GOLDEN GIRLS: (From left) Tete, Surin and Baa flash their medalsThere are always two sides to a coin, many strings in a bow and triumph always has several shades. For a small group of hockey players, it seems like they have seen all sides.From the glare of television camera lights,GOLDEN GIRLS: (From left) Tete, Surin and Baa flash their medalsThere are always two sides to a coin, many strings in a bow and triumph always has several shades. For a small group of hockey players, it seems like they have seen all sides.From the glare of television camera lights and the overpowering attention of an otherwise indifferent world to a place where their alma mater is struggling to survive and life is lived on the margins: the universe continues to whirl for three golden girls from the tribal district of Simdega in Jharkhand.Defender Kanti Baa, 22, and midfielders Sumrai Tete, 21, and Masira Surin, 21, aren’t household names even though they were part of the Indian Commonwealth contingent’s surprise package, the fighting firebrands of its gold medal-winning hockey team.But in their own home they were hailed as symbols of pride and greeted with the enthusiasm usually reserved for the first monsoons over their fathers’ fields. The chief secretary of Jharkhand held a civic reception in honour of the three tribal girls and the treasurer of the grandly named Jharkhand Olympic Association said their success and the rewards that it had brought them would spark off dozens of other careers.Mighty words but what the success of the three gold-medallists did, in the immediate term and in a silently powerful act, was to prevent their hockey school from closing down. When the Commonwealth Games began, the school, the Bariatu Hockey Centre run in the Government Girls High School in the town of the same name, had already received its death sentence, its students ready to pack up and leave.advertisementPart of a group of six National Sports Talent Contest Centres (NSTCC) set up for tribal students in undivided Bihar, the Bariatu school has produced 50 international-level hockey players, including the three in Manchester, but was fighting for its life in the face of lack of funds and poor conditions. Then came gold. The state Government had to reverse the decision and the school is back and running with 27 of the original 29 girls selected to receive training. The story of the Bariatu Hockey Centre is the story of the almost mandatory struggle of the Indian athlete to survive in circumstances that would defeat most people. In Bariatu, each ward receives Rs 1,200 as a monthly stipend, with the bare minimum of medical checks. One of the girls in the centre, where poor-quality food often led to sickness, says, “Many of the girls are suffering from haemoglobin deficiency leading to anaemia. The Government does not provide for any medical check-ups for the girls.”The centre does not, of course, have an astroturf. Young players grow up playing on the battered mud of the high-school field where their centre is based. The state Government had imported an astroturf which has been lying unused for five years.”Only when a player is selected for national or international matches is she provided with turf practice,” says Asunta Lakra, another NSTCC ward former principal of the Bariatu school and president of the Jharkhand Women’s Hockey Association, says, “There should be proper training on turf. The turf in Bariatu has been lying unused for the past five years while the girls have been asked to play on sand grounds.”The links between tribal Jharkhand and hockey run deep. Local folklore tells of tribals carrying bamboo staves while grazing cattle and whittling them into hockey sticks and roots into balls even before the arrival of Christian missionaries in the area.In the tribal tradition, the “khassi and murga” tournament (goat and rooster) – where the prizes are these two species – is also famous, though few would remember that in 1928 the captain of the Indian hockey team at the Amsterdam Olympics was also a tribal, Jaipal Singh Munda.STATE OF AFFAIRS: The Bariatu Hockey Centre is yet to get an astroturfSome of the other famous players from the region are Savitri Purti, Biswasi Purti, Helen Soy, Alma Guria and Anarita Karketta. Their successors are a group of three girls with bright eyes and bright smiles who have brought distinction to a corner of the country which is usually forgotten.This is that part of India where no roads exist, where the rivers are not spanned by bridges and where people live in the hope that one day their lives will be significant enough for the country to at least acknowledge them. That day came when these women came home with shiny pieces of metal around their neck and saucer-sized smiles on their faces.Sumrai is the daughter of a poor farmer, Banarwas Tete, who along with wife Santoshi made the long trip from their village in Kasira Maram Toli, 170 km from Ranchi, and waited at the railway station for the train carrying their daughter who had travelled far away on a remarkable journey.The train was only five hours late and the eruption of joy among all who had waited for the three slightly built players to emerge at the door brought tears to the eyes of those closest to them. “Sumrai came from a tiny village where no one expects to play for the country,” says Banarwas.advertisementA village so remote that when the rains come, in the absence of a proper road, people use boats to get around. He worked as a general labourer to push his daughter through her hockey career, but it meant making a cruel choice: pulling Sumrai’s elder sister Karuna out of school.Masira Surin, one of seven children, would never have been met by her parents in Ranchi had it not been for her uncle, schoolteacher and hockey enthusiast William Topno. Surin’s father, Samuel, says he was not keen on his daughter pursuing hockey “until she played for the state”. As important afsars (officials) made a fuss over his daughter and her two teammates, who were garlanded and led through the city in an open jeep, Kanti Baa’s father, Silas, felt he was doubly blessed. His cousin, Father Fame Baa, a history lecturer at St Xavier’s College, Ranchi, didn’t need to live in their village, Kunder Mundra, anymore, and his daughter Kanti was going to earn more than Rs 12 lakh in prizes from the prime minister, her employers and the state Government – all for being very good at running up and down the field with a hockey stick, a dervish in a blue dress.The daughters return quickly to their strange nomadic roller-coaster lives, and travel to a country called Korea to play in another tournament, the Asian Games in October. “Pusan will be easier,” says Sumrai confidently of the competition where there are only three teams other than the Indians. “But we’ll have to train hard and won’t take any chances.”When the three girls from the weather-beaten villages of Jharkhand step onto foreign fields again in October, they will carry a piece of their very distinctive homeland with them. They keep alive the flickering flame of hockey in a sometimes-forgotten corner of India.