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A learning revolution led by the real Skater Girl

There are many similarities between the protagonist of the film and Asha Gond from Janwaar. However, unlike the reel, the real Asha is changing lives by developing new ways of learning for girls in the village and their families

Asha Gond skateboarding in the UK. Photo: Sylwia Korsak
Asha Gond skateboarding in the UK. Photo: Sylwia Korsak

Ever since the trailer of the Netflix film Skater Girl was released last month, Asha Gond’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. An endless stream of messages continue to pour into her social media account. Most of those who’ve connected with the 21-year-old have common observations to share—the few glimpses of the movie were enough to conclude that this is Asha’s story.

Reel stories entertain; real stories inspire. Asha’s journey over the last seven years certainly belongs to the latter.

In 2014, Ulrike Reinhard, a German digital nomad, brought skateboarding to Janwaar, an inconspicuous hamlet near Panna in the heart of Madhya Pradesh. A few years earlier, she had witnessed the sport’s impact on girls at Skateistan in Kabul, Afghanistan. Her idea was not only to empower children, but to make an entire village a better place. She envisioned change driven by the young generation.

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Back then, Asha lived a life that most girls lead in Janwaar. School was optional, even unimportant; learning household chores was key. Her future was predetermined—there was no doubt that she would get married before she was out of her teens. She had no voice in her family, let alone in the village and her opinion didn’t matter.

Then one day, she walked over to the skatepark in the middle of the village. There were kids falling off skateboards. It looked like a playground, but she thought the ramps on the edges looked rather strange. What was even more bizarre for her was to see Adivasi and Yadav boys playing together. It was all very new—in her world so far, these two communities never mingled. There was a strict invisible line between caste and outcaste.

“I felt things could go wrong any moment if an Adivasi boy got too close to a Yadav. The girls, as usual, were second in line, waiting for their turn after the boys were done,” Asha remembers.

When she first got on a board, she struggled to find her balance. Even more awkward was facing the sarcastic comments of the older boys standing by. Asha learned to live with it. She showed up at the skatepark daily and decided to take on other responsibilities as well.

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“We have a rule “No school, no skateboarding”. It was my job to hand out skateboards to only those kids who showed up at school. A lot of the boys didn’t like it, especially those from the upper caste. We had quite some arguments, though it never bothered me,” she says.

Village rumours and badmouthing intensified when more volunteers came to the village to work with the kids. Villagers warned her parents that she was often seen hanging out with strangers. Things got worse when she got the opportunity to study English in the United Kingdom. Her parents came under extreme pressure. But Asha was persistent and many months later, her parents finally relented and decided to let her go. It was the first time Asha truly stepped outside her comfort zone.

The exposure served her well and the Class 10 dropout started exploring new avenues to learn. She spent a few years at Prakriti School in Noida as part of the Open School Project. It was also where she started skating on a regular basis.

“The boys in Janwaar always taunted me. In Noida the environment was very different, very welcoming. Even though I couldn’t perform too many tricks back then, it was an incredible feeling to have people watch me skating and appreciate my efforts,” she says.

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In 2018, Asha represented India at the World Championships in Nanjing, China. She had never seen a skatepark as big as that one and was completely overwhelmed by the Olympic setting. The results hardly mattered. Back home, her participation caused a storm. Journalists poured into Janwaar, asking to interview Asha’s parents. It was the moment when the perception of her parents changed and they accepted their daughter’s actions. Yet, it took them a while to grasp everything entirely. Asha was free to pursue her dreams as long as she didn’t get into trouble with the other villagers.

Asha leads by example, sometimes struggling on her way but more often than not, opening new avenues for the girls and their families. Photo: Ulrike Reinhard
Asha leads by example, sometimes struggling on her way but more often than not, opening new avenues for the girls and their families. Photo: Ulrike Reinhard

While Asha was stumbling to find her own way, she made the most out of her exposure to change things in Janwaar. She was always passionate about teaching younger kids. With a lot of empathy, she developed new ways of learning for the little ones. At Villa Janwaar, a community space for the children, she started a pre-school that runs on a regular basis.

“I thought of all the problems that I faced when I started school. The idea was to make learning fun through games and stories. And more importantly, get them used to the idea of enjoying an education,” she says.

Asha is also aware of the status of women in Janwaar. And it’s always bothered her. They are invisible in the community. Her own experience taught her that there was always a way out and she took it one step at a time. She asked girls a few years younger than herself to start thinking about the things they wanted to achieve. Among them was Poorti, Asha’s cousin. Today, after a word with her parents, Poorti is continuing her studies alongside Asha at the National Institute of Open Schooling.

“Girls here do exactly what their families ask them to do. I don’t want them to be trapped in last centuries traditions, doing the things that women have been doing in Janwaar for years. I want them to be confident, unleash their desires and foster their imagination. I want them to have their own lives – not a life someone else is telling them to live,” she says.

Until today Asha faces resistance. Yet she leads by example, sometimes struggling on her way but more often than not, opening new avenues for the girls and their families.

“Not everyone understands what I’m trying to do. But it’s really encouraging to see girls breaking out of their shells and starting to learn. It means I was able to convince their parents to let them go and I hope I can have all the girls studying some day,” Asha says.

There are many secret admirers of her work. One of them is Govind, Asha’s older brother, who was once pushing her to get married. Though he is still hesitant to openly admit, every now and then he sends his sister messages how proud he is of all her achievements.

Besides studying music and art, Asha recently finished a fellowship program which encouraged her to open a school for kids with special needs. Bare Lal, a slightly older boy, is the proof of concept. Asha has been working with him for a few months now and he’s made steady progress.

“He would wander around aimlessly and never speak to anyone. It took a lot of effort to just get him to sit down with the others. Today, he can say his name and identifies objects around him. What is even more promising is that the other kids have accepted him and are hell bent on teaching him how to write his name,” Asha says, laughing.

As co-director of the NGO, Barefoot Skateboarders Organisation, Asha wants to work towards creating livelihoods in Janwaar, so that people from her community don’t have to migrate. And of course, continue empowering the kids through education.

“The things I’ve learnt, the opportunities I’ve got – I feel it’s my responsibility to share them and by doing so, many more can learn and provide new meaning. What’s the point of all these things if they end at me?” she says.

Asha admits that she’s still far from being the best skateboarder in Janwaar. It’s just another work in progress for this change maker.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.

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