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Life Skills: A Key to Women’s Empowerment

Yesterday, I wrote about how sport helps transcend boundaries. Today it played out before me in spectacular fashion.

I woke up early today to attend the Magic Bus  session. I was a little nervous and my perennial stubble/ beard was the first to take a hit. A dear friend of mine, Siddharth Menon, architect, sports lover, and humanitarian, was accompanying me to see the kids. Reaching Dadar with 25 minutes to spare, we were hopelessly lost, much to our and our hosts despair. We finally found the distinctly red Sai Swamy Vayam Mandir and seeing the white t-shirts with Magic Bus emblazoned on them meant, we had arrived.

First things first, I was surprised to see it wasn’t a closed room the children were in. They were merrily gathered in the open field that is Shivaji Park. While a whole military parade practiced for the upcoming Republic Day, 21 children listened intently to their bubbly, confident and charismatic mentor, Manohar. Sandhya from Magic Bus welcomed me and before I knew it I was part of the circle playing a curious game called Introduce Yourself.

It took just one Dabaang-inspired-move to get everyone to join in and chime out my name. As I laughed at the hilarity of watching 20 small kids turn up their imaginary collars and strut to the centre of the circle saying – Hi my name is Kaustubh Khade - in imitation of me, I realised that in that small act, I’d already been accepted. Everything after that ran as smooth as a hot knife through butter.

Manohar was running a small game to gauge the kids’ attentiveness and from the screams of delight, it was going very well. Barely had Sandhya started on telling me about the programme that our attention was diverted to a much more pressing issue. The kids were divided into teams and were about to start their practice game for the inter-zonal Magic Bus football tournament. It was naturally of paramount importance to play for a team.

And old friendships were turned into rivalries as Sid was chosen to play for the blue team and I was playing for the whites. As in any game of football this one was particularly important and I was chided early by my young captain for letting Sid past me, a cheeky nutmeg I inquired very sternly about later. I hate letting any team down and I resolved to do better against Sid later.

The excitement was palpable and my side found its feet very fast. Some deft passing and clinical finishing from our forwards put us 2-0 up in no time. As anyone in football will know, goal celebrations are everything and I was blown away with how inclusive they were in my team. Everyone high-fived everyone and I would be lying if it didn’t melt my heart when the smallest girl on our team, would smile the shyest smile, run over with both hands in the air for her high-fives. Everyone contributed and our defender Jyoti made me smile a proud smile when she cleared a clear run from the opposition and then asked me, ‘Was that good?’; more than you know lil’ one.

Everything was a blank slate. And all that mattered was the moment. Falling on your knees, shrugging it off, and getting back to the game became commonplace. The team urged me to attack and score some goals, but I chose to play the playmaker role, lest the blues feel cheated in practice. There was a time though when the build-up play left me with the ball in front of the keeper and I lobbed it in. And I turned to look for my team, and they came rushing in. Much excitement followed. And all the familiar feelings of winning as a team came rushing back.

As one team came off to make space for the other, Manohar ran the kids through the technicalities of the game and what constitutes a clean game. There was much happening, and I was caught between the kids repeating after their mentor, the engaging game going on, where Sid was conducting his side’s defences, and Sandhya’s effervescent answers to my many questions. I was immersed and it felt good.

Right after we played some teamwork games and while we all played for points, one could clearly see how teamwork and understanding, and taking defeat magnanimously, was the purpose. Everyone laughed and discussed strategy and played their part. When our white team lost, the victorious yellow team shook hands and was taught to say ‘well played’. If everyone in real life were like this, the world would be a better place, no?

While Sid was busy discussing the details of Magic Bus, I was busy being dragged from one group to another and playing with the children. I would not have known we had spent two hours there were it not for the phone calls and list of emails I’d so easily ignored. Right after the programme, we boarded the Magic Bus bus. Sandhya and Manohar kept us both engaged with stories on how long the programme has been run and its impact.

The bus took us from Dadar to Dharavi, a place I’ve known for a while now. The idea was to visit the homes of the children and meet the parents. And it was a very rewarding experience. Magic Bus also organises for football tournaments for the parents of the children and we met with four mothers who’d played this year. Talking while washing the dishes, taking time off sewing or household chores, we met a very bubbly and alive set of mothers who clearly enjoyed being associated with Magic Bus.

While the first mother we met spoke forcefully about her matches and having to fight to win, another regaled how her son was now practicing football at the sports complex just opposite their chawl. We were told that the water lasted two hours in the morning and it explained the rush of people washing and cleaning; and that the tiling above the gutters that ran between two houses (that sufficed as a road) had been built in light of the elections. The open sewers that emptied into the khaadi had resulted in two dengue deaths and hygiene was a constant problem.

To be faced with such reality was to open one’s eyes to the Pandora’s box we so often neglect in our daily lives. As a testament to the mothers though, not a single one spoke about it. All they talked about were their children, and how they enjoyed Magic Bus; how the tournament was a welcome change in their lives; how Magic Bus would come to individual houses to ensure children stayed in schools  and learnt their lessons. There was much to be happy for, much to stay in the programme for.

Dropouts are at a minimal and children are transitioned from the learning phase to the livelihood phase. The mothers were thankful and I sensed a great satisfaction and pleasure there. One doesn’t have to ponder too hard whether a programmme this inclusive and engaging can have long-term effects on a community. Will the next generation in Dharavi learn right from wrong by learning to respect one another on a playing field? Will the shy girl on the field find a place and be loved as we did when we won? Will they be humble in victory and strong in defeat? I believe so.

As an end note, there is much and more that we are fortunate enough to have in our lives. In conversation with the children, mothers, and the staff at Magic Bus, a lot of joy can be brought in the little things. The white t-shirt and black shorts with the Magic Bus symbol depicts a symbol of unity and hope here.

I urge you to support the cause. Please come forth and visit the centres. Find out for yourself. So I request you to visit the page - and be generous

When I was being introduced, one of the Magic Bus  staff said – he is helping raise funds for the cause. I feel a great sense of pride in it. I know you will too.

By: Kaustubh Khade