This report is the fifth of a 12-part series on the changing face of the Indian slum, chronicling stories of new social and economic trends in our impoverished neighbourhoods
In the flickering evening lights, Sneha Shah climbs onto the boxing ring, barely reaching up to the ropes. Slightly built but determined, she says, “I will hit very hard.”
Sneha is one of the many girls who participated in the recently held inter-school boxing tournament in the Kolkata Port area organised by the Kidderpore School of Physical Culture, a club that has been giving boxing lessons to children from the Kidderpore-Ekbalpur slum.
Amid the narrow alleys winding past the mosques, slums huddle next to high rises. Urdu-speaking Muslims who run small enterprises for a living are in a majority in the Kidderpore-Ekbalpore area, located along the central-west part of the city. Unemployment rates are high here as boys and girls drop out of school early. Many cannot afford higher education, and boxing presents an opportunity to escape, if only for a few hours, from the harsh realities of life, bringing with it medals and promise of glory.
Minutes later, Sneha is beaten by an opponent much bigger and older than her, but defeat does not rob her of the joy of participating. “It does not matter that I have lost. I just love to box,” she says with a wide grin. The third of six siblings, the 10-year-old Class IV student in a local school has been practising boxing for a year. Sneha’s father works in a grocery shop, and she gets to eat only what her other siblings get, despite the demands of boxing.
Of limited means
Mahvish Halim, 12, who lives on Mission Dent Road in a crammed one-room apartment, was her opponent in the ring. Despite the limited means, the Halim family has been harbouring a dream for the past one year, ever since the youngest daughter in the family started attending boxing classes — to see Mahvish emerge as a national-level boxer.
At the Kidderpore School of Physical Culture, there are many young faces like Sneha and Mahvish chasing dreams and training with uninhibited joy.
Taranumm Parveen, who lives in the same slum, joined the boxing club only four months ago. She used to hang around outside, never mustering the courage to enter the club. She was finally spotted by Mehrajuddin Ahmed, the coach of the club, whom everyone calls China Da. He asked her if she would like to train in boxing.
“We charge only a nominal fee of Rs. 30 a month for children and Rs. 50 for seniors. She cannot afford even that. But this girl has got some courage,” Mr. Ahmed says.
“I want to be like Mary Kom,” the 11-year-old daughter of an electrician says, as others girls around break into a fit of giggles. The club, which has been functioning at the corner of Nawab Ali Park and is surrounded by slums, has 180 boys and girls. It has been only a few years since it started attracting girls. Three years ago, the club did not have more than 10 girls. Now the number has increased to 33, Mr. Ahmed says.
Aditi Gond, whose father, Arvind Kumar Gond, is a boxer, says that boxing helps in self-defence. “I can take on any boy my age,” she says. Girls like Aditi train at the club from 4.30 to 7 every evening.
For Mehrajuddin Ahmed, 49, an accomplished boxer, this is more than a club; it is an institution which gives wings to the dreams of teenagers. “A boxing glove costs Rs. 1,500. Many here cannot afford this. But still when they see the ring, they dream. In the slum, there are very few opportunities and you know an idle mind is the devil’s workshop,” Mr. Ahmed says.
He is full of stories of how young boys from the club have represented the State at national events, and how the sport has helped them get jobs in State and Central institutions. Among the achievers from the club is the 2002 Commonwealth gold medallist Mohammad Ali Qamar. Mr. Ahmed says the club team has been getting medals at the junior and sub-junior levels more or less every year since the 1990s.
“I don’t allow children to take to boxing if they don’t attend school. I keep threatening to shave their heads if they fail in class,” the coach says.
Mr. Ahmed introduces Arsad Ali Khan, 23, who has won silver at the senior national level, ending a 16-year wait for West Bengal. “I desperately need a job to continue with the sport,” Mr. Khan says.