Oh, Street Child O’ Mine

People

Oh, Street Child O’ Mine

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza/ Arré

I

t is an eighties Bollywood shot we are all familiar with. The impoverished child with spindly legs and tiny shorts is fleeing from tragedy, the passage of time is communicated through running feet, and by the time the camera pans upward, the child has transformed into the hero. The movie title whirls on to the screen and the audience knows they’re in for a hell of a story.

If a movie were ever made on R Hepsibah’s life, this vintage shot would be a fitting opening sequence. Sakshi Malik and P V Sindhu stole the show at the Rio Olympics, but very few people know that young Hepsibah was the one who got there first. The 17-year-old homeless teenager from Chennai bagged three medals for the country – including a gold – at the World Street Child Games held at the Brazilian capital last year.

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There were no coaches or camps for this child prodigy. Instead, she got her start running away from cops. The youngest of four children, Hepsibah was born on the streets – specifically, a pavement outside Chennai zoo. Her father passed away when she was three and her mother Arrayi, who sells flowers on Chennai’s Link Road, had to often press her young children into work.

The cops were not kind to these young entrepreneurs and very soon, Hepsibah knew that her only shot at making a living was to not get caught. Every time she caught a whiff of authority, she would run like the wind, her basket of flowers placed precariously on her hip. And when Hepsibah ran, she flew.

The young street child had no idea that one day she would fly all the way to Rio.

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An initiative by the Chennai municipality that helped enrol street children in local schools, is what got young Hepsibah to the starting line. She was 11 when she ran her first official race. It started with candle races and sack races. In a few years, she was representing her school at zonal competitions and winning again. By now, everyone could see it. Hepsibah had wings.

I met her on a hot Monday afternoon at the offices of Karunalaya, a non-profit that cares for street and working children. In a room full of laughter, the wiry, dusky Hepsibah with bright eyes, held forth. She was here with two other members of the “famous five”, the team from Chennai that represented India at the Rio event. I found them sipping tea and waiting for me: Hepsibah, Ashok (19), and Usha (17). I expected a timid young girl but Hepsibah is not shy – not after the scores of interviews she’s had post-Rio.

When she finally got her passport, it was a moment of intense pride for both the rising star and her mother. For the first time, their names were next to each other on an official document.

The first Street Child Games were held at the foot of the world-famous Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro in March 2016. Kids from nine countries, including from India and Pakistan, took part in the competition. Hepsibah was the outstanding performer of the Indian contingent. She took part in six races, and won gold in the 100-metre sprint, silver in 400-metre, and bronze in 110-metre hurdles.

“January 3 was the day when I was selected as one of the team members to represent India,” she says in Tamil, smattered with English. “I was overjoyed. I had refused to sit for my 10th public exams, choosing instead to train hard for the selections. Prabhakar Suresh, our coach, told us we wouldn’t have enough time to practice.” With just two months to go for the Games, the kids were coached on speed and sprint for two-and-a-half hours every day. “It was very gruelling. I was dead tired every evening,” says the 17-year-old.

But sitting inside her, egging her on, was the desire to go to Rio. The very idea of an plane ride would make her giddy with excitement. “As a child I used to wave at the aeroplane in the sky, wishing one day I could fly in it,” she says. She remembers every detail of that first flight, the drop in her stomach as the plane took off, the food, the clothes worn by the crew, and her fellow passengers. “Initially, I was really scared but after some time it was like being in a moving bus,” she tells me.

The ease with which Hepsibah talks about her journey from the streets of Chennai into an international sporting competition, belies the troubles she and her coaches have had to endure. It was a trial, from getting the passport at the last minute to the visa approval. Hepsibah didn’t even have the required residence proof to apply for a passport. After all, she’s lived all her life shuttling between shelters and makeshift shanties.

When she finally got her passport, it was a moment of intense pride for both the rising star and her mother. For the first time, their names were next to each other on an official document.

And from there on, every step was a thrill. “I met Dinara, one of my competitors from Brazil,” she says. “Tall and well-built, she told she will win the race. I was nervous because she even looks like a winner. But I beat her every time, right up to the finals. I was ecstatic, and knew that it’s all in the mind when it comes to conquer.”

But competitors soon turned friends. “One day we put kumkum, and every one not from the Indian subcontinent was curious. I said it is Indian culture,” she says. “The following night at dinner, a girl from Brazil asked me for some kumkum. And then almost every girl at the Games was wearing it. I was thrilled.”

After her victorious return, there were several celebrations. While on board the flight from Abu Dhabi, a co-passenger recognised them. The news spread like wildfire in the flight and everyone cheered and clapped. The co-passenger even gave them goodies he had bought for his family.

“I can’t believe all that actually happened,” she says, still in a state of pleasant shock. “I’ve safely preserved the boarding passes and flight tickets. I will never forget Rio and my dream run,” smiles Hepsibah, proud daughter of Arrayi.

Some Bollywood dreams do come true.

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