Meet Mary Prakash Naidu, the 16-year-old footballer from Mumbai's streets who met Modi

Having been selected for the Mission 11 Million programme, Mary Prakash Naidu met Narendra Modi at the opening ceremony of FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 in New Delhi | #FWeekend

Prahlad Srihari November 25, 2017 16:10:21 IST

Often, when 16-year-old Mary Prakash Naidu is in the middle of a session at school, she experiences a sudden, intense feeling of dread. No, it's not because she hasn't completed her Maths assignment or she is anxious about the impending exams. No, she's not being bullied at school either.

Mary's biggest cause of anxiety is the BMC, the civic authority that governs the city of Mumbai and chief purveyor of demolition drives.

Her worry stems from a deeper fear that her family's lives have been uprooted yet again along with her make-shift shanty home and her belongings. She constantly wonders if her mum and dad were able to scurry fast enough to fetch the essential personal effects before their home is torn down. What about her uniforms, textbooks and football trophies?

Meet Mary Prakash Naidu the 16yearold footballer from Mumbais streets who met Modi

Mary Prakash Naidu during a practise session at Guru Nanak Khalsa College, Matunga

Mary dreams of playing football for her country. Having been selected for the Mission 11 Million programme, a football initiative that hopes to take football to 12,000 schools in 37 cities across India in search of gifted children, she even met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the opening ceremony of FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 in New Delhi. "I shook his hand and he gifted me a football," says Mary, sporting the widest of smiles. Her other cherished moments include receiving a prize from Indian hockey legend Dhanraj Pillay and taking a snap with her favourite Indian footballer Sunil Chhetri.

Her talent was discovered by Anstrengung United, an NGO that uses sports to help the underprivileged and promote inclusive social growth in their communities. It was started by Parvez Shaikh, Amol Sawant and Shrungar Raul — three graduates from Guru Nanak Khalsa College in Matunga. "When we met Mary and started to train her, we soon realised she was outperforming the boys. So, we began to include her in different football teams and enrol her name in various tournaments," says Shaikh, Mary's coach. Khalsa College’s administration have been charitable enough to let the kids practice on their football field. Mary and her friends have found solace and an escape from their environment through football.

Her father Prakash Naidu, a BMC clean-up marshal, encourages her interest in a professional football career. "I'll always support her no matter what," he says.  Even her school, Chhatrapati Shivaji Vidyalaya (Dharavi), has championed her cause. "We don't have a girl's football team in our school. So my coach makes me play with the boys," says Mary.

Football has long been a catalyst for the underprivileged to improve their economic standing and this perhaps holds a lot truer today considering the highly lucrative nature of the sport. The narrative of sports as a pathway out of poverty is particularly salient in football. From Diego Maradona and Pele to Alexis Sanchez and Cristiano Ronaldo, poverty was not just a common denominator but also a powerful motivator. Similarly, Mary hopes to lift her family out of poverty and live a more fulfilling life.

Mary possesses a deep, internal strength and resilience necessary to overcome such adversity. Though she has been living in a 10x10 roughly built shack near Mumbai’s King’s Circle railway station for nearly eight years of her life, Mary is hardly discouraged by her misfortunes. She is motivated as ever to pursue her passion to play football for India. “I want to take the girls’ football team to the next level and make India proud,” she says.

Amidst demolition drives and destitution, football offers salvation for Mary, a fleeting window of escape from her harsh reality. For, when she is playing football, the dusty field becomes her theatre of dreams.

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