In India, children with special needs who have a knack for playing cricket are cheered on by their mothers.
BEING disabled doesn’t have to be the big setback that it’s made out be – that’s what Manisha Kolte, a daily wage earner from Nagpur in Maharashtra, India, told her son, Nikhil, ever since the boy realised that he was "different" from the other children in his neighbourhood. Nikhil has been visually challenged since birth and his mother has been his biggest source of strength and his greatest supporter.
“When everyone in the family, including my husband and in-laws, had given up on my son after they came to know of his disability, I made up my mind to prove everyone wrong. There is nothing wrong with him, so why should he be written off without being given a chance?” says Kolte.
Despite the hardships, Kolte has “brought him up to think and be like a normal child. He may be studying in a special school which is equipped to provide him with quality education, but he is like any regular child. I know he will do well in life.”
Recently, Nikhil made his mother very proud when he padded up to play for a one-of-its-kind premier cricket league tournament for the visually impaired in his hometown.
“When he told me that he was participating in this special tournament, I was happy that he was going to successfully cross another barrier that this society has set for people like him. Playing cricket has further boosted his confidence.
“As a mother, I feel my prayers will bear fruit the day he is completely independent. Sometimes, I spend sleepless nights wondering whether he will be all alone once I am gone but I want to continue hoping for the best – and efforts like this cricket competition give courage to mothers like me,” she adds.
Setting up the Premier Cricket League for the visually impaired in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra is the brainchild of Amar Wasnik, a local social worker.
“I have been working with differently-abled men and women for the last 15 years. The whole idea behind initiating this tournament was not just to motivate the visually impaired but also to spread awareness amongst the general public about the challenges they face. If they can play cricket, they can do anything. But in order for them to be fully empowered, this society too has to be on their side,” says Wasnik.
While Wasnik’s efforts have found a staunch supporter in former Indian team fast bowler Prashant Vaidya, he is hoping that “later on, people from different parts of the country will also come out to promote such events.
“We are glad that youngsters from different parts of Vidarbha, including Amrawati, Akola, Hingna and Yavatmal, have participated this time around.”
The composition of the teams was also carefully thought out. Each team comprised 11 players: four were totally visually impaired – they wore cool black eye patches – four had 70% impaired vision and three had more than 40% impaired vision.”
Like Kolte, when Sundari Gajbhije, a school teacher, came to know that her son, Kaustubh, 14, was participating in the cricket league, she couldn’t contain her excitement.
“He was born with 80% visual impairment. I have seen him struggle with this disability, but he always emerges successful,” she observes with a smile.
Gajbhije, however, was not this positive at the beginning. As a mother, initially, it was heartbreaking for her to discover that her baby had this disability.
“I was so disheartened that I would try to forget about him or ignore him. It was my mother who made me understand how blessed I was to have Kaustubh in my life. Today, I understand what she was telling me all those years back. He is such a caring child and very sensitive to what I am thinking and feeling. He has learnt to face the adversities of life head-on, and I am leaving no stone unturned to ensure that he is able to fulfil his dreams and ambitions. Participating in the Premier Cricket League has been good for his morale and mine.”
To be match ready, players like Kaustubh and Nikhil got to practise their sweep shots at the pitch using a cricket ball that is larger than the standard size and is filled with ‘charras’ that make a lot of noise. During the games, which were held last year, Wasnik had gone all out to make the event as glamorous and fun-filled as its more famous counterpart, the Indian Premier League, or IPL, which attracts big bucks, the attention of the mainstream press as well as A-list celebs.
“We too had a live DJ and cheer leaders to pep up our players and pump up the spectators at the Narendra Nagar NIT grounds,” he says.
Besides Kolte and Gajbhije, cheering loudly from the stands was Sudha Gupte, who earns a living as a domestic help.
This was the first such tournament her son Ankit, 16, participated in.
“Our entire family is so happy and this feeling can’t be described in words. As far as we are concerned, he is the Sachin Tendulkar (aka India's 'God of Cricket') of our clan. My husband even bought him a pair of expensive sports shoes to make sure he was comfortable while playing,” says Gupte.
She feels what her son has achieved is quite inspirational. “My daughter, Sarita, who is 10 and has normal eyesight, now insists that she would like to play a sport. She wants to follow her brother’s example and be brilliant at whatever she does. I know that this tournament will lead to more and better opportunities for children like Ankit.”
But if Gupte can’t stop talking about her son’s talent, then her mother in-law and Ankit’s grandmother, Savitri Bai has some valid concerns for his future – and that of others like him.
“It is good that special children are getting chances like these to prove themselves. But I want ask – what happens to them after this? There is so much money being spent on well-known players, but who is bothered about these visually impaired children who are also playing good cricket?
“I think the government should step in to help them out so that they are not left in the lurch. What if Ankit doesn’t get adequate opportunities to hone his game further? He may get frustrated and disheartened with life. That is something I would never want for my own grandson or any other child,” she cautions.
In a country where the needs and aspirations of the disabled are often neglected, Savitri’s fears are valid. But as long as these youngsters have strong family members – who are usually their mothers – by their side, there will always be some hope for them. – Women’s Feature Service