Debraj Mitra, TT, April 17: The times they are a-changin'. Retired schoolteacher Reza Razi, 82, may not be humming Bob Dylan's lyrical call to revolution, but he has ensured that change does not bypass his village.
Reza lives in Chandipur, a village 70km from Malda town where a girls' handball match on March 26 has become the harbinger of a transition he has long been striving for. Two years ago, an exhibition match of women's football meant to encourage girls of the village to participate in sport had been called off following objections by a local religious leader and his supporters.
The block development officer had then turned down Reza's request to intervene, citing potential law-and-order problems after a section of villagers protested against "women prancing about on the ground in short dresses".
This time, Reza decided not to take a chance with anything. He collected consent letters from the guardians of the girls for the handball match, just in case.
Fourteen players, split into two sides of seven each, competed in the match but what mattered in the end was the action off the field.
The organisers had been promoting the event over loudspeakers for a week. On match day, spectators started flocking the Chandipur High School playground well before the scheduled start at 3.30pm. By 3pm, it was a full house of more than 2,500 people from Chandipur and the nearby villages.
The players were thrilled. For teenaged Nargis, playing handball in front of a crowd was unlike anything she had experienced before. "We felt like film stars," said the 15-year-old, a farmer's daughter.
Her teammate Aduri found it hard to believe that the villagers who used to look down on her for "doing what girls are not supposed to do" had gathered to watch them play. "Even my uncles and fellow villagers would ridicule me. This time, everyone was cheering and it was an overwhelming feeling."
For Aduri, it was the start of a life she would not have dared to dream about until recently. She still has not been to a cinema. At home, muri (puffed rice) and panta bhaat (fermented rice) are her staple. But thanks to Reza, there is hope on the horizon.
Homemaker Munsefa Razi, whose daughter is nine, was among the spectators at the handball match. She now aspires to see her little girl play a sport. "My girl studies in Class III. I would love to see her play on this ground in front of such a big crowd," Munsefa said.
Biplab Kr Roy, the BDO of Harishchandrapur Block I, was present too. He had revoked permission for the football game in 2015 for fear of trouble. This time, he stood his ground. "It was a welcome change to see girls of this area participate in an outdoor sport," he said.
Reza's moment of triumph was seeing the faces in the crowd. "The majority of the spectators comprised women. The same women who had chosen to stay away from the ground in 2015 had come to cheer their daughters this time. Others came to support the initiative," said the octogenarian, who received a special honour at The Telegraph School Awards for Excellence 2016 in recognition of his decades-long campaign for the uplift of women in Chandipur.
Mufti Maksood Alam, the man accused of getting the football match cancelled, denied having instigated any such protest . "My detractors keep spreading lies," he said.
In villages like Chandipur, those like Alam influence public opinion more than an administrative order. Girls outnumber boys in Chandipur High School, where Reza taught biology for decades, but sport is a different story.
Reza is determined to change this. He has been visiting households in Chandipur and nearby villages, explaining why it is necessary that women play a sport. "I tell them that women are our partners in development, and we must ensure that they are independent," he said.
In the past six months, Razi and his Progressive Youth Club have organised a couple of marathons. He hopes to organise a football match soon.
Abdul Hamid, whose daughter Nargis played in the handball event, said: "My daughter goes to school. She is good in studies and sport. If I encourage her to study, I should also encourage her to play."