To an Iranian ‘gaari’or street vendor, the rugby ball was a melon. To your typical ‘Mardom-e-mamouli’or middle-classman, rugby was just another word for American football that he learned about from Hollywood movies of the fifties and sixties. But to Afareen, rugby was her life.
Her brush with the sport was brought about through an accidental meeting. Yet she developed an instant connection. One might even call it love at first sight.
Her class was on its way back from a field trip at the Eram Zoo when a bunch of tough muscular white-skins were knocking each other down in a complete testosterone fest. The girls relished this rare opportunity to ogle letch and feast their eyes on raw masculine beauty. Not Afareen, however. She was too curious about the odd shaped ball to even care about the men.
“Oi!” someone shouted to her.
She turned and was surprised at an egg-shaped ball being flung in her direction. She caught the ball without any hesitation.
“That’s pretty good lassie. Now let’s see you toss it back eh?” said a strange looking sun-burnt white-skinned man.
Afareen flung a wobbling pass back at the white-skin.
“It’s all in the wrist lassie. Guide with your left, spin with your right”, he said.
And they tossed the ball around a couple of more times.
“Yerr gettin better already”
“Thank you” Afareen said with a smile on her face.
“I’m Edward Wade – the rugby development officer for Iran. We getting a women’s team together and we need all the help we can get. Yer interested lassie?””
“Yes” she said without any hesitation.
“Practice starts at 7 am tomorrow. Don’t be late”
“Afareen! Get back in the bus!” shouted the headmistress, subsequent to two loud honks. As the bus set off for school again, the bus driver began venting out his frustrations of the blistering heat to the conductor.
“These bloody foreigners come here and corrupt our land. What is this rugby?”
“It looks like fun”
“It is not fun. It is the devils game. The foreigners are invading our culture with this sport. Allah! It was better under Ahmadinejad”
But the truth was far from it. The Ahmadinejad reign was corrupt and regressive, especially for women. It was in 2004 that Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former president Ayatollah Akbar Rafsanjani, had initiated a rugby revolution by for the upliftment of Iranian women, only to succumb to the constant pressure of the government. The Ahmadinejad reign had set out to squash women’s sport completely and rugby was the first victim, much to the despair of Hashemi.
Growing up, Afareen had read a little bit about Hashemi’s activism, not that it left an indelible impression on her. But little did she know that destiny was just about to help her rekindle the passion for rugby that Hashemi had tried in vain to ignite.
Afareen had fallen in love with rugby the minute she passed the ball. She didn’t know why or how but she knew she had to play. But first, she had to convince her parents. She rang the bell seventeen times before the door was opened and went straight into her mother’s arms. She looked at her with her big cute eyes and smiled from ear to ear. Afareen always dolled herself up like this when she wanted. Her mother knew that look very well but could seldom resist. Her stubborn daughter managed to get her way yet again.
“I can go for rugby??”
“Yes but I am coming with you. I want to see your practice”
“Why do you have to come?”
“Now enough Afareen! Don’t argue… do you want me to convince daddy or no?”
“Ok Mumma… I love you” she said with a big smile on her face.
“Yes yes…” her mother said playfully. “Only when it’s convenient”
Afareen was too excited to sleep but still got up at the first ring of her alarm at 6 ‘o’ clock sharp and woke her mother up.
“Get up! We’ll be late! We can’t be late!”
“Yes yes… if only you showed this much enthusiasm for your studies”
She put on her hijab, wore her track suit, put on her football boots and left for the ground. They reached 15 minutes before time because Afareen, under no circumstances, wanted to be late. Ed Wade arrived in the next five minutes and greeted the two of them.
“Good to see you lassie. I knew you wouldn’t disappoint. Why don’t you take out a ball from that bag?” he said. “You must be Afareen’s mother, I’m Ed Wade. It’s great to see the support of the parents”
“I just came to see what this rugby is all about. You haven’t got my support yet”
“You’ve come here to watch the lassies play. That’s job half done”
“I do believe the sport is dangerous. People get hurt very badly. There is a chance of a serious injury no?”
