Born to parents who spent their entire lives plucking leaves in Saraswatipur village near Siliguri, West Bengal, 16-year-old Sandhya Rai was living a simple life with no big dreams. That was, before she discovered rugby.
In 2013, Jungle Crows, an amateur rugby team from Kolkata visited her village to train the children, “I hadn’t even heard about rugby ever before, but I came to love it!” Sandhya recalls.
She started training under the same team but faced backlash almost immediately. Girls never played sports in her village and were confined to school and household chores. “My neighbours and relatives would reprimand me saying that rugby is only meant for boys. Once I injured my nose while practising, and my parents asked me to drop out because nobody would marry me with a broken face.”
The villagers would call her names, demotivate her with sexist comments and doubt her every move. Still, she rose above these societal prejudices and played several state-level matches eventually making it to the National Rugby team. Even when the team earned a trophy in a national tournament in 2015, the villagers alleged that the game was fixed.
When the word spread about the team traveling to play an international tournament, her relatives tried to stall her participation. “My uncle came up to my parents and asked them to stop me from leaving the village. Since rugby is a contact sport, he didn’t think we girls could achieve anything worthwhile.”
But Sandhya wanted to prove them wrong. She went on to play in the Indian Under-18 Girls Rugby team at the World Paris Games held in France. It took four years, several wins, and positive news coverage for people to finally start recognizing her talent and believe that a girl could play rugby too.
Today at 20, Sandhya is the only Indian among the top 32 women players, included in Asia’s ‘Rugby’s Unstoppable’ list. She’s on a full-ride scholarship by Khelo Rugby and the Jungle Crow Foundation and continues to play in the Senior National Rugby team.
Mahindra salutes the challenger spirit of people like Sandhya who remind us that with grit and determination, we can make any dream a reality. #Rise