A tournament in a small state capital, a culture obsessed with the sport and the effort of a people to preserve their language—how a week in Odisha, to cover the Champions Trophy, ended up becoming a journey into tribal wilderness
By Vaibhav Raghunandan
When he enters the field, Birendra Lakra, the defender, at times the best defender in the Indian team, slouches like a Sunday sportsman, nonchalantly jogging around the pitch. He is wearing a deep blue bib, signifying to those who know abo ut these things that all is not quite right with him. He takes a few half-hearted rounds of the pitch, a blue artificial turf that he has been taught to regard as holy ground, and proceeds to the bench to pick up his stick. The pitch has been heavily watered before the match a nd, as the spectators slowly stream in, the tone of the music changes from cla ssic rock to entertainment pop. Those sitting on the edges have brought newspapers to drive insects away. The spotlights attract moths by the millions. Lakra walks back toward the centre circle and bends into a deep squat. He does this twice, before suddenly jumping high on the spot. The MC announces the Indian starting lineup for the match, drawing out every syllable in every name slowly. Each time she finishes a name, the 7,000 inside the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar shout in unison: “Hoy!”—a somewhat native version of “Come on!” She runs through the team and then pauses and hints at, in Odiya, the identity of the next person: “The only Odiya player in the team, Amara nijaaraaaaa….” By the time she has announced Lakra’s name, the crowd is roaring.
Eight of the 18 men who have captained the Indian hockey team at the Olympics returned with gold. Of them, significantly, one man didn’t actually ever play the final, and is yet regarded as a legend. A tribal god, almost. The story goes that Jaipal Singh Munda, captain of the Indian team in 1928 in Amsterdam, had a fight with the English team manager. The specifics, never fully discussed or verified, add to the legend. Most speculate that the fight was about the ill-treatment of the Indian players and the perceived superior treatment given to the goras. Jaipal left before the knockout stages (India won 16 of the 17 games they played under his captaincy, drawing one) and the team beat Holland 3–0 to win gold. The Olympics were for him what Pietermaritzburg was for Mahatma Gandhi. India’s unbeaten captain never played for the country again, and, instead, became a champion of tribal rights—he formed the Adivasi Mahasabha, which was renamed the Jharkhand Party after Independence. When Jharkhand was born, 30 years after his death, almost every sporting venue was rechristened to bear his name. Since Munda, several tribal players have turned out in India colours, most of them defenders. Famous names roll off the tongue—Michael Kindo, Manohar Topno, Dilip Tirkey, Ignace Tirkey. Whenever Lakra takes to the field, he follows, unconsciously, in that great tradition of hockey players who played deep in their own half, defied stereotypes and marshalled their defence. Birendra Lakra isn’t the only one of his name. It is a cause of great confusion. Former India nternational Bimal Lakra has a younger brother called Birender. The pair are much older, retired and from Jharkhand. Birender, the Jharkhandi, hasn’t ever actually turned out for India, but the confusion persists. Lakra wasn’t always a defender. His coach at the SAIL Hockey Academy, R.K. Saini, confirms that. When the boy joined the Academy as a day-boarder in 2007, he used to play as a forward. Everyone agreed that the small-built, lightning-quick Oraon boy had a stellar hockey brain, he could pick out a pass or make an unsuspecting run very easily, but never wanted to shoot. Saini, a goalkeeper who played for SAIL in the early ’90s before hanging up his boots to take up coaching, didn’t quite understand why the boy never tried to take a shot. In the 2008 Junior Nationals, SAIL were 2–0 down to Chandigarh in the finals at halftime when Saini finally decided to do something about it. “I took Biru aside and told him he had to attempt some shots. We had nothing to lose,” he says. Even Saini is sketchy about what he actually told Lakra, but, in any case, the boy was at the helm of their second half performance as they fought back to 2–2 and then 3–3 to take it to extra time. The Chandigarh team consisted of future teammates Rupinder Pal Singh, Ramandeep Singh, Manpreet Singh and Harmandeep Singh. In extra time, Lakra picked out a cross, cut past the defender and reverse-flicked the winner. He was immediately earmarked for the junior team that would tour