People

Tale of hope & despair

Print edition : January 22, 2016

Suresh Shaw with his wares on a Kolkata pavement. Photo: ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

With his daughters Debika, a table tennis player, and Neha, a boxer. Photo: ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

At home with their medals and trophies. Photo: ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

A street hawker’s indomitable spirit informs his struggle to keep alive his daughters’ dreams of sporting glory.

NOT all stories of courage have to do with acts of heroism. There is another kind of courage which is dour and silent, which refuses to allow one to loosen one’s grasp on one’s dreams or accept defeat even in the face of the greatest adversity. Such tales lie buried in the sweat and toil of the common man’s life and rarely surface to the fore. Suresh Shaw’s is one such story.

Suresh (52) is a pavement hawker in Kolkata who sells car number plates and plastic covers for keeping vehicle papers. There was a time when he was a competent sportsman and played football in the second and third divisions—even first division once—and boxed at the old and reputed Bhowanipur Boxing Association. Poverty may have forced him to give up his dreams and take up his father’s trade on the pavement, but it could not destroy his spirit or diminish his love for sports. He was determined that his two daughters would not have to make the sacrifice that he had to.

Today Debika Shaw (19) and her younger sister, Neha (15), by sheer dint of merit are poised at a crucial juncture in their chosen sports. Debika, who is a national-level table tennis player, aspires to represent India by 2016, and Neha, a boxer, already represents West Bengal at the school level. For Suresh it has been an unimaginable struggle to come so far. With a monthly income of just about Rs.7,000 and the rising cost of sport equipment as his girls climb up the rungs in their respective sports, Suresh now is in a desperate struggle to keep his daughters’ aspirations alive.

“With this income it is so difficult. If only the girls could get a sponsor. But I am not willing to budge from this path. I will do whatever it takes. I will see this through to the end,” said Suresh. He still has the heart of a defender in a football field who simply cannot allow the opponent to get past him; or a boxer who just will not go down, no matter how hard he is hit.

In table tennis the quality of rubber on the two sides of the racket is a vital factor for any player. The ones that Debika uses cost Rs.3,500 each. At her level of competition, the rubber lasts for one tournament and then needs to be changed. For a player at Debika’s level, six or seven changes are called for, but she has to make do with only two. Another big expense is the wood of the racket, which costs around Rs.10,000 and needs to be changed every six months. It is practically impossible for Suresh to afford this, and so Debika has to play with the same wood year after year. In competitions she has to overcome the disadvantage that she is up against players with superior rackets. “During tournaments the sponsors give T-shirts and kitbags. But what we need is rubber and plywood. When I see the effort she puts in but cannot get the desired result because she does not have the necessary equipment, I feel helpless,” said Suresh.

His friends often step in to help out with money, but that cannot be a permanent solution. “I have opened an account for my daughters and insist that my friends pay in cheque. So they are assured that their money is not being used for any other purpose,” he said. Every week, at least four table tennis balls are required, each ball costing Rs.100. “My daughter does not even let me know when she needs balls. When I get to know, she says, ‘I know you can’t afford it’,” said Suresh.

In his youth, Suresh showed promise as a sportsman, particularly in football. He climbed up the various “divisions” and even emerged as a champion playing for Mohammedan Sporting Club in the third division in 1991. He remained with the club when it advanced to the second division. The high point of his footballing career was when he played one match for the Kalighat Milan Samiti, a first division club of Kolkata. “There was no money in sports at that time and my family absolutely needed me to earn. I had no one to guide me, and so I quit. But nothing has been able to diminish my love for sports,” he said.

In his daughters he found the same kind of aptitude for sport that he had, and he did not hesitate in grooming their talents. Debika started showing promise in table tennis from a very early age and caught the attention of the academy of the eminent table tennis coach Mihir Ghosh in Naihati in the neighbouring North 24 Paraganas district. Today she represents Haryana in table tennis and is currently ranked fifth in the State.

Suresh is his daughters’ biggest supporter and strictest coach. He not only oversees every aspect of their development, but also trains them himself. They can be seen every morning from before sunrise at Harish Park near Bhawanipur in Kolkata, going through the drills. He varies the training pattern so it does not get monotonous for the girls. Apart from the time between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when he conducts his trade on the pavement, his life is completely dedicated to the development of his children’s sports.

“I understand nothing other than sports. I could do little for myself, but I am going to do all I can for them. They are good girls. They know how hard I have to struggle and they always give their best despite all the adversities they have to face,” said Suresh. His immediate goal for his elder daughter is to get her to represent India by the end of 2016. Neha is already making a name in boxing in the sub-junior category in club tournaments and was selected for the National School Games held recently in Guwahati. The cruel irony in Suresh’s life is that with every passing day, as his daughters improve in their respective fields, it gets financially harder for him to keep going further. His pride in their achievements is accompanied by growing despair. What he desperately needs is a sponsor for them, and that is hard to come by. “As long as my daughters are fighting to keep their dreams alive, I’ll keep fighting harder and harder,” he said.

The aspirations and dreams of people like Suresh generally die young in the bitter struggle to survive. When one keeps the flame burning in spite of all odds, it becomes a story of the indomitable spirit of man that resists the destiny that his lot obliges him to follow. In all probability—unless financial aid comes his way—Suresh will lose this fight in the end. But as long as he is fighting, the dream lives on and there is hope.

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