Heartwarming, extraordinary stories of 10 disabled athletes

By Shilpa Raina
New Delhi, April 23 (IANS):
Not much has been written or is known about disabled sportspersons who have brought accolades to the country by winning several medals, but a book sheds light on their various struggles, their darkest phases and a life beyond the ordinary.

These star athletes are living a life of oblivion. Documenting their life's journey, where some of them even gave up on life and tried to commit suicide, is Sanjay Sharma, a former national badminton champion and coach and his daughter Medini Sharma in the book "Courage Beyond Compare" (Rupa, Rs. 295).

Ten incredible stories are featured in this 258-page book. All paint a mixed picture of everyday challenges disabled people face on India street, discrimination by their peers, and their 'weak moments' when some of them survived suicide.

As former All-England champion Prakash Padukone says in the foreword: "This book is a treasure. I recommend it wholeheartedly and hope the entire country will read and learn something from the legends who are chronicled here. I, for one, feel humbled after reading every story. I hope that I have learnt something from each one of these heroes. If I imbibe even an iota of their greatness, I will become a better person. And so will each and every reader who lays his or her hand on this incredible book."

"I have written their stories not to just bring out their incredible stories to the public but to push people to ask ourselves why is society not bothered about disabled people in general," Sanjay Shama told IANS in an interview.

"We need to ask ourselves when there are so many disabled people in our country, why don't we see them on roads? It is because there is no infrastructure," he added.

The government's apathy towards disabled people is mirrored by the fact that a bill to increase their quota in the government jobs from 3-5 percent was introduced in the Rajya Sabha during the winter session of parliament but could not be passed due to objections from rights groups that it was not adequate and due to disruptions caused by issues like the creation of a separate Telangana state. Hopefully, it will be taken up by the new government that takes over once the results of the general elections are declared.

The book features athletes from different fields: Rajeev Bagga, deaf and mute, is a badminton champion and has won 16 gold medals in four Deaf Olympiads in 16 years; Rajaram Ghag, afflicted with polio, went on to cross the English Channel and the treacherous Strait of Gibraltar; Devendra Jhajharia, a one-armed javelin thrower who won gold medal in the 2004 Summer Paralympics in Athens ; and cricketer Mansoor Ali Khan 'Tiger' Pataudi, who was blind in one eye, amongst many others.

While disabled-friendly infrastructure seems nowhere on the government's agenda, the stories of these athletes narrate how difficult it is for them to board a train or go to a toilet in a moving train.

Perhaps the pain and agony can be felt only after reading these stories that represent the state of the disabled in India.

"We handicapped, or differently-abled athletes as you say, are treated with so much respect abroad. In India it is torture from the time you land at the airport. There is much sympathy and society looks after all your needs abroad; here life is a struggle most of the times," Taranath Shenoy, an international swimmer and deaf-mute with vision only in one eye, told the author.

Sharma says what he realised after meeting these sportspersons was the fear many disabled people had to come out on the streets.

"I feel society should have a mirror in front of it to understand that a disabled person demands more than just a helping hand," said the 57-year-old.

For Sharma, who has also written the biography "Pullela Gopi Chand: The World Beneath His Feat", on India's only other All-England champion, the book happened by sheer chance when he attended a championship for the disabled and was awed by the indomitable will of the participants.

"Initially I wanted to make a documentary. But then I realised it would be wonderful to chronicle their incredible life journey," he said, adding it took him a year and many personal visits to some of the athletes who weren't ready to share their stories.

"There were many who were extremely emotional for them to relive their trauma. In such extreme cases, I had to gain their confidence and only then did they open up," Sharma added.


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