“Just like when you’re driving a car, you might meet with an accident. Or if you’re in a plane and it crashes. The odds of serious injuries are about the same. The other minor injuries you get in any other sport“
“There is a famous saying – Football is a game for gentlemen played by ruffians and Rugby is game for ruffians played by gentlemen… Anyway I can go on all bloody day talking about rugby. Why don’t you just see for yourself?”
And thus began Afareen’s first practice session. She did make a few mistakes on the technical front, but her enthusiasm knew no bounds. Being a football player at the state level she was not afraid of contact. And she took on a few full blooded tackles. Her mother winced with every challenge of physicality but Afareen got up, dusted herself off, smiled at her mother and then carried on playing. She listened intently when Ed explained the technicalities and strategies of the sport and seemed to apply herself well. She had always been a quick learner.
While the girls were cooling down, Ed Wade went over to Afareen’s mother.
“So miss, what did you think? Do we have yerr support?”
“I don’t know yet. I will have to speak to her father about this?”
“You do that miss, and tell him that he is welcome here anytime to come and watch a session”
“But please don’t keep your hopes up. You know how conservative this society is”
“Forget about my hopes, just look at that smile on your daughter’s face” Ed Wade said.
Afareen was beaming. They had run ten laps, five sprints, 20 suicides, but Afareen was too excited to be exhausted. At school, she slept through most of her lectures due to a mix of fatigue and boredom, but the very thought of the sport excited her. She was thrilled with the prospect of getting to know the mysterious stranger in her life, while her mother was pacing around the house nervously trying to find the right words to explain Afareen’s newfound fancy to her father.
“Salam Azizam Fareeda! I’m home…” the father announced in his sonorous voice. He was six feet tall, dark, robust and had a thick moustache to give off a heavily intimidating demeanour.
Fareeda didn’t give him the customary hug or the kiss on the cheek but just plainly told him to have a seat.
“What’s wrong?” he said, his forehead creasing with concern.
“Just hear me out” she said and went on to explain the situation with Afareen.
“There is no way in hell she is playing rugby of all sports. Are you mad! You of all people shouldn’t be encouraging her. You have burnt your own hands by sticking with your passion”
He was referring to the younger days of Fareeda when she was fighting a battle of her own. She was a swimming champion, a prodigy, already having broken all the national records, ready for the international stage, when the Islamic revolution came in the way of her career. Harsher laws forced her out of the sport for good. Just like that. She was quite naturally devastated. That incident changed her and she carried that sadness with her wherever she went. Afareen’s father was with her at the time and stood by her through the rollercoaster of her emotions. It took a lot of sacrifice. They fought, then got professional help and even went to the spiritual world for answers. He made sure she snapped out of her depressed phase.
“Times have changed darling. I was timid then. I don’t want my daughter to be the same” she said softly and walked away. She was hurt. The memories came screaming back. But she was not looking for confrontation.
Her husband was slowly but surely being eaten up by guilt. He regretted his words the minute they came out of his mouth. He slept alone that night on the couch. But he couldn’t sleep. So he went out for a drive.
The next morning, he got up and announced Afareen’s name in his deep resonant voice. Afareen woke up with a start. She knew that she was going to feel the full brunt of her father’s anger. She was always scared of his temper. Not that he hit her or anything. But he hardly ever got angry. So when he did, his eyes would turn a bloodshot red, one vein would pop out of his bald head and he would scream his lungs out. It was scary. And Afareen would cry.
She was readying herself for another tearful morning as she walked to the living room. She stood in front of him, head bowed down in respectful fear.
“Look at me” he said. “Take this”.
He tossed a rugby ball into her arms.
She ran straight into his arms and gave him the tightest hug possible. She did have a tearful morning after all. The good kind.
She was over the moon. From that day forward, she took the rugby ball wherever she went. It was an extended attachment of her arm. She took it with her through the streets past the beet-root salesmen, the artisans beating metal in the handicraft shops, the bazaar and its crowd and into the ‘chakunyeh’ – the Iranian tea shops – where she met with her friends. All stared in bewilderment. They all were talking about her and the odd shaped object that she carried around. She was On zan ba tokhme bozord – ‘The woman with the giant egg’.
