Kiran Puri was the 2013-2015 Shansi Fellow at Jagori Grameen. This is her first year narrative.

The months leading up to the monsoon in Himachal can be brutal. The air becomes

dry, while the sun beats down on the village mercilessly, scorching everything in its

path. Everyone tries his or her best to stay indoors, or take refuge under a large

leafy tree. Yet, here I was, standing between the earth and the sun being enveloped

by the heat and loving every second of it. What could be the cause of this? I was

dancing around on the semi-green grass, trying to teach 10 middle school kids how

to play volleyball.


In my first couple months as a Shansi fellow at Jagori Grameen in India, I missed

little from my life in the states. The food was great, the people were warm and

caring, and work was exciting. But there was something missing. Something that had

been a part of my identity for over 10 years, and had suddenly been cut out: sports.

From volleyball, to basketball, to field hockey, athletics had always been a big part of

my life. And now, it was gone and it didn’t feel right.

I decided to try to find a way to not only play sports, but a way to coach young boys

and girls. In October I started to volunteer at Nishtha, a local health clinic and

community center. I went on field visits twice a week to villages and helped set up

the outreach clinic ran by the Doctors there. As I got to know the clinic’s founder. Dr.

Barbara, on a more personal level, I confided in her my love of sports and my

interest in volleyball, as it was a non-contact sport that I believed boys and girls

could play together, with out the boys dominated the play. To give some more

background information, the health clinic was a community center where local

children would come to for one hour after school. There was a small library, board

games, and athletic equipment. While staff was on hand, they were mostly there to

hand out equipment and manage the center, and didn’t have the most time to

engage with the children. So when I expressed my interest, Dr. Barbara was excited

because there would be someone to play with and engage the kids in athletics.


And so began the first phase of the project: Getting equipment! There were already

volleyball polls put up by Nishtha a while ago, but no one had been there to coach

the kids so they had gone largely unused. Since we had a place to play, we just

needed to go out and get a net and a ball, which were relatively inexpensive.

The first day I went out to net up the net and play volleyball, I was swarmed by a

groups of young boys all about half my height. The girls would stand back in a

groups, whispering amongst themselves and staring at what was going on, but

reluctant to come play. Luckily I had the help of Suman, a woman who worked and

lived in the area, and had a son that went to the same school as many of the kids. She

was able to introduce me to girls, and with much difficulty, convince them to come

and spend some time playing with us. I told off the other boys, but they didn’t seem

to listen, they were so excited that they might get a chance to play volleyball.























I had the girls form a line and throw the ball the ball to them and have them try to

bump the ball over the net. The young boys kept on pushing their way into the line,

and the girls put up little to no resistance. While I was a little taken aback by the

passive nature of the girls, I could understand as well. I remember being a young

girl, unsure of myself and not knowing what to do with my rapidly growing limbs.

And this domination of boys in athletics spaces is not something that is unique to

this part of the world. While most schools in the west have male and female

counterparts for school-associated athletics programs, the athletics scene is

different outside of school. If you walk by a park or court in the evening, there is

most likely a group of guys playing pick-up something (soccer,basketball, etc). And I

don’t this has to do with boys being better at sports than girls. I think when looking

at male and female versions of a sports, while fundamentally they are similar, when

they are applied they are quite different. They use different coaching styles, training

methods, game plans, etc. As someone who has played on co-ed basketball and field

hockey teams, I think I learned a lot from the men I played with, but like to think

they learned a little from me too. So that is why instead of shooing the young boys

off the field, I settled on a compromise. I let some of the boys practice with us, and I

let the rest become ball boys. While the boys were initially unhappy they weren’t

able to play, they were more than happy to watch and get a chance to chase after a

volleyball gone rogue.





















As the weeks progressed, they kids started to figure out that practice was going to

happen regularly. I would run into my kids going to and from work, and they would

express their enthusiasm for the next practice. But I also saw a decline in attendance

from the kids. When I would ask the kids why they weren’t coming, it was usually

the same answers for boys and girls: “ I have work to do at home”. Unlike my

experience back home where parents were glad to have their kids engaged in after

school activities, parents here wanted their kids to come home because there were

many daily chores that needed to be done from helping in the fields (a majority of

families grow crops in the area) to going out in the evening to get clean water for

their home for the next morning. I had to tweak my program to make it beneficial to

the children and families. Initially I got funding for fruit and water for the kids from

Nishtha. As the weather warmed up, I wanted to have some healthy snacks for the

kids. I would bring filter water for them every practice, and afterwards I would

bring either bananas or mangos for them to snack on. When I visited the Naz

foundation in Delhi, a organization that does great work on HIV/AIDS and also run a

netball program for girls, they told me that if they gave things in a wrapper like

biscuits to the girls, they would save it and bring it home, and most likely it was later

given to their brothers. Therefore I decided to only give the kids cut up fresh fruit, to

ensure they had a nutritious snack after playing. In order to please the parents of

kids, I decided to take attendance and the kids who came regularly over the course

of two months would get a certificate on behalf of Nishtha.


While there have been challenges, and I’m sure there will be more in the future, I am

getting a lot more out of this than just improving my coaching skills: I have found a

community. Now when I walk to and from work, the kids who have come to play call

out to me “ didi, didi (older sister) when will you come next to play volleyball with

us?”. They come to my house, joke around with me, introduce me to their parents,

and shower me with affection I could have never expected. And I feel this speaks to

the universal appeal of sports. It’s not something just for extremely athletic or

competitive individuals. It is a way to come together with your peers, learn and