Argentina the next year. While in Argentina, Lakra’s father, who was employed at SAIL, passed away, leaving behind his wife and three children. The family, that had shifted to Rourkela for hockey, returned to its village deep in western Odisha. From 2009–14, Lakra has played in several positions for India. On the wing, in the middle, deep in the middle, allowing Sardar Singh to play with freedom, before Roelant Oltmans, in his first stint as manager, shifted him to the defence, where he prowls, as he enters the field against Belgium. Watching his relaxed and confident demeanour, it is hard to imagine what his life is like—the family visits to his village (in an interview before the tournament, Lakra hoped his village would have electricity to watch him play)—to have jumped cultures and languages; to be the only tribal player in the team, the last remnant of a fading culture. How do you experience that without losing all sense of identity? How do you remember who you are? Lakra is called into action almost a minute after entering play. Belgium break from a counter and in three swift passes are on the 25-yard line. Their goalscorer, Felix Denayer, attempts a reverse pass to Tom Boon; the pass is true and if Boon reaches it he is clear on goal. His team, having led 2–0, have retreated just a bit and conceded from a penalty corner. Another Belgium goal could kill the game. Lakra reads the pass and, before Boon can get to it, intercepts the play, takes two steps ahead, swivels and puts it to Dharamvir Singh on the right flank. The sequence plays out in just five seconds. The crowd goes wild. Lakra gets back into position. Win, lose, score or miss, he doesn’t betray any emotion while the game is on. Saini had earlier remarked, “They are different, the adivasi players. Their temperament is different. They are very calm, non-confrontational, and methodical. Perhaps that’s why they make good defenders. They are not careless.” Defenders are discreet. There are many crimes a defender can commit. The worst is revealing too much.
Most tribal stories have deep, philosophical endings. Some don’t end at all and, instead, cut away to another narrative. For instance, the only meaningful tribal character from the Mahabharata is a prince called Eklavya. Eklavya enters the story abruptly, watching secretly as Drona teaches Arjun the intricacies of archery. He approaches the teacher and asks to be accepted as a pupil. Drona declines. Eklavya adamantly builds a small idol of Drona and practises before it diligently every day. One day, while walking through the forest, Drona and his pupils find a dog with his mouth filled with arrows in an expert manner, such that it doesn’t hurt the dog but prevents him from barking. Scrutiny reveals this to be Eklavya’s work. The group confronts him and asks him who his master is. Eklavya points towards the idol and falls at Drona’s feet. Drona seizes the moment and asks for gurudakshina—Eklavya’s right thumb. Without hesitation, Eklavya pulls out his knife, cut off his thumb, presents it to Drona and retreats into the forest. That’s it. There is no resolution. It is left to the reader to decide how Eklavya could be so calm in the face of this injustice, why Drona asked for the thumb, or why he declined to teach him at all. The first time you hear this story, you feel cheated. Later, you find out that the absence of an ending may have something to do with who wrote it. You realise that the fact that it was written by members of the upper caste means they placed emphasis on different aspects of the narrative. In a longer version, Drona justifies his action by saying that if he hadn’t asked the tribal for his thumb, he may have ended up better than Arjun and started a chain of events, which would spiral out of control. By cutting short one narrative, he ensured the endurance of another. The evasion is a way of reordering things. The tribal remains static in the social ladder race. In Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, the stage for the Champions Trophy, one can’t help but be stunned by the abundance of tribal iconography. Tribal murals are painted on walls outside schools, on intersections and even outside some dimly lit bars. It is a city filled with temples that range from the third century BC to colonial times. The state, home to multiple tribes, is notorious for its ill-treatment of them. The most famous are the Dongria Kondhs, whose protest against bauxite mining details a small tribal victory in Independent India. The gates of the stadium open every day at 10 a.m., but the significant matches, when India take the field, are only in the early evening. For the first