In a tiny hamlet of Chandigarh lies a modern facility fitted with world-class squash courts and swanky fitness rooms. But it’s not merely a fitness and sport centre. There are classrooms, computers and children in there too. This is Khelshala and the children who practice squash here are driven, talented and from the poorest section of society.
Khelshala is the brainchild of Satinder Pal Bajwa, former coach, mentor and manager of eight-time squash world champion, Jansher Khan. Before founding Khelshala, Bajwa also led both the men’s and women’s varsity squash teams for 11 seasons at Harvard. With such an illustrious career behind him, one would expect Bajwa to have set up a training facility for professional squash players and world champions. But he set up Khelshala, and this incongruity fuels the heart of this venture.
Bajwa was born in India but moved to UK when he was 10 years old. He studied aeronautical engineering at the London Southall College of Technology but “retired” from his career as an engineer and moved to the US as a squash player. He went on to become a coach, and the rest is history.
We’ve all heard of expats who search for their roots in India with the intention of “giving something back to their country”. It’s as clichéd as it’s noble. Their aid though, is mostly financial or social – it’s the rare person who “gives back” with a hands-on approach. Bajwa – or “Baj”, as he’s known – is involved minutely and actively in his effort of “giving back” at the Khelshala. “Everyone talks about gender equality, caste equality and empowering the weaker sections of society. No one, though, uses sport to actually do it. Sport, in my opinion is the greatest leveler of all. As a kid in London, I was treated just like the rest of my peers because of my talent in sports,” says Baj. That thought is the foundation of Khelshala.
Khelshala is set up in the village of Attawa in Chandigarh, and the children who attend the programs there are from nearby slums and villages. Apart from squash, the kids are encouraged to focus on academics and other extra-curricular activities like yoga, too. In fact, squash is the carrot dangled in front of the kids to do better in academics. More time spent studying equals more time spent on the court. Through sport, the children are taught discipline and their time spent at the facility ensures that they learn about team spirit. They are assigned sewa tasks, taught hygiene, and they clean up the facility themselves.
Squash, naturally, is the focus at Khelshala, but for Bajwa, it’s just a way of empowering the kids to better their circumstances. “Squash is a rich man’s game. You need to book courts and you need memberships. These kids would never have had the chance at squash. What I’ve done here is put the kids in an entirely different network. Some have played at the state level, some are friends with other squash players who come from contrastingly affluent backgrounds – I even have kids who are friends with the Ambanis on Facebook. A new world has opened up to them – all because they play squash.”
So is a screening process used at Khelshala? “I’m a Sikh. In a gurdwara, all people are welcome to visit and sit at the langar. I’ve used the same idea for Khelshala. All children, regardless of race, community or gender, are welcome here,” Baj answers. Yes, they take in anyone who wants in but their soft selection process ensures that only the children who are willing to put in hard work in academics get to hit the squash courts. “The newcomers are required to focus on their studies in the first month. A lot of them drop out within 2-3 weeks, unwilling or unable to study. In the second month, we slowly introduce squash. And those who get to the third month are inducted into the full program.”
Apart from the lifetime sport of squash, the children also have regular yoga sessions. “The kids that come to us are not well nourished, and squash and tennis are hard, demanding games. They need downtime and a place to de-stress. And that’s where the yoga sessions come in. They’re also provided nutritional supplements and snacks to enable them to play to their full potential,” Bajwa explains
Khelshala is the level field where children are judged by their ability, willingness to learn, and the hard work they put in. It is like a key that is handed over to them to change their lives, provided they work hard enough at the lock. Their background ceases to matter once they step into Khelshala. And Bajwa can empathize with them. “I had been a stranger all my life. For 55 years I tried to fit into communities. I didn’t face racism or anything like that, but it always took effort to fit in and I was tired of it. That’s why instead of starting something similar in the US, I came back to my roots and started Khelshala here, where there was definitely more need for it. I’m home and I’m satisfied.”
According to Baj, squash is a way for the kids to leverage sport to get into good colleges – or as he puts it, Ivy League colleges. “One of our students, Priya Gupta,” he says proudly, “just got into the Young India Fellowship program at Ashoka University. She is the daughter of a garbage recycler.” That’s his latest achievement, he declares with a note of satisfaction. And then he bashfully adds that he’s also been nominated for a fellowship position by the Ashoka Foundation, which is a global organization that invests in social entrepreneurs and change-makers.
And Baj is a change-maker alright! Since 2010, when it was established, Khelshala has sent 50 students to play squash at the nationals and 100 to play at the state level. The children here are doing well academically and some are going on to attend college – something that would have been impossible otherwise. And all because of one man who decided to change his own life and change a hundred others in the process.
Coach Bajwa loves visitors. So if you’re ever in Chandigarh, do visit Khelshala and witness his efforts firsthand.
You can find out more about Khelshala here: http://www.khelshala.in/
Khelshala is a charitable institute and runs on trust funds and personal donations. If you would like to donate, you can check out the details here: http://www.khelshala.in/get_involved.php – donAte
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