Saturday, May 03, 2008

In troubled waters

Payal, a State swimming champ in a Bihar village, has potential but not means to compete at the national level; her equally talented cousin is missing after a Naxalite encounter.

Tough lap: Baby Kumari is seen practising at the filthy pond in her village.

On a hot day, Madhusudan Pandit, 42, a homoeopathy practitioner in Saraunjha village of Begusarai district in Bihar, blows his whistle as a command to his daughter Payal to take another lap in the river Balan. The 12-year-old is a State swimming champion in the under-19 category. As she practises her butterfly stroke, curious villagers stare at the girl clad in a swimming costume and swimming effortlessly. After an hour-long session of freestyle, back, breast and butterfly strokes, Payal is out of the water and ready to walk back home — about four km away — back to homework and household chores. While there is a pond, Kuranva Soti, near her house, she can no longer practise there because it is filthy and under dispute.

Payal’s is no ordinary story. Born into a lower middle-class family, she is one of the five children of Rajkumari and Madhusudan Pandit. Despite the odds, Payal is a three-time State swimming champion. She has participated in a number of national-level competitions in addition to the 24th Sub-Junior National Aquatic Championships 2007 held in Goa last year and the National Junior/Sub-Junior Aquathlon Championships in Pune in December 2005. She began swimming at the age of seven — egged on by a father determined to make his children excel at the sport. Even though Pandit found it difficult to cover costs, he tried his best to give his children, Payal and son Pratinidhi, whatever facilities he could afford — swimming gear, training equipment and the opportunity to participate in national-level competitions outside Bihar. Petitions to the district administration and the State government for assistance have fallen on deaf ears.

The result: Payal has not yet won a national-level competition. “Girls from other States are coached and learn techniques required to win. She doesn’t even have access to a swimming pool for practice. But if she gets the required facilities, I am sure she would do the State proud. I don’t have the finances to provide for her. But no one is interested,” says a dejected Pandit.

On a calendar

Baby Kumari

Ironically, Payal is a known face in the State. She, along with two girls from the Mallah community of her village — Savitri Kumari and Baby Kumari — were the stars in the UNICEF 2007 calendar. Despite this, there was no financial support forthcoming from any quarter. The trio simply remained poster girls creating a feeling of optimism and hope for the State even though not much was going their way.

But perhaps Payal is better off with her poverty, when pitted against her swimming cousins, Savitri and Baby, who now bear the consequences of their families’ Naxal leanings. Since March 28, Savitri, 14, has been on the run and is untraceable. Members of the Mallah community explain that the police are after her family. Her cousin Baby, 12, and her mother have also gone underground, even as Faudar Sahni, her father, is in jail in connection with a water tax-dispute case. In the March 28 encounter between the police and the Mallahs — who are believed to have given refuge to the Maoists — arms, ammunition and Naxal literature were seized from them, according to the SHO of Beerpur, P.S. Ram Dular Prasad. This resulted in the arrest of several people and the disappearance of many male members, who left behind women and children. However, Draupadi Devi, Baby’s mother, narrates a different tale. According to her, the police attacked and looted nearly 20 homes of her community after these families were wrongfully indicted by a bunch of criminals. The criminals had a vested interest in the Kuranva Soti pond, a source of fishing for the Mallah community and the swimming pool for the budding swimming champions. As a result of the recent turmoil, the sisters are no longer a household name. While once the villagers of Saraunjha had eagerly pooled in to send the girls for a national competition in Pune, today most families — including their mentor Pandit — don’t want to have anything to do with them. Baby has lost her aspirations to insurgency. A student of class VI and in the same school as Payal, Baby stood first in the 29th Bihar State Age-Group Aquatic Championship-2006 and the 30th Bihar State Senior Aquatic Championship-2007. She and her cousin have also participated in the National Junior/Aquathlon Championship 2006 in Bhopal, 24th Sub-Junior National Aquatic Championship 2007, the 53rd National School Championship (Aquatic) organised by Sports Authority of Gujarat in Surat and the 17th National Junior/Sub Junior Triathlon / Aquathlon Championship held at Porbander in January.
Dreaming on

Water babies of change for their community, the youngsters are now engulfed by a sinking feeling. Even as the glint of determination and visions of becoming the next Bula Choudhary — the first Asian swimmer to swim the English Channel twice — has not dimmed in their eyes, they know the ground reality is different, as when Payal’s father says, “I can’t afford it any more.” For her part, Baby wonders when she will hear from her father, who languishes in jail in connection with the very pond that had once raised her hopes.