About four years ago, 15-year-old Anyabai won Rs 54,000 when she led her school team to victory in a state-level football match. The prize money was more than what her mother earned in an entire year.
Hailing from Alakhpura, a village some 30 km from the district headquarters of Bhiwani in Haryana, Anyabai is a Dalit by caste and desperately poor by means.
Her father died of a heart attack when she was just two and the burden of earning for the four-member family passed on to her mother, Maya Devi, whose life story provides a window into the struggles of people at the lowest rungs of society.
Scheduled Caste communities like hers, comprising about 16.6 per cent of country's population, are generally an oppressed lot, particularly in impoverished rural areas where they are discriminated against by higher castes and are condemned to menial cleaning jobs that no one else will do.
There are also those who have defied the system and become achievers in their own right. One of them is the fatherless girl Anyabai, who could have been a victim of the oppressive systems of caste and patriarchy, but her skills as a footballer helped her challenge both.
Just a few years after she started playing, she has already represented India twice at the international level.
"She gets around Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000 for playing every national match. Last year, she won around Rs 2.5 lakh by playing a few matches," Sonika Bijarnia, her school coach, told IANS. "She manages to play two-three matches every year."
So football is not only helping her find a purpose in life and represent her country at the highest levels, but is also helping her bring her family out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
Anyabai played in the U-15 South Asian Football Federation in 2017, in which India lost to Bangladesh in the finals. She recollects the final with a bit of disappointment, saying: "We lost 1-0."
Anyabai, who has a sister and a brother, is her mother's pride. "Nobody in the entire family has achieved so much," Maya Devi said. "I didn't have any hopes (while) Anyabai kept playing," she said.
In 2016, she played in the Indian U-14 women's football team at the AFC Regional (South and Central) Girls Championship in Tajikistan.
"Life changed. Of course, it did. The scholarships I have been getting have helped us to build a two-room set in the village," Anyabai said.
"When I go out of my village, my country, there is fear about going to an unknown land. It is a very different feeling. It's also nice that I get to make friends from other parts of the country and the world," she said.
"I used to struggle with English earlier. I try speaking the language now. There is less hesitation."
More than a decade back, when Anyabai was small and hadn't started playing, it was really tough for Maya Devi to manage the family with just the Rs 150 a day that she got as a daily-wage worker. "This income depended on the farming season and yes, I struggled... used to borrow money and somehow managed," she said.
"I made many efforts to bring my kids up all by myself. If Anyabai achieves something in life, I will consider my life to be successful. I have worked very hard," she said.
Two years back, she was given the job of a "safai karamchari" (sanitation worker). Among the five cleaners in the village, she is the only woman.
Despite some improvements, the life of struggle continues for Maya Devi and her family. She has modest dreams for her daughter. "Aap logon jaise ban jaaye kisi din, yahi chahti hun (all I want is, she becomes like one of you someday)."
But Anyabai's dreams are bigger. "I wish to grow up and play like (Argentine footballer Lionel) Messi," she said passionately.
The girl has plans of taking up social sciences as her subject in class 11 along with language and vocational subjects. "I will study further after class 12, but then I wish to just play and study football after that."
The young player cheerfully talked about the two big village grounds where she, along with around 200 other girls, goes for a three-hour practice twice every day.
"Girls from other parts of India talk about the grounds in their villages and cities. I also boast of the two big grounds we have here in the village," she said, excited as a child.
Anyabai recounts the village's journey which goes back nearly a decade. The then school coach, Gordhan Dass, was busy training boys for kabaddi, a traditional rural sport, when girls began pestering him, and he was forced to indulge them by giving them a football to play with. Anyabai developed a fascination for the game. After that, there was no looking back.
Today, it is the boys who are taking inspiration from the girls, who have put Alakhpura on the world map with their remarkable success stories.
According to her mother, Anyabai is a cheerful kid. "She doesn't talk any nonsense...is a nice kid."
Maya Devi puts on a ghoonghat (veil), covering her head and face, when she moves out of the house. Anyabai finds the veil too heavy for comfort. "The ghoonghat is very heavy... I will never put it," she laughs.
(The weekly feature series is part of a positive-journalism project of IANS and the Frank Islam Foundation. Mudita can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )