In the late 1960’s when VK Saramma enrolled herself for volleyball classes in her school located in the quiet village of Namakuzhy, she had no idea that the game would change her life forever. But now, the 70-year-old Kerala Police Department retiree says with utmost certainty that sports changed the direction of her life. Saramma’s story is not unique, however. The village of Namakuzhy, located about 36 kilometres away from Kochi city in the Ernakulam district, has a rich history of fostering talented sportswomen. While the popular sport in the village was earlier volleyball, now it is football.
VK Saramma is one among the popular ‘Namakuzhy sisters’, Kerala’s earliest volleyball players who put the state on the map as a volleyball hotspot. Another ‘Namakuzhy sister’ is KC Elamma, who went on to be a noted volleyball player in the country and the first women in Kerala to win an Arjuna award, the highest award for sports in India, in 1975. As KC Elamma, VK Saramma and PK Eliyamma, all part of the Namakuzhy Government Higher Secondary School volleyball team, were related, the whole team came to be known as the ‘Namakuzhy sisters’.
“Those were very difficult times. Not many women ventured into sports. I still remember some even received criticism from their own family,” Saramma recalls. She shares that the driving force for them was George Varghese, the sports faculty at the Namakuzhy GHS who created the girls’ volleyball team, which went on to bag national championships for the state.
“Some of us even went on to represent India at the international level,” says Saramma. In 1972, after graduating from school, the women were recruited into the Kerala police and Kerala State Electricity Board. However, even after they joined the service, they continued to play for the state police team.
“I had never thought I would be part of the Kerala police. Every one of us struggled through a lot in life, coming from poor families. But it was sports that changed life for us,” she expresses. While these are yesteryears stories and all of them now lead retired lives, Namakuzhi continues to give out new promising sportswomen for the state.
Though what is considered the ‘golden era’ of sports in Namakuzhy ended with the sisters, the efforts of some have brought the village back on the sporting map. Jomon Jacob, who is now 48 years old, was a little boy when the sisters were at their peak. Being a relative of two of Eliyamma and Saramma, Jomon was not a stranger to the world of sports. But his passion was football.
Jomon is presently a football coach with the Sports Authority of India (SAI). Keeping up with his family’s tradition of breaking barriers in sports, he was instrumental in creating a women’s football team in the Namakuzhy. The members of the team also play for Kerala and India. Apart from this, Jomon in 2000 started a football camp for children in the village with Joy Thomas, former coach at Kerala University. The move is said to be a reviving point for sports in Namakuzhy.
“After the period of Namakuzhy sisters, there was a lull in sports here. But after we started the children’s camp for football, this changed. Though parents were first reluctant, especially to send girl students, we shared the inspiring stories of Namakuzhy sisters and how they all had successful careers. The parents started to send children thereafter,” says Jomon.
Jomon’s efforts to revive sports doesn’t end there. He also started a women’s football team in Kottayam district’s Mevallor, 10 kilometres away from Namakuzhy, when he joined as a physical education teacher at the Kunjiraman Memorial High School. This played a major role in the Sports Authority of India’s decision to allow a training centre for women’s football to be set up there.
The football camp in Namakuzhy is also flourishing. “Some of the players here have been part of Indian camp for the Asian Championships, and have played at national level for Kerala,” Jomon says.
“Coming from the family of the Namakuzhy sisters, I know how empowered sports can make women and that is the one reason why I chose to focus on giving training to women,” Jomon shares. “And yes, definitely, the Namakuzhy sisters have been an inspiration,” he adds.
Now, the members of the women’s football camp in Namakuzhy give coaching to young children, both boys and girls. Recently, during the COVID-19-indiced lockdown, the team has also started a special programme ‘children with football’.
“Since the region has a hilly terrain, we practise hill sprints, meaning routine football practises done by going up and down a hill. This is something that is said to be practised by great football players like Pele. It gives much strength to the players,” Jomon points out.
Meanwhile, though Saramma, one among the Namakuzhy sisters is happy on how the region is once again active in sports, she also expresses how the prominence of volleyball has faded. "We were all volleyball players, and we will be happy to see if volleyball too sees a rival there," she says.