She got along well with her team. She was never a people’s person but she could talk nineteen to the dozen when it came to rugby. She often got on her mother’s nerves with her constant rugby chatter. The morning practice session was the highlight of her day. She never missed a session. She did, however, turn up late for a session once.
It was when her family had to travel to neighbouring Alborz for the weekend to celebrate Afareen’s uncle’s birthday. She begged and she pleaded, but to no avail. She couldn’t escape the trip. She had already missed a couple of days of practice and she had made it a point to attend Monday’s session even if was late. As soon as she reached home she grabbed her kit and rushed off to the ground. Against her father’s wishes, she travelled alone and not by the usual carpool system. As soon as she got off the bus and was crossing the road towards the ground she saw a young man in a hood walking towards her. She stopped. She saw another man. And another. Soon she was mobbed by ten people. They were all shouting at her to “GO HOME!”.
She was backed into a corner, panicked and in tears. She was petrified. One brute ripped the rugby ball off her and banged it into the ground. That same ball came back like a boomerang and knocked him at the back of the head. He turned to take a swing when he saw the massive six-foot five frame of Ed Wade standing in front of him.
“Is there a problem lads?” he looked straight into the eyes of the guy who stopped short of throwing a punch. Not blinking once.
Everyone shut up and walked away. Afareen was on the pavement crying. Ed Wade picked her up and took her home.
“Yerr ok lassie. They’re the cowards. They’re afraid of change” he said.
As soon as her mother opened the door, she ran into her arms and released a flood of tears. Her mother gave Ed Wade a gentle nod of thanks and sent him on his way, while consoling her daughter.
She took her straight to bed and tucked her in. Afareen continued to cry and her mother just held her tight in her arms. She explained the scene of events and then started crying some more. She seemed inconsolable and then she slept out of exhaustion.
Her mother decided against waking her up for lunch, seeing that she was sleeping so soundly.
It was evening by the time Afareen woke up. Her mum had made her favourite Ghormesabzi.
She sat by her side and began feeding her. Afareen was much calmer now. Her mother’s food always managed to change her mood.
“They were all so scary. Why did they do that? What did I do to them?”
“This is not your fault baby. You must understand. This world is filled with two kinds of people. People who strive to bring about change and those that are afraid of it. They are cowards, bullying you, criticising you, making you feel stupid because of their insecurities. It is during this time that you must have unerring belief in yourself”
Afareen smiled at her mother. She felt much better now.
“What was it like before the revolution Mumma?”
“It was so normal. We would walk about the streets without a worry. We weren’t bound by the hijab”
“When will those days come back?”
“It will take time. But you’re on the right track. I’m so proud of you. You must never worry ok? You father and I will stand behind you no matter what happens”
“Thanks Mumma” and Afareen embraced her mother again.
Afareen avoided travelling alone from that point on but carried on practice in full swing. She was improving by leaps and bounds. In a brief period of time, she reached the humble heights of unprecedented success. She was the captain of her club. In her debut state level tournament, she showed skill and speed that few foreign eyes had seen. Ed Wade was amazed. Afareen continued to impress in the nationals and when she was declared top scorer in the tournament, Wade found a saviour in Afareen, for the country to display a respectful level of competition for their debut tournament in Hong Kong.
The announcement of her selection for the national side was made on her 18th birthday. She could not have dreamed of a better gift. She was, naturally, forced into buying two cakes instead of one for her future teammates. She had carried on Hashemi’s fight successfully in her own small way, or so she thought.
Just as she was about to blow the candles, a short scrawny bearded man with haunting eyes barged in and identified himself as a rugby official.
‘You’, he pointed to Afareen, ‘are out of the team’, he said with a cruelly wry smile on his face. He threw a letter in her direction.
Miss Afareen Rangaswamy,
We regret to inform you that although you are a citizen of this country, your father – Rangaswamy N – possesses an Indian passport. Thus it would be against the rules to field you in any national squad. Kindly pack your bag and vacate the premises by the evening time.
