Sports stories featuring girls are so rare, you could probably count them on one hand. It makes you wonder how much difference it would make to girls who want to play a sport to be able to read stories such as Half the Field is Mine, where the love of the game is the most important thing in their lives and they are willing to fight for their right to own half the field. And how much difference it would make to boys to read such stories and be able to see girls as allies and playmates.

This is the story of Oli and Champa, a couple of football-mad thirteen-year-olds living in Kolkata. While Oli lives with her parents and brother in a flat, Champa is the daughter of their domestic help. Since Oli’s family is the poster family for feminism – full sharing of chores between parents, a father who cooks, a mother whose surname Oli has, a brother that likes to sew – her parents are fully supportive of their friendship. When they’re not playing football, they study together and generally hang around too.

Oli and Champa play in a makeshift football team made up of kids from the neighbouring apartment complexes as well as slums. And even though football seems to be a great leveller of sorts, all the other players are boys. The two girls are formidable forwards and match-winners for their team, but it does not protect them from the sour-grapey comments of losing all-boys teams who come from faraway localities. It makes their skin crawl but they remain silent because they don’t know how to respond. The final blow falls when the boys of their team suddenly decide to sign up for a professional tournament and insist that girls can’t play. Suddenly the girls find themselves out of the team – a team that Champa had founded.

Oli is devastated, but she soon cheers up when she finds an alternative – a former India international called Kuntala Ghosh Dastidar who coaches girls in Kolkata’s Rabindra Sarobar. But Champa has other plans – she wants to take on the system. She takes off for Jalpaiguri, to confront the district magistrate and demand to know why girls can’t play in professional tournaments.

Half the Field Is Mine is a rollicking story, but the last one-third unravels a bit because of Champa’s running away plot line. It isn’t clear why her mother reports her as missing since she knows where she’s gone. This decision has repercussions of a serious nature. The only (minor) drawback of the book is that it takes on too many issues – gender, sexual violence, trust and friendship, class prejudice, and so on – some of which are left hanging. The language too seems to come out of a textbook on feminism in places: “Gender is a social construct” on Page 16, for instance.

The girls are threatened with sexual violence when they are thrown out of their team. They also face sexist jibes from boys of opposing teams. The book misses out by not adequately addressing this thread of the story. It is a very real concern – and perhaps one that prevents parents from encouraging girls in sport – and not having it addressed seems to suggest it doesn’t matter in the overall scheme of things. The boys do apologize for their creepy comments, but there is no closure.

It also isn’t clear why Oli and Champa choose to play for a mixed team when they get the option of being coached by an international star and possibly the opportunity to play in the women’s leagues and go to the top. “While you will go on playing for the silly Superman team… we’ll play the World Cup! Got it?” says Oli at one point. While mixed sport is important and is being practised with fantastic results in different parts of the world, one wonders if, given the constraints of our conservative society, such an idea might backfire and instead keep girls out of sport. More importantly, the message of the story might be misunderstood as all-girls’ sports being weaker or lesser than sports that involve both boys and girls.

But make no mistake, this is a lovely book and will resonate with any middle-grade reader who loves sport and will do just about anything to go on playing. Putting Kuntala Ghosh Dastidar, a real football star who played for India and coached the national women’s team, in the story is a nice touch. And those silhouettes of girls playing football at the end of the chapters are brilliant.

By Payal Dhar

Author: Swati Sengupta
168 pages
Rs 195.00
ISBN: 978-9351038672
Scholastic, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction
Age-group: 12+

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