Majnu ka Tila and the romance of sepak takraw

Around six in the morning, when kirtans are being sung by the faithful at the Majnu ka Tila Gurudwara, some people gather in a small park across the road, tie a net between a piece of bamboo and a electrical pole and then begin to play a game with a hollow ball made of woven bamboo. Though it looks like volley ball but instead of hands, they are only using their feet and head.

As the players begin training life continues on both sides of the park on one side the Gurudwara and the interstate road, and on the other, the working class area of Aruna Vihar where bystanders take in the game from tightly crowded terraces overlooking the park while brushing their teeth. But those people are perhaps unaware that a game of sepak takraw is going on, for it is an unusual venue for an unusual sport.

The players are soon joined by a older man, Hemraj who is also the national sepaktakraw coach. According to Hemraj, the game started in this unexpected part of the country some 7-8 years back. "The game originated from Thailand and in India it is strongest in the North Eastern states.

But in 2004 there were some job openings in the sports quota in a public sector and the trials were taking place in Delhi. Since there is a lot of cheap accommodation in this area a lot of them stayed here. They started playing regularly in this park," he recalls. Hemraj had himself played the sport, so he thought it would be a good way to demonstrate the game to locals.

"It did not take very long before kid's started showing up. The game is very dynamic, there is a lot of jumping, and it looks like kung fu in the movies," says Hemchand. The Manipuri students left soon after their sports trials but by the time they left there was a self-sustaining bunch of enthusiasts playing the game in the mornings and evenings.

Now along with the original batch of players there is a talented sub junior squad shaping up and another 30 even younger children struggling with the basics of a backflip. The seniors have even taken up the responsibility of training the youngsters.

The initial enthusiasm for the coolest quotient of the game has given way to appreciation for it's entirety. "At first we only wanted to learn how to perform the overhead kick. Even now when an uninitiated person sees the sport he likes only that move. But we now find every aspect of the game exciting. The backflip kick looks the most challenging, but blocking that kick is just as difficult," says Rohit, 23.

The players have grown from eager amateurs to serious professionals. They comprise the core of the Delhi men's squad that regularly bags the silver medal at national competitions, including this year's Ranchi National Games. "We only lose to Manipur. It's only a matter of time before we beat them," they say confidently. One of the players, Sandeep, 21, even took part at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games where India narrowly missed out on a medal in the men's discipline.

It's a huge achievement for the boys most of whose families are of modest means. Sandeep's father works as an auto driver, while Rohit's is a tailor. Only one, Rashid, is employed. He has a small shirt making unit. The only thing they have in plenty is passion for the game.

In fact, almost all of them have a tattoo symbolising some aspect of the game that they got imprinted at the hands of a roadside artist at the weekly bazaar. Rakesh, has gone the literal way and inked the sepak takraw ball on his chest, Sandeep has the Olympic rings tattooed on his calf. "I got it done a couple of years back. I was trying to motivate myself to get into the Asian Games squad, but since I did not know the emblem, I just got one with the Asian Games squad."

Despite the success, most of the players have had to deal with criticisms from their family asking them to study or at least play a 'real sport'.

There were more obstructions too, the morning playing sessions had to be stopped a few months back when the MCD decided the park was not to be used for playing purposes. Players who have made the grade for the state level are expected to train at the Sarojini Nagar SAI center. If the makeshift academy survives it will only be because of its convenience.

"During regular days we make an attempt to go to Sarojini Nagar three times a week. But it is a long way away, we live right here at Aruna Vihar. It takes a couple of hours by bus simply to get there to train and and by the time we return it's already 9.30. Before competition when we have to train regularly, we get permission to train here," says Dinesh, Sandeep's brother.

Back at the park, the players continue with their game until it becomes too hot to continue. "I don't really know why we continue to play this game. None of us have studied past class 12 because Delhi Univeristy colleges don't consider sepak takraw a valid sport for admission. No one here is working with any Public Sector company. Once there was a job opening with Manipur Police, and a few of us went but we did not join. The culture there is completely different, and people would look at us in a funny way," recalls Rashid.

Drawing comparison with the historical antecedents of the area, Rashid says "This area may be Majnu ka Tila, but you can say we are the real Majnu's.

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