Published19 hours ago
Poulami Adhikari was half-way through a double shift when Atindra Chakraborty, a social worker whose hobby is making videos about ordinary people in Kolkata, stopped her to ask some questions.
Poulami had been working since 6am and she was probably going to finish at around 1am, but she welcomed the chance to chat.
In her red T-shirt with the logo “Zomato” in white letters, the 24-year-old explained that her job was to deliver food for India’s largest restaurant food delivery app. But her passion was football, she said.
She had once played for India’s under-16 women’s team, representing her country at international tournaments. But it hadn’t worked out – her family had got into financial trouble and needed her to work. It was a brief chat and Poulami waved goodbye as she left on her bicycle to continue her deliveries.
By the morning the video had gone viral, and people had questions. How could a young woman go from a promising career in football to spending all her waking hours ferrying food around the capital of West Bengal?
They wanted to hear Poulami Adhikari’s story.
In the low-income neighbourhood of Shibrampur where Poulami grew up, south of Kolkata’s Hoogly river, they call her Bulti. It means “God’s child”, a precious gift.
Poulami was raised by her aunt, after her mother died when she was two months old. Her father, a part-time taxi driver, struggled to support the family.
At the age of seven, Poulami discovered the local boys playing football in the neighbourhood playground. She joined them, and because she wore shorts, Poulami’s playmates initially assumed that she too was a boy.
“But when they got to know that I am a girl, their guardians started complaining to the playground authorities and then to my aunt,” Poulami tells the BBC. “They’d say, ‘How can a girl in shorts play football with boys?'”
Poulami was devastated.
“I got really sad and used to cry every day back at home because I badly wanted to play.”
Poulami’s aunt said she would find a way to support her dream, and arranged for lessons. Poulami thrived, and she soon came to the attention of a local football coach called Anita Sarkar.
Under Sarkar’s guidance, Poulami played for a girls’ team in Kolkata’s football league, and by the time she was 12 she was selected for India’s Under-16 squad.
She made fast friends, and soon there were exciting opportunities that she couldn’t have imagined. None of her family had been on a plane, but she quickly found herself flying to competitions with her best friends, playing the game she loved.
“For me wearing the Indian jersey, representing my country at such a young age was the best moment of my career,” she says. “When I wore the jersey for the first time, I got goosebumps from utter happiness.”
In 2013 she travelled to Sri Lanka, where she took part in qualifying matches for the South Asian Football Federation’s women’s junior championship. And in 2016 she travelled to Glasgow to play in the Homeless World Cup, an international street football tournament. She says she was paid around $100 a match.
But there were difficulties.
“Due to my family’s financial condition, we never could actually afford proper football gear,” she says, “nor a proper meal three times a day.”
There was a major setback in 2018, when Poulami incurred an injury to her leg that needed several operations and bed rest. She says she recovered enough to play at elite level again, but another problem stopped her returning to the game.
Her family needed income. Her older sister had married and moved away and Poulami had to help sustain the household.
So she abandoned her footballing dream and started taking odd jobs to support her family. In 2020, at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, more and more people turned to food delivery services, and Poulami took the opportunity to work as a food delivery agent.
The latest she finishes these days is 1am. It’s tiring work, and it doesn’t allow her to practise as much as she’d like. She earns around 300 rupees (£3.00 or $3.60) a day, and the double shifts are up to 15 hours long.
“If I get a decent paying job where I could work for eight to 10 hours, then I can easily take out three to four hours of time for my football,” she says.
When the video went viral Poulami was offered a coaching job, but it was 40km (25 miles) away from her home and she would have earned less than she does with Zomato. She says that there is a lack of will in the country, and perhaps the world, to invest in women’s sport.
“If we talk about India and compare men’s and women’s football, a lot of people generally don’t watch and care about women’s football at all,” she says. “And similarly with cricket, I have seen people taking leave from their jobs to watch a men’s cricket match, but they do not bother much about the women’s cricket match. So overall women in sports are neglected.”
Poulami still has hopes she can play professionally, with the proper support.
She doesn’t have the right international channels on her TV to follow all women’s football but she is a fan of American player Alex Morgan. She also loves Ronaldinho.
“In India, young women do not have the opportunity to make careers from sport, and it is even harder if you are from such an impoverished background as Poulami,” says Shanti Mullick, a former striker for the India women’s national football team. Mullick was the first woman footballer to receive India’s prestigious Arjuna Award.
“Poulami could have been a professional, if her circumstances had been different. I hope that her story spurs us to develop and invest in women’s football, so we do not have any more lost talent.”
On 7 January, the All India Football Federation released a road map called Vision 2047 with the goal of developing Indian football. Its 2026 target calls for more investment in women’s football, including providing a minimum salary to women’s players.
Poulami says that she hopes the vision will be realised.
“There are so many Poulamis around, struggling like me.”
Photographs by Sandip Roy