Her fight was far from over. ‘Ahmadinejad’ had come to spoil the party yet again.
She was devastated. A victim of cruel circumstance, she was shattered. The candle wilted away into the cake. The celebrations were over. She left the room for good.
Wade fought her case. He refused to give in. Both he and Afareen pleaded with the official but he would not budge.
“I just want to play rugby. Please give me a chance”
“I don’t care about your dreams. Rules are rules. Now get out before I throw you out”
Everything that she fought for, everything that was rightfully hers was taken away from her. She didn’t know how to react, so she did not react. She just sat in her room, depressed. She chose not to talk. She refused to eat.
Afareen just went through the motions. Her life had no purpose it seemed. It had been long since she had chai and gossiped with her friends about the cute rugby white-skins in the cozy ‘chakunyehs’. Since her friends were part of the rugby team, those days were virtually gone. And Afareen was lonely.
Down the streets of Tehran, she now walked she did not run, she stared blankly she did not smile and the giant egg was nowhere to be seen. She was angry. She vowed never to play the sport again.
The tears stopped gradually. As the days went by she avoided the sport completely and seemed to be doing a lot better. She was trying her best to forget, but that was not easy to do. She went to buy some groceries, once, to cook dinner. In the vegetable market, as she was about to buy some onions she ran into a familiar face. Familiar yet disconcerting. She was her old rugby teammate who began narrating the incidents of the inaugural rugby tournament in Hong Kong. The memories came screaming back and Afareen was on the brink of tears. She could not hold back. She started wailing right in the middle of the market. She had to be taken home by that same friend.
It was her father who opened the door this time and he was shattered to see his daughter in tears. He knew the drill. He put her to bed.
“What happened?” asked Fareeda.
“The same thing. It was her old teammate this time” her father said.
“This can’t go on Fareeda. Something needs to be done”
And something was. Rangaswamy decided that it was time for a fresh start for his family. If his adopted country was going to treat his family like strangers, he would shift to the city where he was born, where his daughter was born – his hometown of Pune.
Pune was nostalgic for him. He spent his childhood and almost all of his formative years there. It was in Pune that his family would be accepted. He had no doubt.
Fareeda was a bit taken aback by the sudden news and felt a certain amount of withdrawal. Iran, after all, was where she had her friends, her family, her life. But she was willing to make this sacrifice for her only daughter.
Afareen was still numb and unaffected. A year had passed but she could not seem to forget the heartache. The void that the cruel ‘Ahmadinejad’ had left in her life. She would feel the same heartache no matter where she was.
The Rangaswamy’s were welcomed by Pune’s general embrace of laziness. They managed to settle in comfortably as Rangaswamy already had his family living there. As for Afareen, her father enrolled her in Fergusson College, hoping that the atmosphere of freedom would take her mind off the pain. And it seemed to work to a certain extent.
Afareen welcomed the freedom – the hijab-less existence. She met new people. She hung out at Savera, Vaishali, Barista. She even met her first boyfriend there. He was a strong Iranian Psychology major – named Mosy. She liked Mosy. He made her laugh. He heard her cry. He fought with her. He apologised profusely. He took her on long rides down Khadakwasla on his Bullet. She was hardly ever happier.
He loved her. But she still loved rugby. He could see the pain in her eyes, no matter how much she tried to hide it. When she confided in him in her weak moments, she spoke about her days as a rugby player. She told him of the awards she achieved, her moments of glory, the love of her teammates, who she missed dearly, her favourite try and the intricate beauty of this aggressive sport. She had not talked to anyone about this before. He felt her pain and made it his mission in life to take it away.
He decided to surprise her after their evening coffee in Barista. He blindfolded her and took her to the ILS grounds on Law College road. When he opened the blindfold, she saw girls tossing around that old familiar rugby ball. She felt a rush of pain and her anger came screaming back. She stared in disbelief. Then she slapped Mosy with all her might, silenced the people on the ground and stormed off. He tried chasing her but in vain. He just sat there confused.
