Standing at just over 5'1", Yumnam Kamala Devi cuts an unassuming figure as she walks towards us. As she says hello and proffers a polite handshake, you wonder, is this the same person who has terrorized subcontinental defenses for over a decade?
Then she starts talking football, and the transformation is surreal. Oh, yes. This is the same person.
The eyes light up, the voice tightens, the power emanating from her becomes palpable. She talks about her journey. From playing football, cricket, and sepak takraw with boys back home in Thoubal, Manipur to realizing that this - football -- is what she wanted to do when she went and won the U-17 National Championships in Tamil Nadu with Manipur in 2004.
To give you an idea of the kind of talent we are talking about, she was just 12 years old when she played in that U-17 Championship.
Women's football, she says, has come a long way since then. "At least there are two tournaments now," she laughs, describing how the addition of the Indian Women's League (IWL) [the other being the National Championships] has helped stretch out a calendar that can leave footballers exhausted just waiting for an actual competition to start.
"Anyone who gets into women's football in India, they do it only because they're madly in love with the game," she says with a sigh, lamenting the sheer lack of opportunities, before talking up the IWL and the renewed focus it has brought to the women's game, the influx of money and professionalism. However small the doses maybe.
Top scorer, and winner, of the inaugural IWL with Eastern Sporting Union, she has been in stellar form in this year's edition for Gokulam Kerala FC.
Playing a more withdrawn role than usual, her footballing intelligence has come to the fore as she has quickly adapted to the change. "It was a little bit difficult [adjusting to the new role], it still is, because at Railways everyone used to tell me 'you only have to score, you have to do A-Z,' but here it's different," she says. There is a hint of sadness that she is not the focal point of the attack, but she doesn't dwell on it for too long.
As a senior member of the team, she loves the responsibility of guiding the team, and has grown to appreciate the more slow-burn thrill of controlling play as the team's trequartista, the playmaker-in-chief. Her six assists top the charts, while she's also regularly chipped in with goals -- seven of them in six games. "Now, I am equally happy when someone scores off my pass. It feels like I've scored myself," she laughs.
She's found her happy place now, in 2020, but a couple of years back it had looked particularly bleak. Kamala was among seven Manipuri players who quit the national team due to issues with the coaching staff, and the non-response from the Federation in the face of their complaints. Today, six of them, including Bala Devi, have written the apology letters the management demanded and are back in the national set-up. The only one not to write one is Kamala.
"It felt like football had betrayed me. I did not know what to do."
"Why should I write an apology?" she demands as she recounts the episode that rankles most deeply. "I had scored the goal to take India to the next stage (of Olympic qualifying), and I had celebrated by removing my shirt. The coaches screamed at me in front of everyone, telling me that I had disrespected the India jersey. How? How did I do that? By scoring the winning goal? Do these people not understand the emotion of celebration?"
It's not the screaming, per se, that ticked her off, but the fact that she was so publically humiliated. They could have told her in private, but that they chose to do it in front of everyone, especially the juniors, hurt her. Kamala's main grouse appears to be with the assistant coach of the national team, Chaoba Devi. "I can try saying sorry to Maymol ma'am [Maymol Rocky, the head coach], but never to Chaoba ma'am."
The entire episode sent her to a dark place, one that took her quite a while to recover from. "It felt like football had betrayed me. I did not know what to do." Her form dripped drastically, and she struggled to make an impact on the domestic competitions.
Over the past few months, though, she decided to pull herself out of the slump, personally and professionally. "Not to prove a point to anyone," she says, "but to prove to myself that I can perform at the level I used to be at." She scored 20 goals for Railways in the recently concluded National Championships, missing out on the golden boot by just one [to Bala Devi]. And now this understated, pivotal, role with Gokulam.
Surely, that's enough for the national selectors to take notice? "Well, they haven't," she shrugs. There's a hopelessness to the gesture. "What more can I do? I miss India [team] terribly. Even now thinking about it keeps me up, I still struggle to fall asleep."
As we talk, though, she tries to shrug it off, "chalo, it's ok. I've had a good run. There are youngsters better than me, let them get the chance," she says self-effacingly. It's a brave effort, but you can see the pain. Great sportspersons feed off it, and Kamala is no different. "It's okay if I don't score a goal in the final, as long as I give the pass that leads to the winning goal."
For Gokulam Kerala, who come out of a state that doesn't have a single recognized women's league of its own, Friday's IWL final is an opportunity like none other, but for Kamala Devi it is a key pit stop in a journey of redemption, of rediscovering her true self. That it comes against KRYPHSA, coached by Chaoba Devi, makes it that extra bit special for her.