Khelshala – Chandigarh29 December, 2015

It was hard not to carry a lot of preconceptions to India; predictably, reality made most misconceptions. The attention I got from Indian children everywhere was one happy exception. At Khelshala in Chandigarh, I told the children sitting before me how much I admired the aspect of Indian culture that brings children to revere the friend that is good in arithmetic, mathematics and science, rather than treating them as nerds. And, there with me was a living example – my squash friend, Raghu, who grew up in Chandigarh, did well in math and science, and was now a Ph.D. student in physics at Stanford University in California, where we play squash together.

Khelshala means place of play; khel means play and shala means place in Hindi. It was born of the effort of one Satinder Bajwa, who grew up in India and now splits his time between London and his home country. “Baj” as he is known by his former student athletes at Harvard, Bowden and several other places where he was a squash coach, believes that sports are activities around which young people and communities can be nurtured and developed.

Two squash courts, one single and one doubles court, are the heart of Khelshala. Nine to 11-year-olds from poor neighborhoods come to the building owned and refurbished by Baj and another family member. They take instructions in math, science and language – sort of extra help afterschool (not quite the one-on-one rich, already-advantaged kids all seem to be signed up for these days here at home). Later in the afternoon, the kids go to the doubles court for conditioning exercises and squash drills. The singles court has matches ongoing throughout the afternoon. The facilities are available for hirer to local residents, but are shunned unfairly by the all too status-conscious Indians of means. Too bad.

In existence since 2009, Khelshala is now producing results. Kids are finishing high school, going off to college and some have competed at regional and national-level squash tournaments and Won! This past September, around the time of the Annual NetSuite Open Squash Tournament held in San Francisco, four of the top 20 squash players in the world put on an exhibition match at the Stanford courts to benefit Khelshala. I bought half a table for three colleagues and myself. Dinner tables set up around the glass exhibition-court centerpiece. The squash was fabulous and dinner eaten as close as one could be to the courts. Between matches, Baj gave a slideshow of Khelshala and I realized I would be nearby in December on a business trip. Baj and I decided to connect when I was there. Pity that on my visit day, I was too sick to play, but my friend Raghu, who happened to be at his home for the holidays, came to Khelshala that afternoon – the kids ran him ragged. Baj, Raghu and I had time to talk and hear the stories underlying this worthwhile and successful initiative. Another visit for me seems likely.