Seven years ago,10-year-old Vaishnavi Waghela was discovered by her mentor and local athletics coach Vitthal Shinde,running after kites along a sewage canal of one of the most notorious neighbourhoods in Bharuch.
From there on,he groomed her into Cheena – who went on to become the fastest woman state-level runner. Today,Vaishnavi is in the process of changing the lives of four children like her. The children,belonging to the Siddi community – a tribe of Africa that settled in Gujarat – spent their days running across the city and finally landing up at the Bharuch railway station,where they begged to take home bread on days that their father failed to get a rickshaw on rent to earn a living.
Vaishnavi,who would often see Rubina Siddi Badshah (12),Imran Siddi Badshah (15),Shirin Siddi Badshah (9) and Firoze Rafiq Badshah (9) sprinting across the sewage lines as she passed by their neighbourhood,decided to hone their running skills to championship levels.
After a six-month-long rigorous training,on Saturday,three of the four Siddi children won the Under-12 taluka-level running championship in the Bharuch leg of the ongoing Khel Mahakumbh.
While Rubina and Imran stood first,in their respective groups,clocking the 60-metre run in 11 seconds and 11.35 seconds respectively,Shirin stood second at 11.25 seconds in her category.
Vaishnavi says she couldnt be prouder. Every single day,I walk down the stony path from my home in the Dandia Bazar Lotwad Tekra area (notorious for bootlegging and conflicts over the daily share of the hooch) of Bharuch to the railway colony ground,where our group prepares for various championships. I would watch these children running very fast all over the place. I wanted to do something for them to give them a direction in life. I have been fortunate to have got a mentor like Vitthal Kaka who took me right up to the national level. You can say,I am just returning what I have got in my life, says the 17-year-old,who had overcome challenges to participate in the 44th National Cross Country race in Delhi in 2010.
When Vaishnavi first brought the four children to the railway ground for practice,they did not know the basics of running as a sport. I had to make them understand what it means to take position and how the steps have to be put forward,what body posture is best for running as well as the importance of a good warm up before breaking into a run on the track, she says.
That wasnt all. Imran,who had a physical disability and could not walk straight,has now begun running,thanks to the rigorous strengthening exercises. However,their original African body type is most suitable for athletics.
Vaishnavi says,I saw the shape of their legs and the body type. It is just like the athletes from Africa who are excellent runners. These children only need some push.
Shinde says,Where are the funds? The athletics federation has given us no help despite promises by politicians,organisers of various marathon runs who invite us and other personalities. We do not have basic track suits and running shoes for our children here. Most of them practice bare feet. At times,we are not able to make it to national championships because we do not have the money needed to register for participation and travel all the way to the event venue.
For the last six months since Vaishnavi initiated them into athletics,the four Siddi children have arrived at the ground for their morning and evening running practice,without fail. Shinde says,At times,they turn up and practice even on off-days. Their excitement to run championship races is very heart warming.
Rubina says,I want to become like Vaishnavi. She is doing a lot to help us go ahead in life.
Their tiny hut on the stony incline of Lotwad Tekra is home to 10 members. Fatima Siddi,grandmother of Rubina,Imran and Shirin,says,Our children have never got any direction in life. We have pinned our hopes on these children because their coach tells us they run very well.