Just three words by gymnastic icon Nadia Comaneci have transformed the mood in the informal settlements across Hide Road and the coal berth at Garden Reach near the docks of Kolkata’s Kidderpore area.
A video of local kids Jashika Khan aka Lovely, 11, and Muhammad Azajuddin aka Ali, 12, doing flips and cartwheels began to be shared heavily by Indian social media users a week ago. But life for Khan, Azajuddin, their families and neighbours acquired a broad smile after five-time Olympic gold medallist Comaneci on August 29 tweeted the video declaring, “This is awesome.”
The next day, Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju announced on Twitter that he wanted to meet the children. It didn’t take long for television crews to roll down the lane. Since then, the children have spent a lot of time shuttling from one news studio to another.
Said Khan’s proud mother, Reshma Khatoon, “She must have some talent inside her that such big people are writing about her.”
The video that started it all was shot by the duo’s dance teacher Shekhar Rao. On August 21, he uploaded it to the Facebook and TikTok accounts of the dance academy he runs for underprivileged children. Four days later, it began to gain attention after it was tweeted by an Indian Administrative Service official named MV Rao.
The burst of attention has given the children’s families a new sense of hope.
Before the video, Jashika Khan and and Muhammad Azajuddin had been two of the many slum children in the area who were learning to dance at Shekhar Rao’s free classes. The parents of most students in his class are employed in the local coal berth, the tea warehouse, are sweepers or drive goods’ vehicles.
“I love teaching them because you never know the kind of talent that can come from here,” Rao said. “They have a lot of time to practice, but the downside is that many kids leave dancing and school and start working very early.”
To publicise his academy, 27-year-old Rao, who lives at the nearby BNR colony, frequently shoots videos of his students and shares them on social media. The Lovely-Ali video was no different, “made by sir for likes and followers”, Khan said.
But following attention by Comaneci, Rijiju, and West Bengal Sports Minister Laxmi Ratan Shukla, who met the children and their families during a shoot at a news channel, both want to quit dancing and become gymnasts.
“I want to follow gymnastics because it will make my parents proud, my teachers proud, my neighbourhood proud, and my country proud,” said Muhammad Azajuddin. He is the second of his parents four children. Both his parents are employed in the tea warehouse.
They live in a one-room house, as do Jashika Khan’s family, and nearly everyone else in these parts.
As for Khan, she said (after a slight nudge by her mother) that she wants to start learning gymnastics but added that she will “continue dancing little-little”. She is the middle daughter of three children. She started dance lessons inspired by her elder sister, also a student of Rao’s. While her mother Reshma Khatoon works as a tailor, their father, Taj Khan, drives a truck.
“Granted, my daughter learned all this from dancing, but maybe she has a god-gifted talent for gymnastics in her,” said Khatoon. “We had no idea who Nadia madam is, what she has done, but after her sir showed the videos, my daughter immediately said, I want to be like Nadia madam.”
Added Taj Khan: “If she can copy even a little bit of what Nadia has done, that will be a lot.”
Their teacher, Shekhar Rao, was encouraging of this idea. “Dance, for these kids, is a hobby, that keeps them occupied and out of trouble on the streets,” he said. “But unless it develops into a passion, it can’t be a career. Now they have a scope for gymnastics, so why not pursue it?”
The moves that the two show off in the viral video were something they copied off the internet, not from their dance class. “We kept getting complaints that these kids would somersault on the streets all the time,” Azajuddin’s mother said. Khan said that while she’d learnt the cartwheel in class, the aerial flip was something she’d taught herself.
Either way, over the past two weeks, the other students at Rao’s class have picked up the same moves and got busy showing them off on Tuesday morning.
The residents of Hide Road and the coal berth slums all seemed to have the same thought: “I hope all this leads to something,” said one neighbour after another.
Declared Azajuddin’s uncle, “This is the first time someone in our entire generation has made us so proud.” Said Khan’s father, Taj, “I hope, after this, no father thinks that a father of girls is a poor father.”
Her mother recalled how she had frequently been insulted for giving birth to three daughters. “But ultimately a girl alone has achieved what many boys cannot,” she said proudly. “Now everywhere I go, people call me Lovely’s mother.”
Both families are hoping that the media attention reaches the right quarters of the government, and they find financial assistance to train the children.
“Today, Ali had tea and biscuits for breakfast,” said Azajuddin’s uncle. “What he eats is basic chapati, dal, vegetables and rice. He needs proteins, good training, the right equipment, which we can never afford.”
The Lovely-Ali story was important to the locals for another reason as well.
The Hide Road slum as well the coal berth area contains hundreds of tiny homes that used to be filled with employees of the Kolkata Port Trust. These homes are now occupied by families with no connection to the Port Trust, the source of a prolonged legal dispute. Besides, these areas, residents complain, are ignored by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Their claims seem to be borne out by the piles of garbage in the streets.
“These politicians do not want anything good to happen to us,” a resident said. “Perhaps now they will give us attention.”
Not everyone is quite so optimistic that fortune is around the corner for the children. Back at their school, which Khan and Azajuddin haven’t attended for the last two days, a senior teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “Today, you make a big deal out of them. But tomorrow, you leave. Is there any guarantee that these kids will amount to anything? Or if they will even get assistance from the government? What’s worse is that now the parents have been influenced by all the attention.”
That’s something that hasn’t crossed the minds of the two stars of Kidderpore just yet. They and their families spent all of Monday in the offices of a news channel shooting a special till late evening, after which they were interviewed by five other channels till midnight. On Tuesday, representatives from other channels stood in line from the wee hours of the morning to get a hold of the two.
“Something like this happens once in a lifetime,” said their dance teacher Rao.