Nisha Warsi, 26, didn't have high hopes on the day the Indian women's 16-player-hockey squad for the Tokyo Olympics was to be announced. Sitting in her room at the Sports Authority of India hostel room, she reasoned that having never represented the Indian team at a junior level or even at a major tournament, she'd be considered too inexperienced. When her teammate Neha Goyal came into the room with a big smile, Nisha expected it was because Neha had made the cut. After all, Neha is one of the key figures in the Indian midfield, having been part of the squad ever since the 2018 Asian Games where the Indian team had won a silver.
"Neha came into my room and I was really happy for her because I knew she would be going to the Olympics. But then she said she was even more happy because 'we are going to get to the Olympics together!" says Nisha.
It's seems right that the two girls should be making their Olympic debut together.
"We grew up playing the same tournaments, playing on the same ground, Now we are at the same level. I'm really glad I'm playing for India because now I'm playing along with her once again." says Nisha,
Their bond extends beyond the sport. It even goes back before their birth. "We aren't related but we aren't less than sagi behen (blood sisters) too," says Nisha.
Her mother, Mehreen Warsi, says, "Savitri [Neha's mother] and me grew up on the same street in Kharkhoda [in Haryana]. Her family used to own a house and we rented the one across from theirs. But we grew up together and were close friends from childhood." They lost contact after each other's marriage but regained it fortuitously years later, which is when their daughters met and became friends. "It was entirely luck that we moved there. We could have moved anywhere in Sonepat but we moved to the house opposite that of Savitri," says Mehreen.
Neha and Nisha remember those days fondly. "There was no their house or our house. We'd run and out of each other's house. We called each other's mothers mausi (Mother's sister)" says Neha.
It was Neha who introduced Nisha to hockey. She herself had started playing the sport a year earlier having been introduced to it by former Indian captain Pritam Rani Siwach who ran an academy for underprivileged children in Sonepat's industrial area. On seeing her friend go for hockey lessons, Nisha was interested. "At that time I was not sure if I could play because I thought it would be very expensive and my parents wouldn't be able to afford it," recalls Nisha.
But Neha convinced her.
The fact that Neha was with Nisha in those early days was crucial to Mehreen's agreeing to her daughter participating. "No one plays sport in our family. We are Muslims. In our society it's rare for a woman to go outside her house even or even study. There was almost no chance that a girl would be allowed to play sports," she says.
At the academy the two were as close as ever. "Sometimes we'd get into trouble in the hockey ground as kids because we'd be holding hands and walking. People would say why don't you at least leave each other's hands," says Neha.
Hockey was a respite from an otherwise grim life. Both families were very poor. Neha's father was an alcoholic and family violence was not unknown. Eventually her mother had to work in a cycle factory. Nisha's father suffered a paralytic stroke in 2016 and has been unemployed ever since. "At that time we had nothing but we had each other. We were always worried. What to do? We didn't have the money to support each other back then but we were always supporting each other mentally," says Neha.
She and Nisha would play together at the school and state level, but Neha who progressed faster. She was part of the Indian junior team in 2011 and eventually made it to the senior squad earning a silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games. Those achievements brought a measure of financial stability. "We both came from a lot of hardships. We both are the only earning member of our families. We were never jealous. When she got prize money from the state, I was really happy for her because I knew she really needed it a lot more than me at that time," says Nisha
On her part Neha says, "When I got to the India camp first, I'd tell her 'Nisha you should get into the India camp as well. You have the capacity.' I wanted her to think if I can do, she could do it as well."
Eventually Nisha did make it.
She got selected to the Railways team in 2016, and joined the Indian squad in 2019.
"I was very nervous in my first tour. Everyone supported me. But at that time because everyone knew it was my first time on tour, everyone would be very guarded around me. If I made mistakes, they wouldn't say anything because they didn't want to hurt my feelings. But Neha wasn't like that. She would never hide it because she said these aren't things to be hidden." says Nisha
Nisha, a defender, has improved significantly since those early days. According to Neha, the understanding the two have with each other is now an advantage. "Now both of us play on the ground in the midfield. If I am beaten by an opponent, I'll find that she's already there to cover my position. She sees me and knows where she has to be. We have a really good understanding. We don't need to even talk to each other. We just know," says Neha.
Off the field, the bond is unshakeable as ever. They'd probably be roommates if it wasn't for COVID protocols, says Neha. "I'm really grateful to have Neha as a friend. You know how things are these days. It's so easy for friendships and relationships to break apart," says Nisha.
Neha agrees with that sentiment. "Religion has never been an issue. We never even thought about it growing up. We were always sisters. Even now, her mother knows that when it's Eid, she has to make my kheer for me. She always knows that when she makes pulao, she has to keep some for me as well," she says.
Before they left for Tokyo, Neha says, "I said Mummy we are leaving now. Read your namaz, read your Koran and pray for us that we play for India," says Neha. Mehreen remembers this as well. "I said Allah se dua karenge. Allah se dua karte hain, ki meri beti desh ka naam roshan kare, (I'll pray to God. I'll pray that my daughters make the country proud."