Meet

Kashmir ki canoeist

Jaspreet Sahni | Updated on June 08, 2018

Reading the water: Bilquis Mir has nearly 300 athletes, most of them girls from Kashmir Valley, under her tutelage at Srinagar’s Water Sports Centre   -  THE HINDU/ DENNIS MARCUS MATHEW

Former India athlete Bilquis Mir will be the sole Indian on the judges panel for the upcoming Asian Games in Indonesia

It is summer time, and the Dal is bursting at the seams. Tourists have arrived and the shikaras are in business. From Nishat Bagh to Nehru Park lies the busiest stretch of Kashmir’s most famous lake. Beyond that, the traffic of canoes and kayaks shares the water space and the shikaras take a detour. Parked in the middle of this scene resembling rush-hour is a woman shouting instructions in Kashmiri. Young boys and girls adjust their manoeuvres accordingly: some re-grip their paddles, while others readjust their stance. “That’s more like it,” hollers Bilquis Mir, a water sports veteran and the sole Indian on the judges panel for the upcoming Asian Games in Indonesia (starting August 18).

The Water Sports Centre in Srinagar’s Nehru Park is second home for Bilquis, a former international canoeist and India coach, who now dreams of watching Indians competing at the Olympics. Seeing the nearly 300 athletes, most of them girls from the Valley, under her tutelage, it is clear that Bilquis is not building castles in the air. She, in fact, has thrown herself a dare in a region where the word ‘sportswoman’ is a misnomer and a country where water sports is far from popular.

Bilquis experienced societal disapproval first-hand as an 11-year-old budding canoeist.

“I broke down but did not fall apart,” she says. She had other reasons too. “We are three sisters. Somewhere I felt my family lamented not having a son. So I wanted to prove that girls too can achieve anything,” she says.

Upstream all the way

It was not easy, though. At an awareness camp in school, Bilquis was drawn to canoeing, but slipped into the water on her very first ride, and was saved by a life jacket. Her drenched clothes invited rebuke from her mother, Hameeda Banu. It was a strict ‘no’ from the family. But her resolve led to her bunking tuitions to receive basic training.

In the training waters the sixth-grader confronted yet another menace: male chauvinism. “Back then, a girl practising with boys was not considered good. I faced nasty comments and almost gave up,” the 33-year-old from Khanyar, in downtown Srinagar, recalls.

She managed to persevere against the hostility and, a month later, won a prize at a water sports event organised by Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) Police. That achievement turned her mother into a pillar of support.

It was a steady climb from then on. From 1998 to 2006, Bilquis represented her State at the nationals before touching a new high with her World Cup participation.

“I represented India at the 2009 MOL ICF Sprint Racing World Cup in Hungary. It was like breaking a water sports hoodoo in the country. There I realised that it’s not impossible to achieve my Olympic dream. That’s when I decided to give back to the sport by way of coaching,” she says.

That very year, Biliquis enrolled for a two-year international coaching diploma from Hungary and, at the end of it, she became the sole woman judge at the 2011 All-Africa Games.

A year earlier, in 2010, she had been appointed India coach and now has also been asked to take charge of the national camp in Kullu for the upcoming Asian Games.

National-level neglect

Over the years, she has put her coaching experience to good use in J&K, turning the sport into not just a source of pride but also livelihood for several youngsters.

“I got very little response (at the start). I used to visit houses and counsel parents. There was just one girl who used to come for training, and now the majority are girls,” she says with pride.

“We have produced over 500 canoeists and kayakers over the last two-three years, and 50 of them have got jobs after winning medals at the nationals. I didn’t get much support during my playing days but now the J&K government is taking water sports seriously. We have world-class equipment — Olympic and world-championship level — which doesn’t come cheap. The minimum cost of a boat is ₹2 lakh and a paddle costs between ₹40,000 and ₹50,000,” she explains.

She, however, laments the lack of support at the national level. Canoeing and kayaking offer 16 gold-medal events (12 in sprint and four in slalom) at the Olympics. It’s mystifying that in a country with an abundance of flat and wild water bodies, the sport receives little attention at the national level.

Tellingly, the School National Games and the recently concluded Khelo India Games did not include water sports.

“Why are we ignoring an Olympic event from these games?” Bilquis asks looking perpelexed, before excusing herself, as she was getting late for iftar (the evening meal to break fast during Ramzan).

Jaspreet Sahni is a freelance sports writer based in New Delhi

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Published on June 08, 2018
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