Prashanthi Subramaniam

Stories Unheard: Jessy

The clock is ticking. It’s the last shot that the team has to redeem itself. She can hear the crowd roaring. Her teammates have been reduced to zooming dots in the distance, as she mans (well, womans) the goalpost. There are yells from the stands behind her, slander she is very accustomed to. The opponent team’s player is heading straight for her, hockey stick brandished like a sword. Every single cell in her body is charged with one purpose, one thought-  stop her. The bell rings. The crowd rises to its feet. She falls to her knees and she’s suddenly submerged in a sea of embrace. Her teammates mill around, jubilant.

As Jessy recalls the memory of that one thrilling game, I am struck by what an unconventional goalie she would have made. Her slight frame, her wiry hands that hide their strength, her ever smiling face. We sit across the dining table shelling peas and all at once I am aware of how far these two worlds are – that of a District Hockey Champion and that of a Home Healthcare Assistant.

The Indian home healthcare system alone is estimated to be worth about US $2.3 billion. In urban spaces, with an aging population largely left at home by their double-income earning younger generations, unable to afford full-time hospital care, the services of a home healthcare assistant is often the only cost-effective solution. Tending to an individual’s physical and mental needs, monitoring their progress, helping them recover, whilst simultaneously blending into someone’s home and as a result, often taking on, additional housekeeping duties, a home healthcare assistant is often a necessary and an invaluable addition to a family. Involving what are stereotypically “feminine” qualities of care-giving and nursing in a domestic setting, it is not surprising that the system attracts many young girls and women. Jessy is one such, who joined our home months ago to help my grandmother on her road to recovery, following a nasty fall. Her days are usually filled with helping my grandmother with her physiotherapy needs and  medication and reading and doing odd jobs around the home, to keep boredom at bay.

Cut to the dining table and more secrets spill, nonchalantly. Hockey is a running feature in the conversation. I remark, perhaps mistakenly, that it’s not always common to see young girls being encouraged in sport. The TV in the background is blaring victory celebrations of the Indian men’s cricket team. “ We started playing from the 4th standard,” she recalls. “ From a young age, we were pitted against each other- the girls vs the boys team. We’d finish school by four pm and our Coach Sir would invite a team from the neighbouring village to play us. We didn’t know who they were but there was a fire, a craze to win against them. In those days we wouldn’t care much for rules, just that we had to win, come what may. And then when we won, our Sir would teach us one by one, what we did wrong. This is how you hold the stick..this is where you stand..this is how you push the ball..slowly, we started playing well ”

Did hockey bring you to Bangalore? I ask.

Daughter of migrant parents from Ernakulam, a district in the heart of sunny Kochi, Jessy and her family moved to the hilly slopes of Coorg as a young toddler. Having grown up in a closely knit family, separation from them as she went to study her PU (pre-university) grades in a district college, hit hard. The rawness of that experience flits past her eyes, as she talks about them. I nod along sympathetically, my mind flashing back to a day seven years ago and a one-way ticket from Bangalore to Delhi. “Until class 10, playing hockey and well, playing the fool- this had become my world. When I moved for my first year, I stayed in the hostel. The rest of the students were all hockey players and they had a big grass turf to play. I cleared the selections for the district level. Sometimes I wonder had I stayed behind in the hostel, I would have certainly made it to the Indian (national) team. Most students from that particular team went on to be. I was very worried when I first arrived at the college- How would I ever get along well with all these older students? How would they treat me? I didn’t enjoy my time at all. And that’s when the ragging began. In the hostel. That very first year was the most trying.I really struggled to cope with the way they ragged me. I was counting back days when I would return home for the holidays. I hated it. “

Jessy returned home to her father suddenly taken ill. As the eldest child of the household, the responsibility fell on her shoulders, to provide for her siblings. Following his untimely demise, the 20 something quit her education and found herself on a bus to Bangalore. For the first ten months, she worked with an organization that supports children with disabilities and who were abandoned.

“ I used to take care of them,  teach them dance and music. I really liked it there and I really love dancing.” I smile quietly to myself. She would make a good dancer, her expressive features and the way her fingers moved. We share a joke about her favourite actor-dancer. Prabhu Deva she says she really likes. She has seen many of his movies.

“ I often wish I had continued my studies, even if I wasn’t particularly good at it. Maybe even hold a small job in hand..I’ve looked at many children studying and I’ve thought about it often.I asked Mummy if I could complete my Plus-2 but given the situation at home, I let it be.”

I wonder aloud where she gets her strength from; I am struck by this invisible, intactile force that has kept this girl going against all odds. Her spirit is like a roaring sea.  

“ My strength is my mother. She is everything. If she senses that my voice is dull on the phone, she immediately tells me I shouldn’t worry, I should be happy. I pray a lot. Even more than her is my father. I believe that he is with me. I pray to him as well. My mother always tells me that he hasn’t left me, left us. He was my dance master. He would make us dance all the time, watch us look graceful as we danced away.”

Has hockey taught you anything about yourself, I ask.

She pauses, deep in thought. “ I was never fond of studying. I never stayed up preparing for exams, I was never worried. But when it came to a hockey game, I would be wide awake worrying about the other team, double checking to make sure my shoes were ready, my clothes were ready and arriving at the grounds early in the morning.. “ she trails off. Perhaps one day she will be a hockey champ, fame and fortune at her beck and call, I nudge her. She says rather hesitantly- “ I am not sure..I think I will trudge along in life. I wonder if others at my age see as much hardship as I have; maybe they do. And then I think it could be worse.”

The conversation dwindles and Barfi, our dog, has wormed her way to the gap in between Jessy’s feet. The two are inseparable. I watch on as she cradles Barfi like a child, playing with her, coddling her, showering the choicest of baby talk on her. I know the conversation has come to an end, but I am left with lingering thoughts. Of this champion, the hockey stick notwithstanding, the roaring sea that is her spirit, resounding.  

Article by Prashanthi Subramaniam.

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