As a pharmacist, dentist and two doctors-in-training, Someshwar Kalia, Nikesh Farmah, Keshav Gupta and Joshua Enson might be living the cliche of the smart Indian professional in England. But there is another thing Indian they are trying to promote in a corner of a foreign field: kabaddi.
Even though all of them, apart from Enson, were born in England, kabaddi was part of their Indian heritage and one they strived to hold on to. Kalia was part of the pioneering generation, which introduced the game to universities in England and now the 26-year-old is leading his country at the ongoing Kabaddi World Cup in Ahmedabad.
"England of course has a lot of sports, but introducing something new in the Western world is the easiest thing to do," says Kalia, a pharmacist by profession. "They are always curious to try out new things."
While the Punjabi population in England had built a base in circle kabaddi for some time, the international format has become popular in the last few years owing mainly to Indian students taking it up with fervour. Gupta and Enson, who are final and penultimate year medical students respectively at London's Imperial College, switched from hockey to kabaddi while at the university and have helped to spread the game in the country. There are currently seven university clubs that play the kabaddi tournament in England.
"The facilities for kabaddi in the university aren't the best," says Gupta, who found hockey quite onerous for his 6'5 frame. "We don't have proper mats; the one we have is like a judo mat and you can't wear shoes on that. We play barefoot and, because of the friction, constantly have blisters on our feet."
Gupta, who has emerged as England's leading raider in the tournament, is quite a star back home as well.
"We have an ongoing banter," says Farmah. "Everytime we used to play against him, we'd say we'd catch him this time. Never happened!"
That's the only compliment the 24-year-old dentist, who now runs his own clinic in Cardiff, is ready to pay to the two doctors-in-training. "They keep telling me I am not a real doctor, because, yeah well, I am only a dentist. But they are not doctors yet. A lot of them struggled to come to India because they could not get leave from their universities. I have my own clinic, so I didn't need anyone's permission."
Farmah is also the only one from Manchester, the other hotbed of kabaddi in England apart from London. And the London versus Manchester, South versus North rivalry becomes a constant source of ribbing between the four.
"I obviously don't get any flak," says Kalia, the leader of the band. As a captain, and more importantly as the pharmacist, he ought to hold all the cards. "Yea, when they are injured I just prescribe them ibuprofen or paracetamol," he jokes. "A lot of medicines are not available over the counter in Engand!"
Coming from medical backgrounds, they are equipped with the knowledge of handling injuries, and they are also more aware of the physical nature of the game.
"Every practice session, there's at least one injury," says Enson, while he playfully picks on his taped fingers. "Lots of ankle sprains." But since all of them have played some sort of recreational sport - Enson and Gupta played hockey, and Kalia and Farmah played rugby - they have an understanding of how to get the body battle ready.
"A lot of our players come from a rugby background," says Kalia. "They have the built, physicality and were also keen to give kabaddi a try."
The England team, brought together by veteran Indian coach Ashok Das, travelled to Kenya for a few practice matches. But that was the limited exposure they got coming into the World Cup.
"I think we had to come straight here," says Enson, who was born in Kerala but shifted base when he was just one-year-old. "The squad that is here for the Kabaddi World Cup, we didn't practise together as a team even once in England."
They have beaten total newbies like Argentina and Australia in the group stages. But against traditional powerhouses, India and Bangladesh, they came up short."
Being part of the World Cup is a big deal for the bunch. Especially given that their families attach a nostalgic value to it. "My dad tries to coach me over the phone," says Farmah. "But he basically just goes on to tell me the rules, like if you touch the defender you will get a point."
It is a massive step forward. Though not celebrities yet, they have given kabaddi some sort of momentum in England. Because of this band of boys, premier sports channel Sky Sports is carrying a highlight capsule on the Kabaddi World Cup and introducing the game to a whole new region and population. Kabaddi, says Kalia, is slowly shedding the tag of an Indian game played by Indian-origin players in England.
First Published On : Oct 18, 2016 13:40 IST