At 17, Kajal Atpadkar is a national-level field hockey player. She has represented Maharashtra in several events and competitions, and at the recently-held Khelo India Youth Games in Guwahati, she even added a bronze medal to her name, blazing a trail for many a budding athlete like her.
But as promising as it all sounds, the beginning of Kajal’s sports career was rather bumpy.
When most girls of her age would carry school bags on their back, Kajal Atpadkar had slightly different responsibilities on her shoulders. Instead of books, it was fodder for her cattle on her head, and in place of a carefree childhood, the duties of an elder sister on her mind.
For Kajal, the daughter of daily wage labourers who earned a living by cutting sugarcanes on the fields of other farmers, basic rights like education and schooling – let alone extracurricular activities and sports – were almost out of question. Even survival came at a great cost sometimes.
“In the sugarcane fields, you always have to be alert since there are lots of venomous snakes like kraits, saw-scaled vipers and cobras,” the 17-year-old tells MAKERS India. She recalls, “When I was younger, I knew how to identify them, and I was quick to spot them as well - especially kraits, which are difficult to spot, since they are tiny, and more venomous.”
Amidst these childhood musings, however, Kajal’s story of overcoming hardships and pursuing a life beyond a hand-to-mouth existence is not lost. There was a time when her family used to earn less than Rs 300 a day (combining the daily wage of all the family members). For a family of seven, this was barely sufficient for making ends meet.
From adversity to opportunity
Around seven years ago, however, things took a turn for Kajal. The teenager, hailing from the drought-prone pockets of Varkute Malavadi, a village in Maharashtra’s Satara district, was introduced to the Mann Deshi Champions Sports programme. It is an initiative headed by Prabhat Sinha and aimed at providing rural and tribal children the opportunity to play sports and eat nutritious food.
Initially, Kajal, like most others who were drawn to the sports programme, was also tempted by the idea of a nutritious meal at the sports academy. However, with time, the love for sports – and her skills at field hockey – would take precedence, luring the then-10-year-old to take up the game with a more serious approach.
“I came to be known for being fast and quick,” says the athlete, adding, “I guess I got that from working in the sugarcane fields and always being on the alert for venomous snakes.”
Soon, Kajal began representing Maharashtra at several state and national-level competitions. The athlete, who doubles up as a quick forward in field hockey, recently participated in the third Khelo India Youth Games, held in January 2020 in Guwahati, Assam. At the event, she not only bagged a bronze medal but also added to the total medal tally for Maharashtra, the defending champion at the games.
“Field Hockey is everything for me right now,” says the bronze winner. “It has opened up a lot of new opportunities. I have also been selected to play for the Haryana academy, which is one of the best academies in India for field hockey.”
“My goal is to represent for India in the Olympics next,” she quips adding, “Also, I want to go to Netherlands and play for field hockey club there.”
When dreams take flight
While harbouring dreams of a brighter future, Kajal is also acutely aware of her circumstances. She knows that in these parts of rural India, where girls are still struggling with social menaces like illiteracy, child marriage etc., introduction of sports could have a much larger impact, beyond the possibilities of a career or a hobby.
In fact, her own life is a testament to this impact. She says, “It is because of sports that I am still not married; my elder sisters were married off at the age of 15 and 17.” Kajal further credits hockey for helping her discover her newfound confidence, bond with new people, and also to adjust to new environments.
“Hockey has given me the opportunity to travel across India, from North to South and to East,” she continues, “One of my best trips, in fact, was to the Khelo India games in Guwahati. I had an opportunity to travel in an airplane, it was my first time. Growing up, I had always seen planes while cutting sugarcanes on the field, and I had always wondered, what it would like from the inside. Khelo India January 2020 gave me that opportunity.”
The simplicity in Kajal’s thoughts is simply unmissable. But do not mistake this transparency for a lack of ambition; the budding athlete is just getting started.
(Edited by Athira Nair)