One shot. One opportunity.

“If I see you laughing one more time while running, you will get a big slap on your face!”

This was the captain of a team shouting at her teammate mid-play, who was chasing an opponent. It didn’t seem to affect that catcher a lot but surely did convey to me what was at stake there. I was refereeing the Kho-Kho matches at Student Fest 2019 at Kannarpet.
Kanavu hosts annual Student Fests once a year – an opportunity for students from 5 schools to come together, participate in a range of literacy and sports events & workshops. When I saw the call for volunteers, a part of me was excited and some part of me, a bit nervous about ‘refreeing’ – travelling from Chennai to Cuddalore with a lot of curiosity about what the weekend would hold for me.

The matches were super competitive and full of intensity. Each win was accompanied by a huge cheer. Some players were in tears after a loss. Every call for a foul was met with some opposition, not from players but from their friends & teachers standing outside the play area. While I had absolute fun watching some spectacular live sport, I also knew I was not the most popular guy on that ground that day. There was so much negotiation and fighting on the ground, coming from children who felt they were wronged.

The knockouts were done and we had lunch break before the finals. I walked over to have a chat with Kanavu team about the whole drama surrounding these games. They were just games, surely – or so I thought. But my friends helped me put things in perspective – about the value of an opportunity, of what it means to students for whom school is their world & this winning and losing meant so much.

These events are the only competitive activities they get to engage in the whole year. This is what they were building up to the entire year – starting from the players to the teachers/coaches. This was their only shot at glory as far as they were concerned. And they play not just for themselves but come here representing their schools. For some kids, this could even be their last chance at playing sports. With opportunities to compete being scarce, they surely wanted to excel at every chance.

I went back to the finals- I turned around to face the biggest crowd from the whole day- students from 5 schools, teachers and HMs. This was the blockbuster event everyone was waiting for. No pressure.

Every point was cheered. The boys were cheering their counterparts from their school. Pitchside pointers were given by the coaches. The girls had their eyes on only one thing- to win. After another pulsating 30 minutes, a team did win. The whole school celebrated their win. They were the champions of the day. They even went on to console the other team who were in tears – it was such a narrow loss.

When the volunteer call for Student Fest 2020 came out, I surely knew I was going – this time I was judging fewer Kho Kho matches as I also had to conduct a quiz for some excited first-timers. I went to the field to find some familiar faces. Some of them even recognized me and gave me that knowing smile. The matches were the same – no drop in passion or intensity. But there was no backlash at the referee this time. Everyone just enjoyed the sport. I didn’t see anyone crying after a loss. They took the loss in their stride. It was a fascinating shift from the last year. They possibly knew that this was a learning experience and they will get more regular opportunities. And when those opportunities come, they will be pouncing upon them.

For a child in rural India, their everyday can be that kho-kho game, as they sit, await with that bated breath, watching opportunities whiz by, waiting for that one kho, that one opportunity to spring up and get to action.

Nirmal Kaarthick is an engineer by graduation and currently works as a Data analyst with ZoomRx. He frequently volunteers with Kanavu.

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