Visitors from across Kashmir flocked to a ramshackle village along the banks of a stream in north Kashmir’s Bandipora, some 65 km from Srinagar city. The constant flood of visitors passed through a stony, dusty path to congratulate and know more about seven year old Tajamul Islam’s journey from dusty Bandipora to glitzy Rome.

Tajamul Islam, a resident of the neighbourhood, has become the talk of the town by winning the gold medal in the Under-8 World Kickboxing Championships, held in Italy. Sitting across a shelf, decorated with dozens of medals Tajamul has won so far, the child prodigy says little about her own hard work and is simply all thanks for her trainers, family, and the army that supported her.

Short but high spirited, Tajamul is no ordinary seven year old girl. Unlike most seven-year-olds, she is not afraid of opponents taller and stronger than her. “Kickboxing to me is as important as studies,” she said.

Kicking the blues away

Aspiring to become a doctor, Tajamul does not think twice before getting into a kickboxing bout with boys. “What is there to fear? Its a challenge,” she said. “My mother and aunts supported me. Papa thought maybe I would get hurt but I told him it’s okay. Then I got gold medal in a state and nationals. And today, international. They [parents] are happy.”

Her sharp reflexes on the field won her several medals and Tajamul shortly rose to prominence representing the Jammu and Kashmir at state and national level championships. She said that she was nervous while on plane to Italy but the support and prayers of family got her through. Italian food, seemed to be her only worry. “Breakfast was good but they made lunch and dinner raw. I am a Kashmiri, I need fried food...Pizza was an option but i don’t eat that,” she said. “I had to survive on eggs.”

At the championship in Italy, Tajamul won six rounds in five days, finally defeating her American opponent for the gold medal.

What went into the making of a champion was a strict training schedule that managed schooling as well and kept Tajamul on her toes. The daily routine involved getting up at 6 am to reach the town’s Sher-i-Kashmir Cricket Stadium in her school uniform. It was difficult in the beginning but the patience paid off. “I used to complain that i am tired and thirsty. But Sir [her coach] did not relent. Slowly my stamina increased and now I can train for 5 hours without feeling thirsty,” Tajamul said.

In a small corner of the stadium Tajamul trained, with others, for two hours before school and an hour after school. Prior to the world championship, Tajamul also won the gold medal at the National Kickboxing Championship held in New Delhi last year and was adjudged the best fighter of year in the state during a state level Wushu championship, held in Jammu.

Beating the odds

Apart from the society’s indifference to sports as career and the general association of it with boys, Kashmir’s conservative society frowns upon the thought of girls playing outdoor sports. Coach Faisal Ali Dar said that the valley “lacked exposure” when it comes to girls playing sports.

“Girls in Kashmir don’t get respect through sports. We will make them doctors and engineers, and even send them outside the state [for it]. But when we talk about sports we automatically assume the negative and say what will a girl do outside [abroad],” Dar said. “When you can make girls doctors, engineers, and scientists, why can’t she be a star player?”

A little more than a year ago Tajamul’s talent was spotted when instructors from Ali’s Sports Academy, run by coach Faisal, conducted workshops at her school, the Army Goodwill School in Bandipora. Coach Faisal said that Tajamul’s reflexes are strong and was “aggressive compared to other girls.”

Tajamul Islam with her siblings. Image credit: Rayan Naqash

Tajamul’s mother, Kulsuma Begum, however, supported her despite hardships. “Sometimes I would send her discreetly [for training],” Kulsuma said, pointing out Tajamul’s father, Ghulam Ahmad Lone, was reluctant at first. Tajamul’s elder brother and sister, however, were already enrolled in the academy.

The young athletes trained in a small patch of land, part of the stadium compound. A simple tinned shed, built by the army under Operation Sadhbhavana made for indoor training during rains. Faring well in the state and national level events, Tajamul was soon selected for the world championship in Italy.

However, Tajamul required sponsors as the cost to send her as the cost exceeded an amount of two lakh rupees. While the state kickboxing association president agreed to facilitate some amount, coach Faisal said, the rest had to be managed elsewhere. “I went to everyone, from politicians to members of the administration, but did not get a response. Since she studies in the Army School, I approached the army,” he said.

The army agreed to finance the expenses. The gesture is not lost on Tajamul and her family who repeatedly thanked the army for its support. “It [participating in the championship] could not have been possible if the army did not help. They paid for everything,” Tajamul said, while Ghulam Ahmad Lone was all praise for the Commanding Officer of the local Rashtriya Rifle unit.

As the current unrest in the valley began on July 8, the stadium remained shut for over three months stopping training activities for all trainees. Tajamul’s coach, Faisal Ali Dar, however, would not let the unrest be a hindrance in preparation for the championship. “I got her parents to allow her to stay at my home. That way all the concentration was on her. And she ultimately secured a gold,” Dar said.

The champion

Celebrations erupted as soon as the news emerged, Ghulam Ahmad Lone said. Upon her return, last Sunday, the neighbourhood erupted in a festive celebration as music blared through speakers through the night.

At the Army Goodwill School, Tajamul was greeted by classmates and teary eyed teachers at a function organised for her. Teachers thanked Tajamul for bringing home the gold medal. Garlands, as large as Tajamul, were placed around her neck. And later as she was carried on someone’s shoulder, her classmates chanted “champion” amid continuous applause.

Tajamul Islam had been felicitatedby the Chief of the Army Staff, General Dalbir Singh on November 16. Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, awarded Tajamul with a cash reward of one lakh rupees while the Governor of the state, NN Vohra, presented her with Rs 51,000. The Bandipora district administration on November 23 nominated Tajamul as the brand ambassador for the National Health Mission in the district.

Just the beginning

Ghulam Ahmad Lone works as a driver in a private company. “I work in a private company as a driver. I forego salary for the days I miss because i accompany Tajamul whenever she goes out of state,” he said.

As Tajamul continues to make the news and stories of success have reached far and wide, offers from reputed multinational companies for brand promotion have started pouring in. Ghulam Ahmad Lone said that though they have not accepted any offer, they were keeping their options open.

While her coach and the army have been supportive, the athletes still lack proper facilities. She is determined to continue her practice and also help train her younger sibling, Sabiha. “She jumps while kicking and looks down while punching...I will keep training and drive this habit away,” she said with confidence.

Though Tajamul said there lack of facilities was an impediment, the situation is also a factor. “I want to say to the PM saheb (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) that if he can find a solution to Kashmir problem there will be a thousand Tajamuls here.”

The gold medal at the world championships is a sideshow, Tajamul said. “This is just the beginning.”

Image credit: Rayan Naqash