two days, it’s fun to watch the morning matches, simply because the light is beautiful. After a while, though, it starts to feel like the sprinklers are watering the edges of your brain rather than the edges of the turf. And so, it is only correct to take in the sights. A sprinkling of temples, a heavy dose of religious fanfare, before ending up at the tribal museum. The museum has traces of an ancient narrative, that tugs at you viciously. It is a distraction from the hockey, one that you cannot get out of your mind. The museum is stunning and very detailed, with neat glass displays, large hallways and recreated tribal living quarters. The artefacts are divided into different sections (and halls). At the back of the compound is an area dedicated to tribal housing structures, where there are several huts recreated from different tribes. The smallest is a cute, cylindrical one, from the Gadaba tribe. It has a tiled floor. Doesn’t seem right. The next stop is the Academy of Tribal Languages and Cultures (ATLC), to ask the head researcher, Dr. Parmananda Patel, about one specific tribe and their struggle to preserve their language. Dr. Patel, it transpires in a far from unusual twist, was at the museum all along. He is presiding over a meeting in the administrative building but is courteous enough to give us a name and a number. “Go to Rourkela and meet the man,” are the instructions. That evening, while the mind is on the quest for the Oraon story, under a moth-lined sky, India overcome a two-goal deficit to beat Belgium in the quarters. Early in the afternoon, Pakistan surprised the Netherlands in the other half of the draw to set up, very conveniently, the semifinal everyone wanted.
The Orams, or the Oraons, are found in parts of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha. Their story is inextricably tied to Indian hockey. Most Odiya or Jharkhandi hockey players are Oraon. The area they inhabit, Sundargarh, is a hotbed of Indian hockey. The abundance of basic information suggested more depth was available. Stories of rural, tribal hockey seemed imminent. Amid those, hidden away was a small news report, a story about how different Oraon communities in Sundargarh came together to try and save their language, Kurukh, from extinction and how other communities could learn from them. Researchers estimate that, on an average, 120 tribal languages go extinct every day. In 2010, Bo, a 65,000- year-old language, part of the Andamans, lost its last speaker. Boa Sr.—a woman who lived through imperialism, Japanese occupation and the 2004 tsunami—passed away, to huge international press attention. 65,000 years! A language died because there weren’t people to speak it. The Oraons have taken measures to protect such an event. At Parha gatherings, Odiya is forbidden; members must only converse in Kurukh. A Parha is, in essence, a panchayat system, convened to sort out intra-tribal affairs. Before the reorganisation of the panchayat system post-Independence, the Parha was an institution of great importance among Oraons. It is hierarchical, divided into five categories that range from an Athko Parha (village level) to a Raji Parha (national level). For the longest period, the main purpose of Parha panchayats was to sort out inter-tribe marriages, dowry, and, more often than you would care to believe, disputes at festivals involving competitions. Ram Chandra Xalxo and Mangla Xalxo, the two heads of the Parha at the district level, agree to meet at a Parha Ghar on the outskirts of Rourkela. The ‘ghar’ is actually a large complex with lots of trees. There are two very basic rectangular buildings, one for official use and the other a library. Three chairs and a table have been put out. Mangla starts off, talking about the history of the Oraons and their deep association with nature. He starts with a story, an Oraon story, about the creation of the world. It is fantastically complex and the creation is in itself only a peripheral part of it. The back-story of the creation is the destruction wreaked by the goddess when she discovers mankind living without care for their fellow beings. Ram Chandra, the younger man with gentle eyes and a terribly soft voice, sits through this with extreme grace. The story, as far as one can tell, borrows freely from other mythologies—or, maybe, they borrow from it. Tribal cultures are, after all, nomadic in nature. When confronted about this, Ram Chandra laughs, “Several evolutionary studies have discussed the genetic similarities between tribes separated by large tracts of land and water, and how, much before the Vikings, Marco Polo and the British navy, tribals have been a