Stars waiting to shine

Payal Pandit and her cousins Savitri and Baby are swimming champions in the under-19 category from Bihar’s Begusarai district. But poverty and Naxalite politics have prevented their rise to stardom, writes Manisha Prakash

Baby Kumari (12) at the pond in her village, where she practices swimming
Baby Kumari (12) at the pond in her village, where she practices swimming. — Photo by Manisha Prakash/WFS

ON a hot summer day, Madhusudan Pandit (42), a homoeopathy practitioner in Saraunjha village of Begusarai district in Bihar, blows his whistle as a command to Payal, his daughter, to take another lap in the river Balan. Meet Payal Pandit (12), a state swimming champion in the under-19 category. As she practices her butterfly stroke, curious villagers stare at this girl, clad in a swimming costume moving ahead effortlessly in the water. After an hour-long session of free style, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly stroke, Payal is out of the water, and in no time changes her clothes and is ready to walk back home—about 4 km away— back to homework and household chores. While there is a pond—Kuranva Soti—near her home, she can no longer practice there because it is filthy and under dispute.

Payal's tale is no ordinary story. Born into a lower middle-class family, she is one of the five children of Rajkumari and Madhusudan Pandit. Despite the odds, Payal is a three-time state swimming champion. She has participated in a number of national-level competitions in addition to the 24th sub junior national aquatic championships, 2007, held in Goa and the national junior/sub junior championships in Pune earlier. Payal began swimming at the age of seven—egged on by a father determined to make his children excel at the sport. Even though Pandit found it difficult to cover costs, he tried his best to give his eldest two, Payal and son Pratinidhi, whatever facilities he could afford—swimming gear, training equipment and the opportunity to travel to national-level competitions beyond Bihar.

Petitions to the district administration and the state government for assistance have fallen on deaf ears. The result? Payal has not yet won a national-level competition. "Girls from other states are coached and learn techniques required to win. Payal doesn't even have access to a swimming pool for practice. But if she gets the required facilities, I am sure she would do the state proud. I don't have the finances to provide for her. But no one is interested," says a hapless father.

Ironically, Payal is a known face in the state. She, along with two girls from the Mallah community of her village, Savitri Kumari and Baby Kumari, was the star in the UNICEF calendar last year. The Mallah community is a lower caste fishermen's community found in states such as Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Despite the star status, there was no financial support forthcoming from any quarter. The trio simply remained poster girls—creating a feeling of optimism and hope for the state—even though not much was going for them.

But perhaps Payal is better of with her poverty when pitted against her swimming cousins, Savitri and Baby, who now bear the consequences of their families' Naxal leanings. Savitri (14) has been on the run and is untraceable. Members of the Mallah community explain that the police are after her family. Her cousin Baby (12) and her mother have also gone underground, even as Faudar Sahni, her father, is in jail in connection with the Kuranva water tax dispute case. Faudar Sahni was one of the 17 accused in the Kuranva water dispute case. The person who has been granted the fishing rights of the pond had accused that Sahni and 16 others were illegally fishing in the pond and they had also resorted to violence.

In an encounter between the police and the Mallahs—who are believed to have given refuge to Maoists—arms, ammunition and Naxal literature were seized from them, according to SHO of Beerpur P.S. Ram Dular Prasad. This resulted in the arrest of several people and the disappearance of many male members with largely only women and children being left behind in the village. Some policemen were also injured in the crossfire, explained Prasad.

Maoists/Naxals are part of the underground revolutionary group—the Communist Party of India (Maoist)—formed with the merger of two prominent Naxalite outfits, the People's War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre. Labelled as terrorist outfits by the government, the Maoist outfit conducts guerrilla warfare and is currently active in Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and tribal-dominated areas in the borderlands of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Orissa.

Insurgents garner support mainly through violence, while some in the hinterland view them as champions of the poor. However, Draupadi Devi, Baby's mother, narrates a different tale. According to her, the police attacked and looted nearly 20 homes of her community after these families were wrongfully indicted by a bunch of criminals. The criminals had a vested interest in the Kuranva Soti pond, a source of fishing for the Mallah community and the swimming pool for the budding swimming champions. As a result of the recent turmoil, the sisters are no longer a household name.

While once the villagers of Saraunjha had eagerly pooled in to send the girls for a national competition in Pune, today most families—including their mentor Pandit—don't want to have anything to do with them. Baby seems to be losing her hopes to insurgency and certainly not because of an absence of talent. A student of class VI—in the same school as Payal—Baby stood first in the XXIX Bihar state age group aquatic championship and the 30th Bihar state senior aquatic championship.

Water babies of change for their community, the youngsters are now engulfed by a sinking feeling. Though the glint of determination and vision of becoming the next Bula Choudhary— the first Asian swimmer to swim the English Channel twice—has not disappeared from their eyes, the consistent lack of facilities quietly pulls at their hearts. So while Payal hasn't given up her dream of crossing the Channel, she hears the harsh voice of reality when her dejected father says: "I can't afford it any more."

On her part, Baby wonders when she will get to hear from her father, who languishes in jail in connection with the very pond that once made her buoyant with hope. Remove the poverty and political tangles and these 'star girls' have shown that they can make a mark for themselves and stay neck-and-neck with the more privileged of society. Perhaps, it's time society took the plunge for them. — WFS