Jhulan Goswami celebrates a wicket
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Fast train from  Chakdaha

From small-town Bengal to one of India's greatest cricketers, Jhulan Goswami has come a long way. We return to where her journey began

Niyantha Shekar  |  

This train goes to Chakdaha?" I ask, as I grab a seat. An idol of the goddess Lakshmi obscures the face of the man sitting across from me. He moves it to the side, nods, and then places the idol back on his lap, hiding his face again. The Sealdah-Gede local shakes to a start and slowly rumbles past Kolkata's Sealdah Station. I am on my way to Jhulan Goswami's home town.

Over the next hour and a half, passengers fill the train at every stop. Those lucky to get a seat squeeze against their neighbours to accommodate others. "It isn't that crowded today," the man I am squashed against tells me matter-of-factly. He points out that it is a government holiday because of Lakshmi Puja. "Usually, it is so crowded that getting out feels impossible." I wonder how Jhulan contended with the crowds as a teenager; at 15 she was travelling by herself to Kolkata for cricket practice.

It is almost noon when the train halts at Chakdaha, a town of about 100,000 that serves as a marketplace for green vegetables cultivated in the fertile fields of the Nadia district. The goddess Durga is everywhere in Bengal, and I see her as soon as I get off the train. A fence separates a temple from the platform, and a priest waits across the divide with a steel pot of holy water and prasad (food offered to God). I ask him the way to Lalpur, the area in Chakdaha where Jhulan grew up. He gives me a generous helping of the prasad, which tastes like banana-rice pudding, and points me in the right direction.

Truth is, I don't know who I am looking for. Jhulan now lives in Kolkata but I haven't been able to get in touch with her for a week. She had warned me, though. "You're coming here in October?" she had said when I called her from Chennai. "That's the busiest time for us Bengalis!" Jhulan's family lives in Chakdaha but I don't want to show up unannounced at their doorstep. So I decide to walk to the Friends' Club ground where Jhulan once played tennis-ball cricket. I ask a young man, Kaushik, for directions. It turns out he belongs to the Friends' Club, and he readily leads me to the ground.

Never a dull moment at Chakdaha Station

Never a dull moment at Chakdaha Station © Niyantha Shekar

When we get there, Kaushik makes a call on his cellphone. He talks in Bengali but sprinkles in a few Hindi words for my benefit. "There's someone here from Chennai. He wants to write about Jhulan didi," he says. I step on to the uneven ground in front of me, where patches of dry earth coexist with clumps of grass. A pandal stripped of its decoration, just bamboo poles and wooden planks, rests in the centre of the field - a remnant of the recently concluded Durga Puja.

"Kunal bhai is coming to meet you," Kaushik tells me with a triumphant smile.

"Who is Kunal?"

"Jhulan didi's brother."

Kunal is Jhulan's youngest sibling and looks far younger than his 27 years. They grew up in a middle-class home on a street that, like many others in Chakdaha, is used for gully cricket. He says how proud his family is of Jhulan: "She has made such a big name, coming from such a small place."

Has he ever faced Jhulan's bowling?

"Yes, on this ground."

"How did you play her?"

"Not too bad. Not too good either," he says with a laugh. "On this small ground, anyone can hit fours and sixes!"

In interviews, Jhulan has spoken about how the local boys didn't think her bowling was fast enough. When I mention this to Kunal, he reminds me that it is hard to generate speed with a light tennis ball. It was only in Kolkata that Jhulan started practising with a hard "deuce ball", local slang for the Dukes brand of leather balls.

Jhulan practised and practised with a deuce ball, and gathered speed. "Slowly, you can achieve, whether it be speed, accuracy, line or length," her brother says. In 2007, when she was the ICC Women's Cricketer of the Year, Jhulan was the fastest bowler in all women's cricket.