seafaring lot. In fact, there are several Oraons in different parts of the world, as far away as New Zealand even. A few stories drifting here and there wouldn’t be amiss.” This is not a new theory. It has been discussed before and are a topic of heated debate on several human evolution forums. They all usually end badly, and without any proof. When Mangla walks off to attend to a phone call, Ram Chandra drops a big one. “We have recently developed a script.” “It is important, we realised, to have a written medium, in order to conserve the language. A medium in which people can communicate, submit documents, preserve literature,” he says. “India has a strange tradition of absorbing lesser cultures, and slowly driving them towards extinction. And it is easier for cultures that have no written medium to be destroyed.” The evolution of this script itself is fraught with controversy. In 2007, a script called the Tolong Siki, created by Narayan Oraon, was launched in Ranchi. The bone of contention is the name. “There is nothing wrong with the alphabet itself. But the name, Tolong Siki, is a problem. For instance, we used to call ourselves Kurukh, as a people. But post-Independence, for whatever reason, we were registered as Oraon or Oram. If the script is called Tolong Siki, then a hundred years from now people won’t even remember the language, Kurukh. They will not say, write in Kurukh, they will say, write in Tolong.” In collaboration with the ATLC, Vasudev Ram Xalxo, an ethnographer, developed a new script called Kurkh Banna sometime last year. Ram Chandra hands over a learner’s textbook. The discussion veers towards Oraon sportsmen and if they have come forward to help them, even if simply by their presence. Sports, after all, has the power to unite. What Ram Chandra says is shocking. “All these Oraon sportsmen, they come from backgrounds that are financially better. Most of them have converted to Christianity or Hinduism, and have been given administrative powers. They never come forward to help us.” “Any tribal personality, as soon as he achieves success in any social sphere, is consumed by the higher classes who adopt him into their system, give them powers and comforts, enough to make him forget where he comes from,” says Mangla. “Look at Kartik Oraon, who went with Indira Gandhi’s Congress in the ’70s. He is hailed as a man who made great inroads for tribal equality, but none of it while he was with them.” The way to silence a tribal leader, apparently, is to put him in power. Co-opt and silence. Despite hosting the academies, Rourkela doesn’t actually produce the hockey players. That comes from Sundargarh, the constituency of India’s most capped hockey player, Dilip Tirkey, a Rajya Sabha MP. Three of his representatives are there for the drive to his village. Saunamara is famous for hockey. Dilip, Ignace Tirkey, Prabodh Tirkey, Amit Rohidas, Subadhra Pradhan all come from here. It is an hour’s drive from the town, a small village off a state highway. At the entrance is a hockey ground. There is a proposal to build a stadium with an artificial surface here. Construction has been stopped halfway, though. The ground is muddy, patched with grass. Next to the school in the village is another smaller playground. A group of five kids are kicking up a lot of dust, playing hockey. The numbers slowly increase as they realise something interesting is going on and by the time, the round of photographs are over a seven-a-side game is underway. Driving back, one of the representatives tells us that Dilipbhai is doing a lot of good work in the area and it is important to recognise it. Tirkey, who is a part of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), was one of several sportsmen who stood for election in the Lok Sabha polls last year. The party lost only one of the 21 seats it had held in the state—Sundargarh. The BJP’s Jual Oram, the minister for tribal affairs, won. “I was with the Congress during the election. I only came in to work with Dilipbhai after the election,” says Asit Rai. He says Tirkey only lost because of the lack of support from his own party during the campaign. Dissent in the ranks meant Tirkey lost a lot of ground in key areas in the constituency—among them Rourkela, where, Rai says, Oram got 20,000 more votes than Tirkey. “He eventually lost by a margin of 18,000 votes. If we had managed to split the vote in Rourkela, he would’ve won.” On the journey back it is difficult to digest the contradiction in the stories the Xalxos tell of tribal politics and Tirkey’s own political reality. The best way to silence a tribal leader is to divide opinion within his tribe. Co-opt and divide.
