Spirits of steel, dreams of gold

“If it doesn’t kill you, it only makes you stronger.” To many of us, this is just a saying; a clever quote to use in a conversation or to spice up a piece of writing. For Mudassar Baig, Naeem Masih, Haider Ali and Anila Baig it is the credo that defines their lives.

As a young boy, Mudassar had one love in his life: sports. Blessed with uncommon talent, he longed for the day when he would play football professionally, winning laurels for his country, his family and himself. An enthusiastic player, he ended up fracturing his leg in a match during his high school days. Unable to find affordable healthcare, the family instead took him to a quack who left him crippled. Only later would they learn that he suffered from polio, which had weakened his leg and caused the fracture.

For most of us, this would be the end of the story. What would follow would be a narrative of despair, thwarted ambition and shattered dreams. But Mudassar is not like ‘most of us’. Instead of letting go of his dreams, he worked tirelessly towards strengthening his leg and steadily rebuilding his muscle. But even though he still wanted to pursue sports, he was sometimes dragged down by the realisation that despite all the hard work he was willing to put in, he would never be as good as before or even be able to keep up with the students he was used to running circles around. Then one day, as he was surfing channels on TV, he came across a story on the National Paralympics Committee of Pakistan. Aware that this was an opportunity he had to make the most of, he got in touch with the NPC and from then on, there was no looking back.

Established in 1998, the NPC is the Pakistani constituent of the worldwide Paralympic movement and is subject to the controls of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). Headed by NPC President Tariq Mustafa (also the vice president of Asian Paralympics) and Secretary General Imran Shami and with others like Perveen Agha and Coach Akbar Mughal at the helm, the organisation has managed to send a contingent to every Summer Paralympics Games. It’s not been easy. With an all-volunteer staff and no government funding at all, they have nonetheless managed to score some impressive wins — especially when you consider that most, if not all international Paralympic committees are funding by their respective governments. With this in mind, it is nothing short of a miracle that Pakistani Paralympians have secured 55 medals in international events, which include 16 Gold, 19 Silver and 20 Bronze medals as well as one world record. And behind every medal is a tale of triumph in the face of adversity and a determination forged from the strongest steel. A tale like that of Haider Ali.

Haider, who hails from a family of Gujranwala wrestlers, and won a silver medal in the long jump event at the 2008 Beijing Games, suffers from cerebral palsy — a disorder that impairs the brain and the nervous system, affecting movement and functions such as learning, hearing, seeing, and thinking. But, in spite of his condition, Haider’s parents and family encouraged him to take up sports professionally.

With nothing even remotely resembling a proper training venue available to him, Haider himself dug up a pit on an abandoned farm in his town and, after only six months of rigorous practice, went on to represent Pakistan at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. Without any formal training and experience in international competitions, Haider came painfully close to winning the Gold but narrowly missed it due to technical reasons. His jump of 6.44 metres was a world record and he tied with the gold medal winner, but unfamiliarity with the intricacies of Paralympic scoring meant he had to content himself with a Silver.

The experience left him disappointed and broken at first, but now he is ready to take another shot at the Gold in London. “I cannot bear the pain of Beijing and this time, I will not let fate cheat me out of the Gold in London,” he says. It’s not just about the medal; his fiancé has promised to marry him if he brings home the Gold.

Like Haider, Mudassar’s determination and hard work has also paid off — he won the Gold in the 400m race at the 2010 Asian Paralympics Games in Guangzhou, China. When he’s not pursuing his own sports career, Mudassar has a full-time job at the Faisalabad Post Office through which he supports his family — a wife and three-year-old daughter who suffers from juvenile diabetes. Of the Rs10,000 a month that Mudassar earns from his government job, 70 per cent is immediately used up by his daughter’s treatment and other daily expenses, leaving him with barely anything to spend on his athletic training — not even enough for him to buy new running shoes.

With no support from the government, the NPC was unable to find a sponsor to send Mudassar to the 2011 Australian games. As a result of not being able to participate in these events, his ranking was lowered and he was unable to meet the IPC’s requirements. While hopefuls Haider Ali and Naeem Masih will get to participate in the 2012 games, 32-year-old Mudassar will have to stay behind. “Had there been any kind of support for these athletes, we would have been able to ensure that Mudassar and many more like him would swell the ranks of the Pakistani contingent,” says Beg.

Sharing his disappointment is 20-year-old Pakistani athlete Anila Baig.

