By Sukant Deepak
During different hours of the day, Khelshala metamorphoses into diverse avatars. From a building with incessant sounds of squash balls, focussed academic classes to quiet Yoga sessions.
It has been a long journey home for Satinder Bajwa, former Director of Squash at Harvard University in the US and Manager and Mentor to perhaps the greatest squash player of all time Jansher Khan from Pakistan, who now runs ‘Khelshala’ for the underprivileged comprising wards of day workers, maids and recyclers hawkers in the community at a small village (Attawa) near Chandigarh and a Tennis academy for them at village Majra in Punjab.
No, the aim of the academy is not to produce world-class squash players, but engineer building blocks essential for overall development of children and families it supports by combining an elite sport and education. Those who join Khelshala, launched in 2009, not only go through rigorous training in squash/tennis but also complete their academic assignments at the academy where they are helped by the teachers employed specially for that purpose. “The pride of our program is a girl who studied with us for years and recently received the YIF (Young India Fellow) at Ashoka University. We are lucky to have touched the lives of over 300 children that have attended at one time or another with two being university graduates, seven attending and four students receiving full scholarships at prestigious schools in Chandigarh on account of their squash performance. Ninty-nine per cent of our children attend schools,” says Bajwa, whose academy follows the programme known as S.A.Y (Sport, Academics & Yoga ) that aims to embark upon further education — attaining a college degree or at the very least a vocational skill and charges a token amount of Rs 100.
Bajwa, an M.Tech degree holder, who left the country at the age of ten understand that only sports will not guarantee a great future. “Not everybody can be a champ. And my years at Harvard has enabled me to connect sport with academia.”
Considering the fact that kids love to play, he came up with the idea of a facility where they come after school and are helped with their school work and studies. “If they are regular, they then get the prize of having fun playing an elite sport that otherwise they would never have the chance to play,” he smiles.
However, setting up Khelshala, his way of giving back, was not as smooth as he thought. With no donors in sight, his wife and he decided to invest more than Rs two crore to build two squash courts in Attawa in 2009 and an equal number of tennis courts in Majra 2012. “Considering the academic performance of our students and five squash state champions that we have produced, I am optimistic that the model works. I just hope that schools and institutions will step forward in setting up similar programs for working class kids and their families,” says Bajwa about Khelshala whose Ambassador is India’s highest ever World ranked player (to 10) Saurav Ghosal, an Arjuna Awardee.
With five teachers, two coaches and volunteers, the ongoing lockdown does not seem to have slowed the pace of things here as teachers are providing online tutorials, coaches facilitating Zoom video workouts to keep the kids in shape and general staff busy in distributing dry food rations to children and their families. “In these unprecedented times, we are also donating masks, gloves, blood pressure apparatus and needle cutters to a dispensary located in Boothgarh village, where 97 Asha nurses serve over 123 villages, making home visits for child and family well-being.”