MOHAMMAD RAFIQUE’S dream glide on the Dal Lake wasn’t the iconic shikara, floating along at a leisurely pace. It was the surging dragon boat — the 14-15 seater that is part of the Asian Games and popular among boat clubs in Jammu & Kashmir.
This year, however, the ripples under the dragon boats went silent after the state was placed under a lockdown following the government’s decision on Article 370. And, around 25 Kashmiris travelled all the way to Kerala to take their spots at the centre of the 100-seater chundan vallam (snake boat), forming the bulk of the Mighty Oars team of NCDC Kumarakom.
Over the next three months, as they raced in the backwaters of Alappuzha, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Thrissur and Kollam in the inaugural Champions Boat League (CBL), Rafique says those from the Valley found a semblance of normalcy far from their homes.
Pulling oars with the rest of their team on the boat ‘Devas’, to the rhythmic beats and chants unique to this sport, their efforts also tied in with Kerala Tourism’s maiden efforts to revitalise the renowned races.
The Speed Kings aren’t backing down that easy and they’re ready as ever to row their hearts out at the Champions Boat league. The new dates are set, the boats are prepped, and the oars are ready for action; are you?#championsboatleague #kerala #CBL @KeralaTourism @sachin_rt pic.twitter.com/C1XhHa3IJ3
— Champions Boat League (@cbl_kerala) August 27, 2019
“I really enjoyed going to Kerala because no one troubled us there. I’d like to thank them because, be it Hindu or Muslim or Christian, for three months they gave us a lot of izzat (respect),” says Rafique.
His team-mate Aijaz Ahmad Dar boasts that the Kashmiris now have several offers from other teams. “Because we have the best power, we can pull the boats sitting in the centre. Do ke barabar hum ek-ek hai (One of us is equal to two),” he chortles.
By the time of the last race on November 23 in Kollam, the bunch had made the centre spots, which need heavyweights to add wattage to the stroke, their own. “It was my best experience of travelling outside Kashmir, everything from the food to the polite way in which everyone spoke to us. Jaan bhi maang le yeh log toh de denge (I will give up my life for them, if they ask for it),” Dar gushes.
It was not easy, though. The versatile athletes, who dabble in dragon boat, canoe and even water polo back in J&K, struggled to adjust into the low-slung snake-boats as their backs hurt before easing into their roles.
For Rafique, who first travelled outside J&K five years ago for the Nationals in Assam, it felt like old times when his local Chinar Club would race against other boat clubs.
— Champions Boat League (@cbl_kerala) December 2, 2019
“Life has been very difficult in Kashmir and my family faced a lot of problems, especially with the sick struggling to reach hospitals. There were problems when we returned despite us wearing our team kit. But through this all, I found peace racing on the boat in Kerala,” says the man in his mid 20s, whose father worked at a kitchen in Ladakh till life went awry at the close of this summer.
Having taken a liking to the popular coconut-based stews of Kerala, Rafique now hopes he can return next season. “If the Almighty wills, and if I am alive, I would love to return. But no one knows what might happen in Kashmir,” he says.
Rafique’s Kerala stint tied in with a successful bid by Mandeep Malhotra, an ad-agency veteran with stints in Singapore, Shanghai, Mumbai and Melbourne, for a tender floated by the Kerala government to rejig the 53-year-old boat races.
Malhotra says he also aimed to better the lot of Kerala’s oarsmen. “Rs 2,000 and two bananas is all they made. The sport was dying a slow death and needed to become sustainable,” he says.
When broadcasters Star took on the property budgeted at an investment of Rs 40 crore, he says, the quaint community rowing activity morphed into India’s third-largest prize money league at Rs 5.9 crore, after cricket’s IPL and football’s ISL. Each race fetches the team Rs 4 lakh now, besides the winner’s cheques.
The 100-ft-long war boats are shaped like snakes with raised hoods, and put together without a single nail from carefully selected logs. “Each boat travels to a temple, church and mosque to seek blessings,” says Malhotra.
Initially, around 20 Kashmiris and Manipuris turned for trials ahead of the Nehru Trophy race in August at the snake boat hub of Alappuzha. “Passion has no boundaries, and there was no WhatsApp or Facebook group. But they found out about the teams being formed and came in large numbers, some even quitting their jobs,” Malhotra says.