For Akhilesh Pal, born and raised in the squalor of a Nagpur slum, receiving a schooling was a mirage. Twenty years old, without hope or prospects, he would spend his days staying under police radars, smoking ganja and drinking with friends—mostly small-time gangsta types. They played cards at the edge of a college ground—the closest they knew they would ever get to one—gambling and beating each other to pulp, often over a rupee or two. Apprehensive of the threat they thought he posed to them, people distrusted him and he them. Yes, life went on for Akhilesh—like it does for millions like him on streets and backalleys all over the country.
Until one day, the ballgame changed. Vijay Barse, an elderly college sports instructor, gathered his courage, approached the gang and asked them if they ever played any sport. “We rudely asked him, what has sports ever done for anybody,” Akhilesh recalls. They told him that making money was all that interested them, and if he paid them, they’d do any job for him. The gent offered them Rs 30 and a football and told them to start playing. “We thought he was joking and told him to pay us first! He did that and we played for more than an hour,” Akhilesh says. That day’s football, he says, opened a window in his bleak world.