Back at her office in Vellayambalam, Shakuntala is telling a colleague about all the media attention she just received. She didnâ€™t know it was such a big deal, the Kerala government giving her a permanent job as a sweeper at the Rajiv Gandhi Sports Medicine Centre in Thiruvananthapuram.
Sports Minister EP Jayarajan handed her the order in his office in front of the media. Shakuntala looked a little shaken by the many flicking cameras but she spoke without fear. She is happy about this offer and thankful to the government, she said. It is her days as a hockey player that got her this job now, she finishes her little speech and runs away from the camera, to join â€śSirâ€ť. Officials from the Rajiv Gandhi Sports Medicine Centre had brought her along and now they were going back.
Shakuntala has been working there for the past three years, but as a part-timer. Now the government had finally given her a permanent post. But the question is if she is really happy, after all these years of living of struggle and hurt.
Shakuntala gets the permanant job offer from Minister EP Jayarajan
It was three years ago that the media wrote about a former hockey star making a living, selling vegetables at the Palayam market - a job she was compelled to do for 15 years in all. Thatâ€™s what got Shakuntala the job as a sweeper at the sports centre.
"I used to feel so ashamed about having to sell lime and eggs and vegetables at the market, having failed to get any job with my hockey certificates,â€ť she says, sitting at the sports centre. Those were days she wouldnâ€™t talk much to anyone - she was simply too embarrassed of the livelihood she was forced to turn to, and keep for 15 years. But when her old school mate Dr K Ramani came from Kollam to meet her at 6 in the morning one day, Shakuntala opened up.
â€śIt is seeing Ramani play and win all those trophies during prayer time at the school (Cotton Hill School) that I too wanted to play. I began practicing under Balakrishnan sir and joined the school team,â€ť she says, a new light coming to her eyes when she momentarily forgets the present. In 1976 â€“ she is not sure of the year â€“ she was part of the Kerala team that won the national junior level hockey championship. â€śWe beat Punjab in the finals, and it is no easy job. They were all so tall and we were so small,â€ť she says.
A photo of her with her team winning the trophy that year at Gwalior had been framed and treasured for a long time, until one day, when Shakuntala was so upset that she tried to break it. â€śBut it wouldnâ€™t break, no matter what I tried; it wouldnâ€™t break,â€ť she says, nearly breaking down.
You can almost see it happening when she narrates the events of those days. A friend who had seen her sell vegetables at the market advised her to meet the then Sports Council President Padmini Thomas (who held office between 2011 and 2015), with her hockey certificates. Shakuntala got new signatures on her certificates from people who wanted to help her and tried to meet Padmini several times.
â€śI would wait for her to come home from work, at her house, till 8 in the night. But even after going three times, I couldnâ€™t meet her. Finally, when I did manage to see her, she said it might be difficult to get a government job, and suggested I try working as a house maid. That really broke me. I just sat at the Sports Council and cried,â€ť Shakuntala narrates.
That is when she tried to break the framed photo she no longer thought useful. But she is now happy that it didnâ€™t break or she would have nothing to show to the media who would later find her.
Shakuntala at the Rajiv Gandhi Sports Medicine Centre
It was her old friend Ramani who called the channels. â€śRamani had found out about me when they were talking of the old hockey team and what became of all the players. She called the channels and spoke about me. The National Games was going on then, in Thiruvananthapuram,â€ť Shakuntala says.
Life had not always been so tough for Shakuntala. After winning the junior level, she got admission at the Womenâ€™s College for Pre-degree, second group. She became vice-captain of the state hockey team. But soon after that, her dad, who used to run a soda factory in Palayam, passed away. Shakuntala was married off. Her husband worked with the Border Security Force and had been away for a while, till he became unwell, and came back home.
Shakuntala used to practice hockey at the Chandrasekharan Nair stadium, the Thycaud maidan and the University Stadium, even after she had her first son, Deepak. But when the husband came back home, and she had another son â€“ Dineesh â€“ Shakuntala needed to find a job. A search that would end in the Palayam market, and where Ramani would find her 15 years later.
Ramani had become a doctor, Shakuntala says. â€śNot just Ramani, most of them who played with me became doctors and engineers. Only I had to go through this fate,â€ť she says.
At the ministerâ€™s chamber, when the microphones turned off, she asks in a soft voice, â€śIs it possible to build a house for me, sir?â€ť The previous government had given her three cents of land in Kilimanoor. EP Jayarajan said yes, the government will build a house there, she just has to be in the LIFE (Livelihood Inclusion and Financial Empowerment) mission, housing scheme for the landless in the state.
Holding tight the order that the minister gave her, Shakuntala goes back to her old life, with a new job, and with new hopes for her two sons, both of whom have finished their Masters but are without jobs. She never let them play hockey. She was afraid they might end up like her.