Bhubaneswar has been rechristened pandemonium. The ticket counter is crowded, the queue stretching between two gates a kilometre apart. There is an old woman who hasn’t managed to procure a ticket yet, a young man who bought three but needs more for his family, a gentleman who is certain—that since it is not Friday—Pakistan are doomed. Inside, the excitement has filtered into the press box. Saini is there with his kids from the SAIL Academy. We watch a high-tempo semifinal between Germany and Australia. Saini constantly talks hockey, pointing out how the players, man-marking rather than zonal, adapt to their positions on the field quickly. It is reminicient of Terry Walsh, who in a chat with a colleague on the sides of the jersey launch prior to the World Cup, started talking tactics almost unconsciously. Walsh casually asked if we had kept count of the number of substitutions teams had made during games. He explains how it is difficult to justify this to Indian players when they aren’t used to a system of rolling substitutions in their junior days. In the final match of the group stages, between India and the Netherlands, if you had kept count this is what you would find. The Netherlands made 17 substitutions in the first quarter. India made 14. Saini concurs with Walsh and says he has had difficulty adapting to this too. Now he coaches his players to know that each of them will probably spend a maximum of six-seven minutes on the pitch. They train for that. On the field, Moritz Fürste, Germany’s captain, is, literally, screaming at his team every time they lose the ball. At one point, as Australia rush forward in numbers, Fürste tackles the forward, spins away with the ball and shields it, dribbling, moving, turning, twisting, for what seems like an eternity. When he finally passes it, sniper-like, it is to a player 40 yards away. Saini starts laughing. “He is going to take these kids to the final, all on his own.” Germany’s team is a young one, filled with players from their Under–21 World Cup-winning team from last December. It is a developmental squad, and their coach, Markus Weise, uses the word ‘surprised’ every time they win a game. Germany are surprised when they find themselves 3–0 up against the Australians, so they concede two goals with 20 minutes to go. Fürste is having none of it. He is Lucio and Xavi rolled into one—gaining and handling possession with equal ease. They get through to the final. By the time they are done with their celebrations and the next match is announced, the stadium is full. But of course, in the match they are supposed to win, India lose. At the final whistle, the Pakistan players rip their shirts off and dance wildly, some head towards the stands above the press box and stick the dreaded finger out. It is a huge victory, for a team struggling with finances and organisation. The post-match press conference is disastrous as the Indian press hounds the coach and the captain into issuing apologies and demand the team come out. The impact of this is huge. The Fédération Internationale de Hockey looks into the offending players, decides not to ban them, before Hockey India pulls a leaf out of the BCCI’s book and warns them of repercussions if action isn’t taken. The next day, hours before the match, two Pakistani players are banned. Conspiracy talk is all about how the two suspended are scapegoats, men who never made the final XI in any case. But this will happen later. For now, everyone is enjoying the game. It is a fast one with goals. Lots of them. Pakistan win 4–3, after conceding the first from a penalty corner. They equalise and then take the lead twice, only for India to equalise each time. To be fair, India see more of the ball, and Dharamvir Singh, on the right, looks dangerous each time he gets it. They have more chances too, but don’t take them. When Chandanda Thimmaiah finally equalises—after missing a couple—it seems like India have enough to win this. With a minute left, Pakistan score—the move is so unexpected and anti-climactic that one cannot help but smile. So, here are the facts. Despite finishing fourth, the Indian team enjoyed its best year in close to a decade. Germany, cheered on by a boorish, loud crowd baying for revenge, dominated Pakistan to win the tournament. For all the talk of how Pakistan’s team have brought disgrace to the game, insulted the hosts and whatnot, the players go back home with their heads held high, to more trouble. They land in Pakistan on the day that Taliban extremists take over a school in Peshawar, killing hundreds of children. In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian adventurer, sailed 8,000 kilometres in a hand-built raft—the Kon-Tiki—to demonstrate that ancient people could have made long sea voyages and thus created contact between separate cultures. And then, just like that, it hits you. Jacob is an Oram.±