It’s early morning on a Sunday and an excited group of boys play football in the Back Garden, a large ground in Colaba, South Mumbai. Both teams are wearing colourful jerseys printed with logos that say: OSCAR—Education With a Kick.
At 23, Ashok Rathod, short and curly haired, is the oldest of the players. Unlike the others, he’s also yelling instructions on how to kick or pass and egging the others on—Ashok isn’t just playing for his team, nor is he [inset, above] the fastest or the most skilful footballer here, yet the boys in both teams follow his lead and take directions from him.
Today’s first goal-scorer is Anil Chauhan. Tall and well built, he’s from nearby Ambedkar Nagar, a sprawling slum colony of about 12,000 people. Anil had, like many poor urban kids, dropped out after a few years of primary schooling. Years later, when he started working as a housekeeper in a bank, he realized his mistake.
“I didn’t know how to read or write and couldn’t even sign my name,” says Anil, who enrolled at a night school last year because of Ashok Rathod, his neighbour, who plays football with him thrice a week. “It doesn’t matter that I’m only in class five and 22 years old,” says Anil.
Many of the other players, too, went back to school because of Ashok, who started these football sessions five years ago.
When Ashok was a child, his father Shankar Rathod, a fisherman, regretted that his daughter and older son had dropped out of school. At one point Ashok too wanted to quit, but his father insisted that he continue—much against the neighbourhood norm. Ashok talks of how little value his peers and many of their parents placed on education.
“I saw boys regularly drop out of our municipal school,” recalls Ashok. “Some left during a morning interval and never returned. As for the girls, a good many don’t attend school anyway.” The dropped-out boys used to hang out at the nearby Sassoon Docks, Mumbai’s biggest fish market. They’d steal or pick up fish that had fallen from baskets, to sell and make easy money.
“And whenever or however they brought in some cash,” Ashok explains, “the parents considered it clever.” Worse, Ashok watched many of those boys squander these ill-gotten profits on drink, cigarettes and gambling. In 2006, after finishing high school, Ashok got a job with Magic Bus, a Mumbai NGO, which sent him to the city’s poorer areas to mentor children. That’s how he realized that team-sports, particularly football, forged friendships, and called for discipline. It also had, overall, a positive effect in the children’s lives. Why not do the same for the boys in my neighbourhood? Ashok thought.
He offered to teach football to a few boys he knew. In exchange, he told them to promise not to miss classes. On a Sunday in October 2006, he got a ball and invited the kids to play. Eighteen boys turned up. Ashok called his group OSCAR, or the Organization for Social Change, Awareness and Responsibility.
Ashok, who learnt about football at Magic Bus, began teaching them the intricacies of the game. In between, he’d also slip in
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