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Little champion

Children dance at the Special Olympics World Games Opening Ceremony at Los Angeles. Photo: AFP

Children dance at the Special Olympics World Games Opening Ceremony at Los Angeles. Photo: AFP  

With 6,500 participating athletes from 177 countries, it was probably the world’s largest international sports event. And in some ways the most inspiring, because every participant was intellectually challenged — battling stigma. The Indian contingent returned from the 2015 Special Olympics World Games at Los Angeles with 173 medals: the biggest medal haul after the United States and China. But we barely noticed.

Among those who made India proud was Pooja Raju. She won three medals: a gold for the relay race, and silvers for 100 and 200 metre sprints. Pooja is 15, with a ready, captivating smile that lights up her face.

Born in a village in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, Pooja’s dominant childhood memories are of abusive parents. Her mother, a domestic help, thrashed her continuously. She does not remember why — maybe for low school grades or for childish pranks. She recalls her father, a tailor, punishing her by suspending her from the ceiling fan. She neither understands nor can explain their unremitting cruelty. But around the age of eight, she decided to run away. Without a rupee, she mounted a bus to Etawah, and from there a train to Delhi.

At Old Delhi railway station, people gave her food. Eventually she found her way to a street child drop-in shelter run by an NGO. Her speech was halting: she incomprehensibly explained her predicament to the rescue workers, who handed her to the police. Her memories of policemen are of kindness. They fed her and offered to look for her parents. But she was determined not to return home. Presented to the Child Welfare Committee, she was sent ultimately to Kilkari, a residential school near Kashmiri Gate for homeless girls, run by my colleagues in Aman Biradari.

Pooja’s sunny temperament helped her settle into Kilkari effortlessly, and she quickly made friends. But the teachers at Aman Biradari found her unable to read, write and speak articulately. The counsellor tested her, concluding that she was intellectually challenged, and therefore in need of special schooling.

A long search ended with a magnificent organisation Amar Jyoti, offering holistic and inclusive education for children with a wide range of physical and mental challenges. It was a long distance away, in Karkardooma, but the Kilkari team hired a reliable auto-rickshaw to transport the children to Amar Jyoti every day.

Pooja blossomed in Amar Jyoti. Her speech cleared, she discovered a love for dancing. But her real talent turned out to be in sports. “I enjoy carrom and badminton,” she said. “But it is in running that I like to win.” The school enrolled her for state level and then national special sports events, and she trounced her competition effortlessly in all of these.

Recruited into the national Indian team, she underwent a flurry of training camps in many cities that culminated in her being selected to represent India in the Special Olympics. Getting her a passport was a challenge, with regard to documentation, but help came from every corner.

She enjoyed her first flight, but was disappointed that she did not get a window seat. She loved everything about the United States, she said, except the food, and that people wore clothes that were too short! She made friends with a Chinese girl, but forgot to ask her name.

Back in India, planning her celebration with her, she was very clear what she wanted — drummers with dholaks similar to the ones who received the victorious contingent at Delhi’s airport. And momos. It was a deal.

As we waited for the drummers to arrive, I asked if she would like us to now look for her parents. But she was firm that she never wanted to see them in her lifetime. As we were speaking, the loud beat of the drummers could be heard, and she ran happily outside.

It was raining heavily that afternoon. The hostel was flooded. But nothing could dampen the excitement of Pooja and her friends. As I watched them dance feverishly in the slush and rain, interrupted briefly by steaming momos — Pooja the beaming centre of attraction — I felt that somewhere, something was quite right.

Harsh Mander is a former officer with the Indian Administrative Service, an activist, and author.

The views expressed here are personal.

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 6:14:27 PM |

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