Pratab Kundu used to wake up every morning tired, hungry and afraid and without a proper place to call home.
The rattling of passing trains and rustling litter was the humdrum soundtrack to his life – at the tender age of six – as he lay on the concrete floor of one of Kolkata’s railway station sheds.
Anyone from a more privileged part of the world would find such an existence unimaginable for someone so young, yet estimates put the numbers of street children in India at more than 100,000.
Unwanted by his stepfather and badly mistreated, Kundu’s tale is sadly not an unfamiliar one.
But salvation came for the sports management student when he accepted a place at a local, government-backed hostel, and rugby came into his life.
“I wanted to have a better future; I didn’t want to be stuck in the place I found myself in. It has taught me to never give up and if you get an opportunity, take it,” the 24-year-old told World Rugby when speaking about the impact the sport has had on him.
Like the majority of the 1.4 billion population of India, rugby was not something Kundu had come across before he was taken in by the hostel, where rugby had been introduced through a partnership with the Jungle Crows Khelo Rugby project.
“I’d seen a rugby ball in the storeroom and wondered what it was for and also some of the other, more senior, boys would go and play every Saturday and I’d go along to watch,” he explained.
His curiosity aroused, Kundu got actively involved himself, and despite his small frame, he loved the physicality of the sport from the word go.
“The first time I got hit, my first thought was I need to tackle him back!”
Kundu is not alone in having a difficult background, nor is he the only beneficiary of Jungle Crows.
Its name wasn’t chosen to be self-congratulatory, but as one of World Rugby’s Spirit of Rugby partners, it has much to crow about.
Since it was founded 15 years ago in Kolkata, by two British diplomats and an Immigration Officer, the organisation has helped many disadvantaged children improve their lives, largely through rugby and its associated values.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” admitted one of the founders, Paul Walsh.
“I had no big, worthy plan at the start, it was just to have a bit of fun. We now reach a couple of thousand children every week.”
Kolkata, with a rich heritage and tradition of rugby, is one of the Indian cities with a structured rugby season, but alongside collaboration with World Rugby and Rugby India, Khelo Rugby has helped spread the rugby gospel, through its network of coaches, to the furthermost parts of the country.
Khelo now goes into 35 locations in Kolkata, seven villages in and around Saraswatipur in the north of West Bengal, nine locations in Bengaluru and with a group of villages in the Jarmundi block in Jharkhand.
Gaining the trust of the elders is not easy in such places but with project co-ordinators like Kundu on board, they’re eventually won over.
“At first, they are like, ‘what the hell is going on, girls and boys playing (tag rugby) together’ and ‘why should I send my kids to you, someone I don’t know?’ ,” said Kundu, pointing out the challenges they had to overcome.
“But once they see the kids are playing and enjoying themselves and getting fitter, they become more interested.”
Walsh added: “Lots of charities come and go so parents are quite mistrustful, and it takes a while to come round to these strange people and our motives. But it all starts with a rugby ball.”
Kundu is the perfect role model in that he has lived the life of many of the children he is now coaching yet has gone on to achieve bigger and better things.
In June, he had the honour of winning his first cap as a replacement on the wing in India’s 42-12 win over Indonesia.
Centre is Kundu’s preferred position and he hopes to add to that solitary appearance when matches resume and now that he is almost back to full fitness following a knee injury.
But the bigger goal is to help more and more children to have the sort of life he now enjoys.
“Whenever I see the children, I know how hard it is. Many times, I see myself in them,” he pointed out.
“It is not just me; all the coaches feel the same. We want to help them grow and be where we are.”