Jhulan would commute two hours each way, three times a week. Cricket practice started at 7:30am. If she was even a minute late her coach would bar her from practice for the day

"You must have seen the crowd on the train when you came here," Kunal says when I ask about Jhulan's early struggles. In her time, the nearest women's cricket academy was almost 80km away, at Kolkata's Vivekananda Park. Jhulan would commute two hours each way, three times a week. She caught a train from Chakdaha to Sealdah at 5am, and then took a bus from Sealdah to Vivekananda Park. Her cricket practice started at 7:30am. If she was even a minute late her coach would bar her from practice for the day. Once done with practice, at around 9:30am, she would rush back to Chakdaha the way she came; she still had school to attend.

"Initially she was scared of travelling by herself," Kunal says. "Our mother or father used to go with her. But she realised that our father had work all day, and our mother had to take care of the home. So she built up the courage to say, 'I'll go by myself, and I'll come back by myself.'"

I ask Kunal if he can introduce me to other family members or friends of Jhulan. He is firm but polite when he turns me down. "Most people are either out of town or are preparing for the Lakshmi Puja tonight."

It begins to rain as I reach the station at 2:30pm, and I suddenly realise the platform roof is riddled with holes. One of the commuters warns me that my train won't stop for long. When it does stop, the alighting crowd pushes me back. I see a man shove his way through the rush, and I hold on to his shoulder. Unbeknownst to him, he drags me into the jam-packed compartment.

Speed thrills: Goswami is recognised as one of the fastest bowlers in the women's game

Speed thrills: Goswami is recognised as one of the fastest bowlers in the women's game © Getty Images

A couple of days later I am sitting at a tea stall behind the Chakdaha train station, sipping matka chai. Subhasish Chaudhuri, a journalist, sits next to me, cellphone to ear. He has lived in Chakdaha almost all his life, and has written about Jhulan for newsfromnadia.com.

He gets off the phone. "Jhumpa said we can come over."

Jhulan's younger sister meets us by a Ramakrishna temple and leads us down a narrow lane of brick houses. As we enter the modest home I see a tiny garden to the right, dashes of green against once-whitewashed walls. I follow Jhumpa and Subhasish into a small room; there is a bed to one side and a television in the centre. A shelf, doubling up as a TV stand, holds match balls and trophies. I spot Jhulan's Arjuna Award and her Padma Shri, the country's fourth-highest civilian award. The room's pink walls are adorned with photographs of her major triumphs. I recognise one immediately: it is of a delighted 24-year-old receiving the ICC Cricketer of the Year award from MS Dhoni.

The photo was taken on September 10, 2007, a Monday night, in Johannesburg. Chakdaha got the news early the next morning. Television channels celebrated Jhulan's achievement, and rickshaw pullers broadcast the news across town. Residents lit up the lanes of the town with crackers, decorated the outsides of their homes with flowers, and distributed boxes of sweets. Journalists thronged the Goswami home. A civic body set up a stage in the Ramakrishna temple and gave Jhulan a big public reception when she returned four days later. The festivities lasted for nearly a week.

"It was just a few days before the Durga Puja," Jhumpa tells me. "But the celebrations began on that day!"

Goswami receives the 2007 ICC's Women's Cricketer of the Year award from MS Dhoni

Goswami receives the 2007 ICC's Women's Cricketer of the Year award from MS Dhoni © Getty Images

Chakdaha has eagerly tracked Jhulan ever since. During the 2013 Women's World Cup, "everybody watched on TV when Jhulan played," Subhasish says. "Everybody. I personally went around and looked at the reaction. Everybody was watching."

"We have only one grievance," Jhumpa says. "No television channel broadcasts their games regularly. If the matches are telecast, the local girls will be encouraged to think, 'If I play well, people will watch me on TV.' There is a big shortage of this sort of encouragement."

Jhulan's success is even more incredible considering she emerged in the late 1990s, a time when people in Chakdaha didn't know professional women's cricket existed. I ask Jhumpa if a young Jhulan faced any opposition from her family or society.

"There was nothing like, 'A girl cannot play.' There were no societal pressures."