Born in Faisalabad to a family with meagre resources, Anila received a devastating blow early in life. “Anila was three years old when her mother observed that she used to walk as if there were thorns in her feet,” says Anila’s father, 68-year-old Izzat Baig. “Her mother carefully checked her feet and legs to find out why she was having difficulty walking. Eventually, we consulted physicians and learnt that her leg had been affected by polio.”

Her shocked parents immediately took Anila for treatment. “The treatment was long and expensive but we succeeded in saving her leg from being completely damaged. However, it became weak and she was declared permanently crippled,” recalls Izzat.

Refusing to let their daughter fall prey to an inferiority complex, they pledged to give her the opportunities that they had given to all their other children. “We enrolled her in a municipal committee school in Gulistan Colony. It was about four kilometres from our house and she would walk to school daily with her elder sister Naureen,” says Izzat, clearly proud of his young daughter’s resilience.

It was when she joined Faisalabad’s MC Girls High School that she asked her father to allow her to participate in sports. Izzat admits he was surprised at his daughter’s request. “How could a girl who was physically challenged participate in school and district-level games? But she was determined and I couldn’t resist the pressure from her anymore, so I let her participate,” he says. “To my amazement, she won a cup for a long race in the inter-school games!”

Buoyed by her success at the tournament, she went on to participate in the Inter-District School Games in 2008. Little had Izzat or Anila known that these games would become the turning point in her life.

It was in these games that Mudassar, Anila’s current running partner and mentor, spotted her and approached her with an offer she couldn’t refuse: inclusion in the Pakistani contingent scheduled to leave for the inaugural session of the Asian Youth Para Games in Japan in 2009.

Anila was excited but since she had never even expected such an offer, she did not know how to bring it up with her father. Hence, she asked Mudassar to get her father’s consent. Mudassar then met Izzat and told him how talented and capable his daughter was and the wonders that she could do with only a little bit of proper training.

Moved by Mudassar’s own story of how his family had supported him, Izzat decided he must let Anila go and live the dream. Anila started preparing, and her biggest confidence boost came from her victory in the trial for under-19 teams in which she stood first.

But before she went to Japan, where she won two Gold medals in javelin and shot put, Anila had an experience that has shaped her life forever — the Beijing Paralympics. She had gone to Beijing feeling sure of herself, but returned with shattered self-confidence. This was her first appearance in an event of this scale and her own inexperience and the magnitude of the occasion daunted her and she ended up under-performing.

She returned home dejected but her loving family only responded with more encouragement. “We were proud that our Anila stood tall as an athlete representing Pakistan in her sports uniform,” says her elder sister Saima.

Anila then decided to focus on the next Paralympics event — London 2012. But life had something else in store for her. Her mother was found to be suffering from heart disease and passed away soon after Anila’s return from Beijing. Meanwhile, Anila’s aging father was struggling to make ends meet by selling papardoms. Izzat had worked as a powerloom manager and made Rs20,000 a month but after 40 years of work, his left leg became paralysed and since then he has had to walk with the aid of a stick. As the family tried to get back on its feet, Anila’s Olympic dreams fell by the wayside. Despite being the youngest of her siblings, none of whom are disabled, Anila has herself become a crutch for her family. “Though we belong to the lower class, God has gifted us with a unique pearl which is shining at the global level,” says her sister Saima proudly.

Anila labours eight hours a day to prepare paapars, which she wraps in small packets for her father to sell in the city but she still manages to find the time to train and exercise twice a day. She goes for a daily three-hour workout to the athletic grounds of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, paying one hundred rupees per hour for the use of the premises. But even there, support is half-hearted as she can only use the grounds from 1pm to 4pm so as not to ‘disturb’ the activities of university players. She has to travel 11 kilometres to get to the university from her house, but the lack of proper grounds means that she has no choice.

Despite the brave face Anila puts up before her family, she feels a deep sense of betrayal and of being robbed of the appreciation that she feels she should have gotten for her achievements. Although there is no monetary reward attached to medals at these Games, officials and private individuals often announce cash prizes for winners. After the Beijing Games, veteran politician Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain gave 200 dollars to Silver medallists and 100 to Bronze medallists. Later, then prime minister of Pakistan Mohammedmian Soomro announced a grant that was released after two years. Sadly, despite Pakistan’s breaking the world record no major leader has visited or invited any of the players.

“Our government and corporate sector supports sportspersons who bring global recognition for the country. They are paid handsome amounts of money and offered jobs. But I did not get anything from any government agency. I have received no moral or financial support from anyone,” Anila says.

