In a quiet neighbourhood in Srinagar, over 100 youngsters have been training in the exotic sport of mallakhamb for months, hoping to escape from the perennial cycle of violence in the strife-torn state.
Four of them have already taken their first few steps towards redemption, if not glory, making it to the Khelo India Youth Games. They are thrilled beyond words, just to be here in Panchkula.
"We are so excited. We are all staying in a very nice hotel, have received beautiful track suits," 15 year-old Kaifa Shah, a petite shy girl, said.
She is, however, even more animated about the buzz back home. "My friends and other girls in our mohalla are envious of us. Many of them are talking already about taking up mallakhamb."
Kaifa Shah, Samia Shabeer (17), Shakir Shabeer (17) and Abran Farooq (18) are awestruck to see the facilities here. They are even more impressed by the sheer number of participants in their beloved sport and their high-performance levels.
The young in the troubled state are slowly realising that sport can open many more pleasanter doors for them. Interestingly, they are being drawn to indigenous games like mallakhamb.
All it needed for mallakhamb to travel to Kashmir was a trip to Rajasthan in 1998 by Mohammad Maqbool. He had gone there to learn wushu, a martial art from China. He saw a few athletes performing mallakhamb and decided that he wanted to take it up. He thought it could make him stronger, the organisers informed in a release on Thursday.
Maqbool pursued the art on his own as his coach, the only one who knew the sport, passed away soon after his return. Today, 24 years later, he is the joint secretary of the All-India Mallakhamb Association and the President of J&K Mallakhamb Association.
Seeing the enthusiasm of the likes of Maqbool, a Khelo India Centre was established in Srinagar in 2017. The number of trainees steadily rose, touching 100 last year. Several of them had already participated in national events. They are still waiting for their first big medal, though.
"Now we get proper equipment and easy access to good coaches. In Kashmir, we have very good wood but our people didn't know how to make poles for mallakhamb. Thanks to the Centre in Srinagar, we will soon make a mark at the national level," Maqbool confidently predicts.
Both girls, Kaifa and Samia, say they haven't faced any resistance to their participation in the game.
"Zaira Wasim left movies of her own calling. We are following our own. Nobody objects to what we do," Samia said, adding they wear skinners instead of shorts when they compete.
"It's not just about sport alone. It opens so many avenues for us. Mallakhamb is now recognized as a sport by the government. A medal in KIYG will get us a job or a seat in a good university," Shakir added.
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