A bald, heavyset and extremely frightening man with a broken tooth then approached him. Mosy moved slowly behind in fear.
“Eh… What happened man?”
“Why did she slap you? What did you do?”
And he went on to explain her story to this beastly yet endearing hulk of a man. He was Suhrud Khare – coach and President of Pune Rugby.
“Let me talk to her. Where does she stay?”, said Suhrud.
“Uh sir.. I can’t tell you that… it’s private”
“Aundh sir… Anand park… Chintaman nagar…”
“Good lad”, he said.
Afareen was still heartbroken. She got the usual 17 missed calls from Mosy. She would usually feel bad and answered the 18th call. But that day, she switched her phone off.
She was back to her depressed self and she followed the same drill of sitting alone in her bed without talking to anyone. She was mad at Mosy. He ruined her spirit, she felt, after working so hard to forget about the game. She was back to square one. She lost her appetite. She even refused the Ghormesabzi her mother had made for her at night. She prepared for another restless night full of tears when the doorbell rang twice. She had a visitor. She changed her clothes and entered the living room, surprised to know what a man of that size would want with her. Surhud Khare apologised for the late arrival, explained himself and then spoke to her about rugby. He didn’t ask her anything about herself. He narrated his story. His story, of the birth of rugby in his life in South Africa – the country where he was born; the country that was ravaged by apartheid. He battled race discrimination, utter humiliation, fought natural urges of anger. He also quit the sport. But then realised it was his only salvation.
“You can’t live your whole life angry. You’d rather channelize that aggression little by little on the pitch. Imagine every single tackle to be into the f%^&*#g official. Trust me. All that anger will melt away once you touch the ball. You must play. And you must forgive that boy of yours. He’s a top bloke. We practise at 7 am and don’t tolerate tardiness”
He excused himself and left. She felt a weird sense of exhilaration. Something she hadn’t felt in a long time. So long that she forgot the feeling. She was still an insomniac, but now out of excitement. She decided to play.
“Thanks J”, she replied on the 19th call.
She was up at five in the morning jumping around, feeding her newfound excitement. She dusted off her shoes and wore them with nervous anticipation. She wore her hijab out of habit, paused, looked at herself in the mirror with a wide smile on her face and then proceeded to shed her skin. This was her new avatar. Pune – her place of birth – had now become her platform for revival. A love story rekindled.
It had been a little over two years since she played. She took a few initial hesitant steps towards the muddy pitch, more anxious than ever. She got crashed into by one of the big girls – customary initiation for the Pune ruggers. She just got up dusted herself off and smiled. She was back. The minute she had the ball in her hand, she took to the field like a fish to water. She moved, faked and fainted like she had never stopped. A full blooded tackle in her solar plexus and she still had a smile on her face.
“I told you the anger would melt after you stepped on the field, didn’t I?”, said Khare.
“You were wrong” she said. “It melted after you called my boy a top bloke”
Having to start from scratch didn’t bother her too much. Her love for the game was all that mattered to her.
She picked up from where she left off and began to impress her coach in no time. She repeated her rugby journey, but this time, with a new found freedom. It wasn’t long before Khare made her captain of the team. And she repaid his trust with talismanic performances in the national level tournaments. Few were able to match her speed, her skill was comparable to the best in the world and her passion knew no bounds. She received a call-up for the Indian sevens squad that was to participate in the Borneo sevens in Malaysia.
What a turnaround!
She was selected as the captain of the team. But she did not celebrate until the squad was officially announced. Every piece of paper would bring about major trepidation. Fortunately, all the drama was behind her. Or so she thought.
The first thing she did when she landed in Malaysia was to go to room number 245 where the Iranian rugby team had gathered, welcoming her with the same two cakes and 18 candles.
History had repeated itself.
‘Ahmadinejad’entered with another piece of paper in his hand.
“The Iranian federation is willing to make an exception in your case and take you back as a member of the Iranian national team”
“Tell them to go f%&* themselves. I belong in India now”