The NPC president and other members say they personally give monthly stipends and monetary rewards to the athletes from their pockets, but also admit that the NGO itself cannot afford to pay an amount big enough to help affect the lifestyles of the Paralympians.

This time around, Anila had hoped for more recognition and possibly some monetary support. “The rewards from the medal will pay for my sister’s wedding. I have to win, I must,” she explains. “I only wished my mother was here with me. I wanted to bring back the Gold for her,” she adds, with a solemn expression on her face.

Tragically, this story does not have a happy ending. At the last minute, and just as this story was about to go into print, the sad news came that Anila lost the last in a series of appeals to the IPC and will not be able to fulfil her dream of participating in the 2012 Paralympics. This was revealed to us in a phone conversation with NPC’s media director Huma Beg, who is currently in London. Expressing her bitter disappointment and sadness at Anila’s exclusion, she said that this uncommon athlete would nonetheless remain a strong contender for the future trainings of NPC and the Pakistan team.

“They [the Paralympians] come from very humble backgrounds, with little hope and encouragement but, they manage to rise and break world records,” says Beg. “This is a moment of reflection on how we still deny so many their true rights and how we close our eyes to the success of so many strugglers. It is our duty to find our own stars and create the environment that breeds more stars.”

A recent partnership between NPC and Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) may pave the way to do just that. This year, this alliance managed to sponsor the athletes’ trip to the London Paralympics just weeks before the deadline. Hopefully this partnership will last for the long run.

“Pakistan’s Paralympians mirror Pakistan itself. Their struggles display the struggles of our country, their resilience reflects the character of our people and their sheer ability to create miracles with minimal resources, and despite their own disabilities, is so reflective of the true spirit of Pakistanis,” says Beg.

Learn more about the Paralympians at http://www.facebook.com/NationalParalympicCommitteePakistan

The Express Tribune would like to thank Serendip Productions for their assistance in bringing these inspiring stories to light through their documentary Impossible.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 26th, 2012.

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Shahid Afridi: A Star Among Us

422399-Afridi-1345036964-251-640x480The token Arabs in my enclosure at the Dubai cricket stadium gawked at us Pakistanis in amazement. Shahid Afridi, Lala to his fans, had just been called in to bat and all Pakistanis in attendance — and I suspect some Indians and Bangladeshis too — began screaming their lungs out before he had even walked out of the pavilion.

We ended up losing that match — the second Pakistan versus England Twenty20 International in February — but Afridi’s knock of 25 off 23 balls gave me all the entertainment I had needed to make that trip to Dubai worthwhile.

Such is the charisma of Shahid Afridi. Whether or not he performs to expectation — and expect stability from him at your own peril — he can be relied on for one thing: from the moment he steps out onto the pitch, the match, and eventually the day, is all about him.

And that was exactly how it was on July 26, 2012, the day I finally got to meet him.

“Follow the noise,” our driver told us as we got off the car. The noise he was referring to was the cacophony of screaming kids that we could hear from half a kilometre away and it was loud and clear enough to guide us to our hosts’ house.

“I hope Afridi hasn’t arrived already,” I muttered to myself, as we hurried along the road. “It’s barely 530pm yet and stars never make it on time!” I continue my not-so-inner monologue, perplexing my colleague, who is obviously amused at my child-like excitement at the opportunity to see Lala up close. By now, he has grown pretty tired of listening to me go on and on about my unconditional and unwavering dedication to Afridi during our drive from Korangi Road to Quaidabad.

Never before had I been this appreciative of television channels’ compulsive need to compete with each other and to go to often ridiculous lengths for ratings. Express Entertainment, for its Ramazan transmission, had managed to rope in Afridi for a show in which he visited various families in Karachi, joining them for Iftar at their houses.

Bringing a renowned celebrity to an ordinary neighbourhood is tough enough, and doing so while managing a live broadcast is even more challenging. Naturally, stress was in the air.

On the street where the house of the lucky hosts stood, some Express TV guys manned a DSNG van while others were frantically coordinating with the studio staff through their mobile phones. All of them were crowding the street we needed to be in. Of course, 40 other kids from around the neighbourhood had decided they needed to be there too and I was almost bowled over by how many children there were! They came in all shapes and sizes. It was as if the street had transformed into a playground in a matter of a few hours.