"A lot of sportswomen have come up from here," Subhasish says. "Prior to Jhulan, there was Rama Sarkar, who was an Arjuna awardee in kabaddi and the captain of India. Soma Biswas [a track-and-field athlete from Nadia district] is also an Arjuna awardee." He tells me that boys and girls in the villages play contact games like kushti [a form of wrestling] and kabaddi. "There is no social taboo. The boys aren't told to not play with the girls. The girls aren't told to not play with the boys."

But though the region has produced quality sportswomen, Subhasish is keen to emphasise that Jhulan's success is exceptional. There was no women's cricket culture in Chakdaha when she started. "You catch a train in the wee hours, go to Kolkata... it is almost impossible for any girl. It is almost absurd."

About a girl: the trophy cabinet in Goswami's room

About a girl: the trophy cabinet in Goswami's room © Niyantha Shekar

There was a time when Jhulan nearly gave up. Jhumpa remembers her sister coming home late one night after a selection trial for the Bengal team in Kolkata. There was one more session to attend the next morning, but Jhulan was exhausted and unwilling. Standing on the verge of her first major break, she was burnt out.

Her mother would have none of it.

"This is your duty. You've chosen this. You need to go."

With her mother by her side, Jhulan caught a train to Kolkata the next morning. By that afternoon, she had bowled her way into the Bengal women's team.

It is half past 12 on a Saturday afternoon in mid-October. I am at a cricket ground in Kolkata's Salt Lake suburb, where a junior boys' match is underway. This is an unexpected stopover. With my Kolkata trip almost at its end, I had given up on meeting Jhulan and had chosen to wander around the cramped streets of Barabazar market instead. That's when my phone rang. "Can you meet me at the Jadavpur University Second Campus Ground?" she asked.

Behind the boundary rope, I see a series of practice nets and a group of women cricketers from the Bengal team. They are early for their practice session; I'm on time to meet one of India's greatest cricketers. I catch Jhulan by the practice area, and she is immediately apologetic for not getting back to me sooner. She requests one of the ground attendants to bring us a couple of chairs and something to drink: "He won't mind coffee," she says. "He is from Chennai." I don't know how much time I have with her, but as we start talking, my concern fades. She is happy to discuss her journey, and is particularly excited to recount the day she realised she wanted to become a cricketer.

Television channels celebrated Jhulan's achievement, rickshaw pullers broadcast the news across town. Residents lit up their lanes with crackers

In 1997, Australia were playing New Zealand in the Women's World Cup final at Eden Gardens. Fifteen-year-old Jhulan was one of a number of schoolgirls from all over Bengal who had received complimentary passes. It was the first time she had watched a women's cricket match in a stadium and the details are still vivid in her mind. She even makes it a point to tell me that Hero Honda was the title sponsor.

"After I saw the game, I thought that if I took this sport as a profession, one day I could play for India."

She would soon find out about Swapan Sadhu, who conducted cricket coaching for girls at Kolkata's Vivekananda Park. Her parents were hesitant: Jhulan was young, the distance she had to travel was significant, and they didn't know what the future held for women's cricket. That was when Sadhu took the lead.

"One day he came to my house, talked to my parents, and explained everything. And then my parents agreed."

I wonder how many talented women from small-town Bengal have missed out on cricket over the years. Jhulan says there has been plenty of progress. Inter-district tournaments and cricket academies for girls in small towns have paved the way. "If you are from Chakdaha, there's an academy in Kalyani or Krishnanagar. So you save time. You can study. You can practise. That's the beauty of district cricket. Nowadays even parents say, 'Our daughters can also play cricket.'"

I ask her what it was like to travel solo in the local trains when she was a teenager.

"It was not easy. It was so crowded. But because of that I became mentally very strong. Whenever tough times come, I know how to handle them."

There is no bitterness in her voice, just a quiet thrill with the way her life has panned out.

"If you have passion and love for the game, if you have the desire to do well on the field, this small distance hardly matters. And I enjoyed. I truly enjoyed. That is the beauty of my life."

Niyantha Shekar is a freelance writer based in Chennai

 

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