I set up the Jungle Crows in 2004, for a bit of a laugh with some friends, the twists and turns it has taken still surprise me. Now like most of the country we’re chasing round figuring out how we can support the 100s of children that play with us, where to get hold of oxygen or find a hospital bed.
We’re a community group and have tried to manage that commitment towards players and families as best we can in our current crisis. As an adult I spend a lot of time talking to young people about responsibility, but I also realise they could tell us a thing or two about supporting one another, I am lucky to see children's resilience every day. Am always inspired by our Jungle Crows young ruggers.
Here is a story that goes back a bit, some ancient history, a different sort of crazy - it's about a rugby team, a win over South Africa, a movie and now an award.
In 2006 I sent a speculative email to an organisation that had recently been set up in the UK called Tour Aid. I’d read in a rugby magazine that they had organised for a team of disadvantaged children from Uganda to make a rugby tour to England. I thought to myself “that sounds a fine idea, how about they organise for a team from India, I wonder if they even know we play rugby here!” I sent the email, saying we had a load of children playing rugby in Kolkata called the Jungle Crows and would Tour Aid be interested in hosting them on a rugby tour to the UK. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Soon things got crazy - It took a while to get a response, including a ‘gentle reminder’ or two, but eventually in April 2007 I got an email inviting an India team to take part in a tournament in London. OK so this madcap, unthought out plan was suddenly real life action; children, rugby, action, drama, oh the drama!
The first thing I quickly worked out was that none of the under 14 children we were playing with in Kolkata could get a passport. Mainly former street children, part of the Don Bosco Ahalayam homes this was just not going to be possible. In today’s language that meant a pivot, which brought me to the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences or KISS as it is better known.
I knew KISS from visits to the campus over the years, and I also knew the school was familiar with rugby from coaching visits made to the school by the Tag Rugby Development Trust. This was going to have to be a face to face conversation, off I set from Kolkata to Bhubaneswar, a journey I was going to get very familiar with over the next couple of months.
“Yes, that’s right, a rugby tour to London!”
“But these children have never played rugby, never seen a rugby ball!”
“Don’t worry we’ll coach them”
“How will they cope going outside the country, they’ll freeze?”
“They won’t be alone and will stay with very friendly families.”
Them thinking: “This guys mad, but let’s entertain him.”
I like to think I benefited from the Indian ethic of hospitality, I don’t think the team at KISS wanted to offend me so they went along with the craziness.
We had two coaches at this time in the Jungle Crows - Sanjay and Tudu. Sanjay had been one of Kolkata’s best players with Future Hope, where he had been brought up. Tudu was coming up as one of India’s future stars and would go on to play and study in the UK. Their job was to take this team of 13 year olds who had never seen a ball to play a respectable game in London. The rest as they say is history!
The boys won, were presented the winners trophy by South Africa rugby legend Chester Williams after a final versus South Africa in West London. Dreams are made of adventures like these and so the legend of the KISS Jungle Crows, world champions no less, was born.
At this point in the story it took the vision of KISS Founder Dr Achyuta Samanta to see the impact this could have. This bunch of tribal boys who had overcome tremendous odds to win. Dr Samanta could see the power, to motivate the children, to inspire supporters, to be a catalyst for KISS to grow and have ever more success.
Over the years stories were written, writers approached me and KISS, film makers drifted in and out with all sorts of proposals. And then in 2017 movie producers Shabbir Boxwala and Prashant Shah got a grip of the story - the start of what eventually became the movie Jungle Cry. Abhay Deol was signed up to play KISS Coach Rudrakesh, and Stewart Wright was given the job to play Paul Walsh, that’s me. Jungle Cry was in production and filming started in Bhubaneswar in 2018 - the start of a whole new adventure - highs and lows.
Without doubt, the best thing about the movie was that children from KISS and Jungle Crows were cast to be in the movie. Even our Jungle Crows team manager Hari got to act in the film as a referee. I loved being a part of the whole thing. It was a different world, directors, spot boys, vanity vans, movie stars.
The film was scheduled to be released in 2020, we even had a premier in Wales in March, but like many other projects this took a Covid postponement. Now in April 2021 the film has won the Jury prize at the Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival - which has inspired this bit of writing today. And let’s hope for a release soon.
When I sit and think about all this, I remember the heroes sung and unsung, but I also think about the youngsters who just missed out. Who didn’t quite make the cut. And I think this aspect has influenced me more than I realise. At Jungle Crows we run a project called Khelo Rugby, and though I sometimes forget, this is not an academy to find the next Jungle Cry or Crows hero. It is about giving every child the chance to play, to get onto the field and run around with the curious odd shaped ball.
We can’t play too much at the moment. The world has taken us in another direction. Our community work is even more important, though I admit that sometimes the feeling of uselessness hits. We are having online classes, seminars on mental health. Keeping the children motivated, or perhaps it is the other way round. It’s all about overcoming challenges every day just now, for many of the children we work with it was always this way.
We can’t celebrate just now, but please enjoy this small story about a little rugby team playing in India, and perhaps for a few of us it can continue to inspire.
About the author
Paul Walsh is a former British diplomat and founder of the Jungle Crows Foundation (A sports based NGO in Kolkata). Paul Walsh is a key individual in promoting the sport of Rugby in India and also actively involved in the grassroots development of the sport through various co-run initiatives.
Paul’s (@chirpycrow) inspiring journey has resulted in 100s of kids leading their lives with dignity & self respect. Jungle Crows’ flagship program ‘Khelo Rugby’ helps these kids learn Rugby, not only to represent India in the sport but also to learn life skills and many other aspects of life which helps them become the best version of themselves.
You can also participate in the Khelo Rugby initiative by making a small contribution on - https://www.ketto.org/PassForPassion.
You can read more about Jungle Crows on : https://junglecrows.net/