Khelshala: equals on and off the court11 September, 2016

After coaching Harvard’s finest squash players for a decade, Satinder Bajwa is helping kids in Chandigarh scale the walls of privilege.

Squash is one mesmerising sport to watch. I was reminded of that a couple of weeks ago as I stood above a court on which several kids were playing. “Several”, because this was a practice session, not a game. Two kids would play out a point, then the loser would join the tail of the line of waiting players, while the kid at the head would go to battle against the winner.

And I could have stood there for hours. (Actually, I did.) There were shots hit with resounding power, screaming to the back of the court. Some hit the front wall almost reluctantly, falling back and dying before a racquet could get to the ball. Others seemed to ricochet off every possible wall, criss-crossing the court at frightening speed.

The kids often stretched impossibly far for the ball, nearly doing a split but quickly bouncing back to chase the next shot. Sometimes they would back-pedal furiously as the ball followed a side wall all the way to the back; when it bounced off the back wall, they would quickly work their racquet under it and send it back into play. (A shot I always found hard to execute well when I played.)

And especially from a young man with a constant smile, there were occasional jaw-dropping changes of direction too: I would expect a shot hit straight at the front wall, but out of the blue he would flick his wrist and it would speed to the far corner, flummoxing not just me but his opponent as well.

Commonplace stuff for squash players and fans, I’m sure. Watching squash is like watching an endless parade of angles and stretches and touch and power and exquisite wristwork. And this afternoon, it was all on display, even with these kids who were still learning the game.

Kids, most of whom lived in the “village”—really a euphemism for a dusty, run-down section of town—called Attawa, in the middle of Chandigarh. In that sense, very far removed from the more typical squash kids you will find playing the game on more typical courts around the country.

That’s right: this is hardly your usual squash court. I was at Khelshala, the brainchild of Satinder Bajwa, who coached Harvard University’s squash teams for a decade (1999-2010).

After many years playing and coaching, he felt, like a lot of athletes do, the desire to “give back”. In his case, it turned out to be an effort to take an unlikely game to kids unlikely to ever see it played, let alone play it themselves. To give them access to the sport. That’s what makes this place different from other sports academies.

After his stint at Harvard, Bajwa built two courts in the basement of a four-storey building in Attawa that also houses a hotel. He and his volunteers then roamed the area, asking families to send their kids to learn this strange new game. To sweeten the deal, they promised to help the kids with their schoolwork and introduce them to yoga: both of which are now part of the Khelshala programme.

Khelshala’s director, Sujata Singh, explained all this to me that afternoon, as kids sat nearby in groups on the floor, working. One group sat just outside the squash court, arranged in front of a tall volunteer in shorts and a blue T-shirt who looked ready to play some squash himself.

“What is -10 - 35?” a girl in a “Mia San Mia” T-shirt asked, fazed as so many of us are by the strangeness of negative numbers. Two other girls helped her work it out. With later sums, the volunteer exclaimed: “Remember BODMAS! Remember BODMAS!”

Then they moved on to reading. Another girl stood up, said “Good afternoon, I am Payal from Khelshala!” and read from The Times of India about Sakshi Malik and her Olympic bronze medal.

After her, a Shalini read an item about Serena Williams, which prompted an animated discussion about the meaning of the word “seeding”.

After about an hour like this, the kids tuck their books into their bags and swarm all over a nearby cupboard, picking out shoes to wear. Somebody produces several squash racquets; the tall volunteer suddenly has one in his hand too.

As they flood excitedly onto the courts, I notice idly that the volunteer towers above everyone else, and from the first time he strikes the ball I can tell he has played a lot of squash. But height offers no advantage in this game. Today, several of the kids are quicker and sharper than him. That young man with the constant smile, in particular, seems to win every point the pair plays.

No yoga is scheduled for the day, and the squash stops suddenly, at precisely 5pm. Still in their shoes, the kids gather in the lobby and divide into three teams. It’s time for “seva”. They collect mops and brooms, washcloths and buckets of water, and everyone spends the next half hour cleaning up: toilets, floors, tabletops, staircase railings, the many framed photos on the walls, the squash courts themselves.

A girl is assigned the lobby, where a few dozen pairs of slippers and sandals are neatly lined up. She systematically picks up each one and wipes the floor underneath.

When seva is finished, several kids say their goodbyes and go home. But some stay on. They return to the courts for more practice, now a little more intense because there are fewer players.

As we watch, Sujata tells me that Khelshala has been sending their kids to local tournaments, and in fact will host one themselves soon. “They generally do well,” she says—and on a shelf behind us are several trophies to prove that—“but sometimes they lack confidence, you know? They get overawed by children from privileged backgrounds.”

No children like that here today, of course. But I notice on the wall a poster of two children playing the game, with these words printed across: “I play to make my point. I play to compete as an equal.”

The point of Khelshala, I think. The kind of point that, I can’t help thinking, may just produce many more Sakshis and Serenas.