Mumbai: Teen girl battles child marriage attempt, beatings for football dream

Feb 11, 2017, 14:40 IST | Hemal Ashar

Defying abject conditions, beatings and a child marriage attempt, 19-year-old Vidarbha women’s football team goalie Harsha Raghatate in city for nationals, to pursue a dream

Harsha Raghatate makes a save
Harsha Raghatate makes a save

The next time you feel frustrated with the hurdles in your way to reach your goal, take some inspiration from the goalie of the women’s football team representing Vidarbha, Harsha Raghatate.

Raghatate (extreme right in blue) with other Slum Soccer kids
Raghatate (extreme right in blue) with other Slum Soccer kids

The 19-year-old from Hinganghat in Wardha district, whose team is taking part in the national championship that will be held at Andheri Sports Complex from February 13 to 17, has fought poverty, depression, an alcoholic father and abusive parents, who tried to get her married off at 16 to a man twice her age, to reach this stage.

The teenager with coach Mustafa Baksh
The teenager with coach Mustafa Baksh

And she’s determined to guard her post with everything she’s got at the National Inclusion Cup 2017, which is for men and women of underprivileged backgrounds from across the country.

Vikas Meshram
Vikas Meshram

It is organised by the Slum Soccer Krida Vikas Sanstha, Nagpur, a chapter of the Slum Soccer initiative, which aims to change lives in slums, where football is used as a means to connect individuals, teaching life skills and working towards improving overall quality of living.

Against odds
Raghatate will be in Mumbai from Monday for the competition that will have teams from Maharashtra, West Bengal, Assam and Tamil Nadu among other states and regions.

Following these nationals, men and women players will be selected to represent India at the 15th Homeless World Cup in Oslo, Norway, from August 29 to September 5. And while the road ahead is long, it hasn’t been easy for the teen so far either.

The daughter of a coolie, who lifts gunny bags from trucks for a living and would be frequently found drunk, survived repeated physical and verbal abuse from her parents who didn’t want her to play the sport. Her story is a microcosm of that of other players, all of whom have defied abject conditions and, many a times, abuse as well to continue playing the game.

On the run
Says Raghatate after a ‘cool down’ session post practice in Hinganghat, “I love this sport, and I have endured everything in order to pursue it. I am a first-year BA student at RS Bidkar College, but football takes precedence over studies.”

“My father is a hamaal and an alcoholic; so, money has always been scarce at home. I live in a small tin shed with irregular water supply and electricity. My house floods when it rains; it’s been nearly impossible to live there. What keeps me going is football...” she trails off.

Her coach Mustafa Baksh from the same village takes up the narrative. “I spotted Harsha’s talent about six years ago, when she was in school. I am the school coach. I saw a girl on the field. She was running, and what struck me most was her stamina; she could run endlessly,” says Baksh, who took Raghatate under his wing. “She started playing football; she was a natural, playing forward and defence, and now, after so many years, she is a goalie.”

Not for girls
But it wasn’t easy for Baksh either, as he had to face the wrath of her father, “who warned me not to teach his girl,” says the coach, adding, “He said ‘girls do not play football’, but Harsha continued and I trained her.”
Raghatate says, “I was beaten up by my parents many times, locked in a room.”

“She used to miss practise. When I asked her why she was playing truant, she told me about the abuse at home,” adds Baksh.

When she was 16, Raghatate found out about her parents’ attempts to get her married off to a 32-year-old. “Girls are married off very early here,” explains Baksh. She ran away to stay at Baksh’s house, but she soon went into depression and tried to commit suicide. Football is what pulled her out of that self-destructive and dark abyss. Eventually, Baksh says, “After many arguments and altercations, the marriage attempt was scuttled and she returned home. Her parents had no option now but to let her play.”

Raghatate has a younger sister and brother, the latter in school, while the sister at home after failing her Std XII exams. “People tell me that I need to do something that will earn me money,” says Raghatate, admitting, “Our meals are only dal and rice; we have vegetables only on special occasions, like Diwali or Holi. And yet all that does not matter to me. I just want to play for India, and I will, with a lot of josh (zeal)...”

City of dreams calls
When recounting her story to this reporter on Thursday over the phone, Raghatate had said, “I have not yet told my family that I am coming to Mumbai to play for the nationals. I will now after I hang up.”

“She is a passionately determined individual,” says Baksh, but adds, “Unfortunately, though her story is remarkable, it’s not unique, as in ‘Slum Soccer’ many youngsters go through what Harsha has undergone, maybe in a different way. But not all of them have what it takes to keep jumping over the obstacles.”

Hope and purpose
Slum Soccer founder Vijay Barse says, “Slum Soccer’s aim is to provide long-term solutions to combat homelessness and improve living standards in underprivileged areas. Sport is therapeutic, and we want to give these youths hope and a purpose.”

Barse’s words find life through players like Raghatate and Vikas Meshram (19), the latter also a victim of an alcoholic father.

Meshram had himself got addicted to alcohol and tobacco, when, one day, a Slum Soccer coach spotted the youngster in an inebriated state, unable to walk, on a campus in Nagpur. And the rest, as they say, is history, as he is playing for Maharashtra in the upcoming championship.

Here’s looking at you, Sid
Siddharth Malhotra, actor and supporter of Slum Soccer, will inaugurate the tourney on Monday at Andheri Sports Complex. “It is of paramount importance for underprivileged youth to engage in outdoor activities, and there should be equal opportunities available to them everywhere,” he says.

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