Navneet Kaur sleeps an average of five hours every night. The dreams she reserves for her every waking moment. From the time the 14-year-old gets up at 4 am, cycles to the Shahbad Girls' Hockey Academy, trains, cycles back, attends school, heads back for training, attends tuition, to when she finally crashes for the night, it is these dreams that sustain Navneet. That one day she would be an international hockey player. That like her father's four sisters, her life would change. That "if I work hard, I too can afford good shoes and clothes".
She knows there's a long way to go, but since Indian girls won bronze at the Junior Women Hockey World Cup on August 4 ' the first podium finish at the event for the country ' there is a new spring in Navneet's step. Five of the girls in the team were from the Shahbad Academy and Navneet is the institute's leading under-14 player. She was a member of the Haryana team that won gold in the sub-junior nationals in Bhopal last year.
It's 4.45 am as she puts her training kit in her bag one training day, an eye on the rain pelting outside. Navneet is running late for the 4-km ride from her home in Majri Mohalla in Shahbad main town to the Academy (on Grand Trunk road), and she expects to take more than her usual 15 minutes to cover the distance because of the rain. Her training session begins at 5 am, and having done it for the last six years, Navneet knows the importance of being on time. As she hops on to her cycle and rushes out, father Amrik Singh, (37), who drives a school van, follows her on his motorcycle. Since it's still dark outside, she feels safer with father as escort.
"Trainees, line up," are the first words Navneet hears as she enters the academy's astro-turf. As she makes her way to the line of trainees, she realises it's assistant coach Amarjeet Singh who is taking this session. Coach Baldev Singh is with some injured members of the Indian junior girls' hockey team.
Three rounds of jogging around the hockey turf are followed by stretching. In between, as Navneet and fellow trainees talk, she shares her worry about her incomplete math homework. "I need to do some of it after the training session," she tells a teammate.
Baldev Singh, whose contribution to Indian women's hockey is perhaps unparalleled, has by then joined them. He has so far coached more than 40 international players and seven captains for the Indian women's team.
Set up more than 30 years ago, the academy is run by the Haryana government. In 2005, it got the astro-turf. The 63-year-old Dronacharya awardee is the deputy director at the Shahbad Stadium. "Hockey gives these girls an identity and I am happy to play my part. Most of the trainees come from poor families," says Baldev Singh. While he treats the trainees like his daughters, the coach is also a strict disciplinarian.
After a drill and sprints in the penalty area, apart from runs across the field, it's time for the trainees to have their milk supplements around 6 am. They head to the canteen for the five-minute break, animatedly discussing practice strategies.
At 7 am, as the trainees head towards canteen for breakfast, the coach tells them to wait. "Do you know who is coming to Shahbad today?" he asks. "The five Shahbad girls who won bronze in the Junior World Cup are coming at 3. You have to be there at the academy with your parents."
A few seconds later, Baldev Singh points at Navneet and says, "If she and the rest of you practise hard, you can also become like Navneet senior, who was a part of the Indian junior team."
Heading for their breakfast, Navneet tells fellow trainees that she wants to be like "Navneet didi". "I know it's hard but I am focused on my goal."
After a quick breakfast of bread, cheese and fruits, Navneet cycles back home. She has an hour's time to get ready and be back to attend school, located on the Academy campus, starting at 8.30 am. Navneet finishes her homework and then helps mother Manpreet Kaur, 33, pack her brunch for school.
The school has classes till 2 pm. Training re-starts at 3 pm but Navneet makes it a point to again cycle home, where she has lunch with the family. Amrik is also home around this time, as are Navneet's younger sister and brother. "I could go directly to the stadium after school but I want to help my mother. And we prefer to eat our meals together. This half an hour is what I cherish most in the day," Navneet confesses.
Back at the academy, generally the same schedule is followed as morning, with short matches between the trainees, till 6.30 pm. Today is different because of the arrival of the World Cup team. At the function to honour them at Partap Mandi Chowk, people put garlands of currency notes around the girls' necks. "Ek din mereko bhi log aise honour karenge (One day people will honour me too like this)," Navneet whispers to her mother.
The evening training session for that day gets cancelled. By 7 pm it's time for Navneet's tuitions. After the procession, she gets about an hour to get her books in order and read some notes before cycling more than 5 km to her tutor's home. The tuition lasts two hours and they tackle mathematics and English.
Amrik Singh is waiting outside on his motorcycle as she leaves around 9 pm. It's dark again, and once more unsafe for Navneet to be out alone. From his driving job, Amrik earns around Rs 5,000-7,000 a month. Their small farm yields another Rs 50,000-70,000 a year. Navneet's expenses are mostly taken care of, with kits supplied by the academy and breakfast and evening snacks paid for by the government. The family's expenses are the Rs 800 spent on new playing shoes for her per month, as they constantly wear out, and the Rs 600 per month spent on her tuitions.
"We have a small piece of farm land but I also do the job to earn extra," says Amrik, adding that they don't want Navneet to give up as she loves hockey and "her coaches say she has a good future".
Back home, Manpreet is waiting for her with her favourite kheer. Navneet's siblings have gone to bed, though sometimes they stay up just to meet her. Looking at her tired daughter, Manpreet says: "Navneet knows that if she works hard now, life will be easy in the future. She meets her younger brother and sister for approximately an hour in the day and sometimes on Sundays, after her training, they go to the market."
As she enjoys her kheer, Navneet admits it's tough to maintain the balance sometimes, but adds: "I want to pursue further studies and want to study in the non-medical stream if I score good marks in Class X... Last year I even carried my notebooks to the nationals in Bhopal."