villages together to play a tournament on the KISS grounds.
She gave it another shot.
By the time her first match slated in Mumbai came around, the game had clicked and she was hooked. With a dramatic flare Anna summed it up: “She’s not afraid of anything! She was ready to die and ready to take risks.” Turns out Bhagya was a natural; so much so that she’s twice been selected to represent India in international competition.
She has become somewhat of a celebrity back in her home village. Once a year she goes home for summer vacation to see her three siblings, her mother, and her father who works as a security guard at an office building. When she started playing, Dalabhaga had never heard of rugby. Regardless, when word made it back that she had been chosen to represent team India, the village swelled with pride. As Bhagya put it, “my village was lifted because I brought their name up.” However, she was met with mixed reactions after they finally got a chance to watch her play in the Asian Games on TV.
“They had negative thoughts and were insecure,” she says, “They saw the contact of the tackling, and they saw [that it is] a rough game. The villagers are afraid that I will put on a body like a guy, all muscles.”
“They also worry [because] I am a girl and if I get injured, what will happen later? They are afraid that no one will get married to me and I will be sitting at home. But I am never never never nervous about the game, or nervous about injuries,” she elaborates, “I just give my heart the to game.”
“But my father is damn supportive. ‘Let my child play,’ he says to them, ‘let her do whatever she wants.’ My mother is supporting me always, but she has a soft heart. A mother worries about her child.”
Bhagya’s demeanor takes a turn for the serious as she tells me in a matter-of-fact manner, “If girls are playing rugby on field, they are so confident in themselves. They talk, they communicate with each other, they run and they are damn strong. Because we are confident on field, we are [confident] off the field. If anyone pressures us,” — and then she finally laughs — “we can tell people that we play rugby.”