Harried Express staff tried to make the kids stand in neat lines, unsuccessfully of course, as we tried to cross the street and walk towards the house. I felt a little like a star myself, albeit only by association, as I walked past the kids who looked at me with sparkling eyes simply because I accompanied the TV crew that had promised them a look at the Shahid Afridi.

Beta, side pe ho jao!” a colleague told one of the kids for the umpteenth time. The boy, barely over 12, was holding a ball and rubbing it against his shorts ala Wasim Akram, preparing to deliver that perfect reverse swing to ‘Mehmaan Ka Ramazan’ host Ayaz.

Main bowling kara raha hoon,” he retorted, impatiently. “Cameray main nahin aao ge,” he was told. He shrugged. Obviously, bowling was way more important to him than the 15 seconds of fame any television channel could offer him.

I, however, obediently moved out of the frame only to jump into another one. One camera was stationed outside the house’s gate while the other was placed on the balcony of the house right opposite. A woman looked out of the window in anticipation, but wiggled out of sight when I waved at her.

After being ordered out of several frames, I decided to just go and sit inside the house and talk to the family until Afridi arrived. On my way to the living room, I walked past a cosy room with pink, purple and light green walls, sporting posters that showed Afridi high-fiving teammates and one in his signature pose: arms and legs stretched out triumphantly. All the furniture had been moved out and clean white daris had been laid out on the floor. There were only two floor cushions.

“I can’t believe he is coming here to our house!” Raeesa, probably in her 60s, squealed almost like a young girl. Amazed, I asked her if she watched cricket. No, she admitted, but of Afridi she said: “Hum to bohot baray fan hain.

Her granddaughter Saba chimed in. “The men [of the house] get to watch the entire match; we are usually too busy helping around the house or studying. But when Afridi is on the pitch, we abandon everything and are in front of the TV in a flash. Even the men make sure we get to watch him play!” she said.

Bisma, the 10-year-old girl whom Afridi had come to visit at their house, was too excited to say a word but couldn’t stop smiling. “She’s both excited and nervous,” Raeesa told me as Bisma, wearing an oversized green Number 10 Afridi jersey, ran outside the house to join the kids playing cricket in the street. “Since the 1st of Ramazan, she’s been badgering her father to prepare for the day that Afridi comes to our house for Iftar,” she said, laughing. “She is insistent that she will hug him.”

Does she love cricket as much as she loves Afridi, I asked. “Yes! She plays all the time, at home and in school. But she gets very, very tired because she’s unwell,” said Raeesa.

Bisma is battling Thalassaemia, a genetic and hereditary blood disorder that results in the excessive destruction of red blood cells, eventually leading to severe anaemia. Her fight is even tougher as she is suffering from Thalassaemia major which occurs when a child inherits a mutated gene from each parent.

According to her uncle, a doctor himself, her chances of survival are so slim that the family had decided to shower all their attention and love on her while they still can. Her parents, Nasir and Humaira, are determined to give her as normal a life as they can, despite repeated reminders of her fragility in the form of the regular trips they have to make to her doctor.

Suddenly, we heard loud cheering. He must be here, I thought as I quickly made my way outside. False alarm. It was just the children, entertaining themselves by deliberately annoying the Express staff.

“Is he here yet?” one Express team member shouted to another, a burly man who was taking care of the unruly children while simultaneously keeping an eye on the road that led into the street. “Yes, he has arrived!” he shouted back.

Instantly, a wave of excitement passed through the crowd and the occasion seemed to metamorphose into a wedding ceremony as girls of the family — at least 20 other people had been invited by the family, despite requests by the TV crew not to do so — brought out plates filled with fresh rose petals. Bisma’s brother held a garland to put around Afridi’s neck. A young boy, Bisma’s cousin, stood at the gate carrying a handmade poster saying ‘Boom Boom Afridi zindabad’ with a photograph of a smiling Afridi wearing a sleeveless red training suit.

I strategically placed myself next to the gate so that as soon as Afridi walked in, I could shake hands with him. I had to try my luck despite being told that, since his religious awakening, he lowers his gaze in the presence of women and does not shake hands with them. I briefly thought back to 2004, when I went to watch a Pakistan-India match at Lahore’s Qaddafi Stadium from the ill-fated bilateral series that came to an abrupt halt after the dastardly 2008 Mumbai attacks. Afridi was fielding at long off and a group of spectators from my stand playfully started cheering “Sab behnon ka ek hi bhai, Shahid bhai, Shahid bhai!” The rare hybrid of superstar and boy-next-door that he is, Afridi turned around and waved at them, causing many of the girls to swoon and boys to shout.

