Two slum children from Kolkata seek glory in World Dragonboat C'ships
Kolkata: Two young aspiring rowers from a slum area here, Afridi Ali and Rejayan Karim have been named in the junior India team for the upcoming 14th World Dragonboat Championships in Pattaya from August 20-25.
Hailing from the slums of Rajarhat-Newton area in the eastern suburbs of the city, the duo were among the 10-odd boys who were handpicked by the Bengal Watersports Federation during the state kayaking championship four years ago.
Till then, they were doing some small jobs like helping out visitors for kayaking or guarding the gate at the New Town Eco Park, a major tourist destination of the city.
"They all looked strong, both physically and mentally. But they were poverty-stricken and were ready to do anything for a full square meal," founder of Bengal Watersports Federation Shakil Ahmed told PTI.
They started winning against many established rowers from the senior category as Ahmed, who is also a Bengal rowing coach, decided to take them under his wings at the Lake Club.
Initially, they were little hesitant to take up rowing on a full time basis as it would render them jobless which their families could ill-afford.
"I spoke to their families individually and told them that I would take after their daily needs. Of all of them, Afridi's condition was worse so I decided to keep him at my house and since then he's with me like a family member," Shakil, a gold medallist in the Asia Cup 2 Rowing Championships in Singapore 2016, said.
The duo began a success story not only for themselves but for their little known Jatragachi Pranabananda High School which has won the junior titles three years on the trot in the All-India School Regatta, ending the dominance of the elite schools.
"They (the rowers) have been an inspiration for the entire school. Now many from the school wants to become a rower. We have recently feliciated them," principal of Jatragachi Pranabananda High School Ashish Chatterjee said.
Close to 20 rowers from the school has followed the footsteps of Ali and Karim.
Their day starts as early as 4.30am as all of them catch a bus from New Town to Ravindra Sarovar lake -- a ride that takes more than an hour.
"We reach the lake by 6.630am, do our training, have breakfast and go to school by 12 noon. Our school has been cooperating with us since we have started winning," Karim said, excited to represent India for the first time.
"There were rowers from La Martiniere For Boys, South Point, St Thomas and many other top schools. They all speak in English and come in swanky cars. They did not like us initially as we had started beating them but after a year or so we become good friends. We talk and chat with them regularly," Karim said.
The 38-member India team also has three rowers from the La Martiniere For Boys, and one each from South Point and St Thomas. The team, in three categories of Under-18, Under-24 and Open, will have a camp at the Lake Club before flying off to Thailand.
Dragonboat is part of the canoe sport which featured in the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta-Palembang.