Michael Holding in his groundbreaking book, “Why We Kneel, How We Rise” has lamented about the lack of role models among the coloured youth; especially African Americans and in general Africans across the world. A part of the reason, he explains, is the blatant distortion of history triggered by white historians smacking racism. However, the modern world has no dearth of role models across demographics, religion, sport, industry, art or any other sphere. But are we, unbeknownst to us, distorting the values or perhaps on most occasions consciously encouraging role models who do not deserve to be one? Switch on the television and you come across Ajay Devgan and Shah Rukh peddling a harmful product in Vimal Pan Masala; or Harbhajan Singh encouraging online rummy in spite of knowing the addictive nature of it. What is worrying is to see Pankaj Advani and Mahesh Bhupathi also promoting rummy to be enjoyed online. All these gentlemen are icons and role models to the youth but do they deserve that position especially when money is driving them to accept commercials which go against the grain of all that they stood for. But at the same time, we have Akshay Kumar refusing to advertise for cigarettes and the fitness fanatic Virat Kohli refusing to promote aerated beverages. Virat became the first cricketer to have more than 150 million followers.
Sadly, these days glamour, money, glitz and a shallow mindset score over values and ethics. No wonder someone like Kim Kardashian has 253 million followers on Instagram. It is appalling to see people who dish out pathetic and flippant “reels” on social media have followers in the millions. It reeks of Intellectual bankruptcy. The home page of NDTV.com, India’s premier news agency is a reflection of this mediocrity and lack of depth in the quality of news. I think a time has come for each one of us to reflect on who we support or follow on social media.
It is time we pause, ponder and re-evaluate the role models we encourage. It’s our nudging that sets the cascading effect which encourages these frivolous characters. There are plenty of role models with a strong character, demeanour and an inspiring story for us to embrace and get inspired. We could start with the Indian Paralympians who in spite of their tremendous disadvantage made us proud with their winning performance at the Tokyo Olympics. Each Paralympian, not just those who won a medal, have a gut wrenching story which will give all our miseries the required perspective. Our worries are trivial compared to what these para-athletes have had to endure. Let me share a few stories for all of us to marvel and applaud. Stories of skill, grit and gumption.
Nishad Kumar, a twenty one year old high jumper in the T47 para athletics category won us a silver medal. Nishad comes from a family of farmers and it was while using a grass cutting machine at his family farm that he lost his right hand. He was eight years old then. Until 2017, he used to compete with able bodied athletes and gave them a run for their money.
Then you have Avani Lekhara, a 19 year old girl who, along with Singhraj Adana, created history by winning two individual medals at Tokyo. She was paralysed waist down in a car accident that happened in 2012. She was so angry and distraught at the injustice life had meted out to her that her father took her to a shooting range in order to offer her some distraction. Instead she used all her anger to develop superior shooting skills, inspired by what Abhinav Bindra had achieved and then went on to win a gold medal in the 10m air rifle and a bronze in the 50m air rifle at Tokyo.
Vinod Kumar’s story is one of resilience, a burning desire to fight all odds and succeed. He won a bronze medal in the discus throw, para category F52, is ranked no.6 in the world and had a promising career when he started with the BSF almost two decades ago. But in a tragic twist of fate, he fell off a cliff while on duty in Leh which rendered both his legs useless. He was bed ridden for ten years and through sheer will power and with his family’s support, pushed himself to start training for the Rio Paralympics. Since then, he has won several championships and finally achieved his dream of winning an Olympic medal.
Harvinder Singh, who is 30 years old, comes from a family of farmers. He fell ill due to dengue when he was a year and a half. Wrong medication led to both his legs not functioning. He took up archery after watching the 2012 London Olympics on TV, started training on his farm which his dad converted into an archery range and through pain and hard work won a bronze at Tokyo in the para archery’s men’s recurve open individual event. And on top of this stupendous athletic achievement, he is also pursuing a PhD in economics from Punjab University.
Manish Narwal, a nineteen year old shooter and an Arjuna awardee won a gold medal in the 50m free pistol event. All this with his left hand since his natural right hand has congenital impairment.
Pramod Bhagat is another outstanding athlete. An Arjuna awardee, he is the world’s no.1 ranked player in the SL3 para badminton category. Suffering from polio since he was 5 years old, inadequate treatment caused further deformity in his leg. Fatherless and supported by his mother who also had to look after his five siblings, Pramod started playing the game beating able bodied players. He had to work at a young age to support his mother and in spite of such a difficult life, worked his way to win a gold medal in his category defeating a much younger British player. On the podium he was flanked by Manoj Sarkar who won the bronze. Badminton gave us four medals with Krishna Nagar who suffers from short stature impairment winning gold in the SH6 category and Suhas Yathiraj winning a silver in the SL4 category. Suhas is no ordinary athlete; he is also an IAS officer who is serving as a District Magistrate. His congenital deformity in one of his legs was no deterrent to scale such inspirational heights.
Then we have the legends and veterans of multiple Paralympic games – Firstly Devendra Jhajharia who at 41 won a silver medal in the F46 javelin throw category after having won gold medals at Athens in 2004 and at Rio. Much before Neeraj Chopra, India had a hero in track and field but a pity that hardly anyone was aware. And Devendra does not have an arm having lost it due to electrocution when he was a child. Then there is Mariyappan Thangavelu at 26 years old, who won gold at the Rio games in the high jump T42 category. He was scheduled to be India’s flag bearer at the Tokyo games but he was found to be Covid positive while travelling to the games and had to be quarantined. He fought not just the deadly virus but a life with permanent disability in his right leg to win silver at Tokyo. He was five years old when a drunk bus driver ran over his right leg as he was walking to school. His father abandoned his family and his mother looked after him and her other kids working as a brick carrier and vegetable vendor. There are so many others – Sumit Antil who won gold in Javelin shattering his own world record 5 times. Sumit’s left leg was amputated after a bike accident many years ago. Bhavina Patel at 34 won India its first ever medal in table tennis – a silver. She has been wheelchair bound since she was a year old as a result of polio. There are so many more. Deepa Malik, the veteran whose achievements during the last Paralympic games gave visibility to the plight and fight of these athletes became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal when she won a silver in shot put at Rio.
It has been painful and difficult for me to pen these stories but it just makes me proud that we have such incredibly brave and humble humans in our country. We need to reach out to them; celebrate them; encourage them; get inspired by their achievements and ensure that they become role models for all of us. These are the people we must follow.
Ageas Federal Life Insurance is an organization that recognises the achievements of these athletes. Through their Legends series, they are inviting these paralympians to share their incredible stories with their employees. And then you have Boria Majumdar, a sports journalist, historian and author who is so passionate and vocal about the achievements of these mega stars. He was there in Tokyo cheering and enthusiastically predicting the number of medals we would win. A truly honest and fierce believer in the indomitable spirit of the paralympians.
As Avina Lekhara said after winning her second medal, “When you are a para athlete, people start judging you. To live with a disability is a victory in itself”.
Life robbed them of something special, and yet, they went to show that people are the ones who make special things happen no matter what. A life lesson that every one of us should learn and promote.