I was jolted back to the present by someone shrieking, “I see him!!!”

There he was, Shahid Afridi wading through the crowd, looking as incredibly handsome in a black shalwar kameez (probably designed by his own brand) as he does in a green national cricket squad kit, even the one with the strange white spots on the sleeves. The two rows that the Express staff had finally managed to divide the children into had broken down as the kids clambered over each other for a chance to shake his hand or even just see his face from up close. As she’d promised, Bisma hobbled over to hug him as the television camera tried to catch the moment, and the girls — Maria, Sana and Saba — started showering him with rose petals. I thrust my hand in his direction, was heartbroken for a second as he ignored it, but then felt a rush of emotion as he bowed his head to let Raeesa welcome him into their home.

Within five minutes of being in their house, Afridi had spread smiles and put everyone at ease, even the TV crew. “He’s fantastic with the crowd,” Shakeel Rana, a member of the Express Entertainment team, told me as we stood outside observing Afridi interacting with the family during a commercial break.

“Even in Lyari, he was very comfortable. Considering his [public] stature, he hasn’t made many demands [of the TV channel].”

The only other celebrity who receives nearly as incredible a response as Afridi is actor Aijaz Aslam, says Rana and the programme also brings actors Ahsan Khan, Adnan Siddiqui, Nauman Ijaz and Shahood Alvi to people’s homes. Interested families are required to send an SMS to 247, stating their name, address and who they would like to invite.

An Express Entertainment team then visits the families who are short-listed to confirm details and carry out a technical appraisal. When they came to visit Bisma’s house and heard of her illness and her interest in cricket, they knew they had to bring Afridi to meet her.

I went back to take my place in the room from where the transmission was about to resume. Bisma’s cousin Sana, who had been waiting impatiently to present a bouquet that she had made herself for Afridi, tried to ask my colleague to take her photograph while she gave him the flowers but he was already trying to handle two cameras.

Her face almost sagged at his refusal, so I immediately volunteered, unleashing a flurry of excited ‘thank yous’ from her. She requested me to take a ‘nice’ photograph as she adjusted her dupatta and checked her make-up. “My friends are waiting to see this photo on Facebook!” she explained.

Sana hurried back to her place and was immediately asked to come forward as Afridi and the family finished praying.

“I am so nervous I don’t know what to say. I’m just such a huge fan,” she blurted out, after she finished an incoherent speech. “But you’ve already said so much!” Afridi said, as the family laughed. “Actually, I am usually a lot more talkative,” Sana replied. “Oh acha. Aap ki shaadi hui hai?” Afridi asked her. When she replied that she was single, he said, “In that case, now let’s all pray for your future husband” leading to another round of laughter. I couldn’t help but notice that despite his newfound religiosity — he didn’t look at Sana even when she was giving him the flowers or when he joked with her — he hadn’t lost the ability to charm women.

“I have been his fan since I was 10,” she told me after Afridi had left, flicking through her camera to select the best picture. “I used to call 17 [phone inquiry] every day until they finally gave me his home number from when he used to live in Gulshan-e-Iqbal.” She still remembers the number, even though Afridi has switched homes and the phone number has probably expired by now.

We thought things would settle down as Iftar ended and Afridi drove off in his black Premio after signing several hundred autographs, posing for about a million family photos and distributing gifts from his shops. We were wrong. As word spread that Afridi had been in the neighbourhood, more and more children gathered outside the house, screaming his name in the hope that they might still be able to catch a glimpse of him.

“These kids refuse to believe that he has left,” Bisma’s father Nasir told me, as I stood at the gate of the house trying to get out. “Go home, it’s past maghrib!” he again told the kids, who only started calling out even louder for their hero.

As I said goodbye to our wonderful hosts, I asked Humaira how she was feeling. She had been smiling from ear to ear before Afridi came, but at the end of the day, there was a twinkle in her eye as if she’d checked off one of the items on her “things to do for her baby girl” list.

Nasir was also beaming as he came back in after having finally convinced the crowd gathered outside that Afridi had in fact left the building. “They assumed he would go in one of the TV crew’s cars!” he said.

How I wished that were true. I had been unable to get an autograph from him, let alone a photograph with him. But in many ways, I got a memory better than those mementos. I saw Shahid Afridi being the star that he truly is and leaving in his wake, a bright spot of light in the lives of a family struck by a tragedy I hope they will have the strength to bear.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 19th, 2012.