Tenacious Ten: Meet Kashmir’s wheelchair basketball team who rose above ‘spine-chilling’ disabilities

They were happily leading their lives until spinal injuries reduced them into a bunch of ‘non-visible’ wheelchair beings. In their hour of distress they ran into each other at a Srinagar-based rehabilitation centre where they found a new meaning to their lives, became a ‘family of equals’ and emerged as the formidable wheelchair basketball team of Kashmir.

Srinagar’s Sher-e-Kashmir Indoor Sport Complex’s Basketball Court is abuzz with sporty kids, teens and adults. A team of eight men and two women, come here for practice, after crossing hurdles on their way to the stadium: the distance from their home to the stadium, the people who stare at them eagerly, the creaky roads, the traffic jams, the medium of traffic that they cannot use and the stairs/ entrances that they cannot cross sitting in their wheelchairs.

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid

To overcome some of these hurdles, they’ve hired a driver Javaid Ahmad whom they pay Rs 2500. He stays with them on chilly or sunny days of practice. With no wheelchair ramps around, Javaid is the one who brings the ball back to the court when it falls off to an inaccessible spot to the team.

The team of ten with different provincial backgrounds and age were strangers before bumping into each other at Voluntary Medicare Society Shafqat Rehabilitation Centre (VMS-SRC) Bemina, Srinagar. All of them were brought as depressed lots, some even crying, to the Centre by their families for rehabilitation. But today, they laugh, play, learn and explore the basketball tactics together, till the dusk pushes them away from the court.

Among them is 24-year-old Inshah Bashir. The tragedy struck her in her Class 12 when she fell off from the third floor of her under-construction home at Beeru Budgam, in 2009. Before that, she was suffering from stomach ulcers. She would vomit and faint. On the fateful day, she went to the third floor and was inching closer to a Veranda, where she felt nauseated and in a jiffy, “I vomited, fainted and fell down from the third floor,” says Inshah, who then kept lying in a hospital, unaware of what had come her way.

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid

Even after passing through a surgical intervention, she was told that she won’t be able to walk, again. Holding onto the wheels of her wheelchair, Inshah recalls, “I was terrified by that thought. I was under stress. I was in deep depression. The doctors suggested physiotherapy but I was mentally losing it.” Life made no sense to her in the first year of her decimating trauma. She wanted it to end, then and there.

But her parents stood behind her like a rock, concealing their own pain to make her feel happy. In their pursuit to see their daughter ‘normal’ again, they took her to Shafqat Centre, where Inshah met the others. It made her feel that she isn’t alone in her agony, and helped her to come out of her victimhood.

“Before getting reduced to this wheelchair,” she smiles, “I was interested in sports and would love to play cricket as a kid.” Then one day, at the Shafqat Centre, she was asked if she would want to play basketball.

“I was shocked,” she says, widening her eyes. “How could I? And then they actually taught us how to do it in a wheelchair. I curtly realised that my hands, eyes, ears and brain are fine. Why would I stop using them?” That day, she learnt an important lesson of her life: We should fall and cry but we should never stop loving ourselves.

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid

Her life lesson motivated her to continue her studies. She qualified the Common Entrance Test after class 12 and was selected for the Physio programme, which she didn’t opt for. Instead she graduated in Humanities and is currently pursuing her Masters in Sociology from the University of Kashmir.

Today her boost talks and laughter not only amaze her therapists, but also betray a sense that she was once “the most depressed girl to land in the rehabilitation centre where she had to be consoled”. Now, she is inspiring others, like her teammate, Rukhsana, who hasn’t turned up for the practice session today.

“I took her with me when we went to the Nationals,” Inshah says. “She is a bit shy and couldn’t perform. But, I won’t let her go. I will make her change her life, for all the good.” Much of this confidence is stemming from her positive life shift, which she attributes to all the people around her.

“I would stay at home, crippled,” she recalls, making a long face. “But when I saw more people like me, especially during our match in Hyderabad, I felt like I was not alone and that there are many others suffering more than me. And they were just doing fine. I had no reason to stop.” One of those persons was Ajaz Ahmad Ganaie.

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid

On 4 June 2013, Ajaz, 29, fell off from the rooftop at a friend’s place near his residence Nadihal, Baramulla. Then a Class 11 student, he was taken to Baramulla Hospital from where he was referred to SKIMS Soura.

“I was there for 2 months and 13 days,” Ajaz, turning dour, raptly remembers his tragic details. “I went through a surgery. The doctors were skeptical. They told me I may, or may not survive. I was taken inside the theatre at 8.40 am and came out at 8.15 pm.”

No sooner did he make an exit, he was told by many people: Your life is now a wheelchair. It was the most shocking statement he had ever heard.

He went for physiotherapies, but couldn’t feel any sensation below his waist. He was fitted with a urine pipe. Life had become hell for him.

“Finally I was taken home,” says Ajaz, who runs a shop for living. “After one month and 15 days, I started feeling a sensation in my legs. For 18 months and 17 days, I continued with the physiotherapy. I was supposed to do it for one more year but I couldn’t afford it. The therapies would cost me Rs 10500 per month.”

But after he came to Shafqat Centre, life changed for him. He met his ‘family’ and became the part of the collective sport, where they’re now bringing laurels. In the team of the ten, he met Irfan Rasool Lone.

Now 19, Irfan had suffered from a shattering crash—crunching his one side into another, breaking his ribs and partly damaging his liver—when he was hit by a speedy vehicle while jacking up another vehicle. Then he was only 13-years-old. He lay helplessly under a vehicle. While people tried to pull it up, he had dragged himself out and that was when the load of the vehicle fell on his back and crushed it. He had to undergo a corrective surgery.

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid

After that incident, he preferred to stay home. He had lost the meaning of life. For the next 6 years, he was bedridden.  But in 2015, he bounced back with life and decided to study again after members of the Shafqat Centre counselled and motivated him to do so.

“Though I loved football before the accident, but I was excited about playing basketball. It’s better than sulking in a corner. It’s better than giving up on life,” says Irfan, beaming. For him and his teammates, the cheerful and sporty moments they spend inside the basketball court is all about giving a second chance to life, especially when life literally breaks your back. It was the same belief that motivated Kralpora Kupwara’s Zahoor Ganaie, 26.

On Sept 12, 2012, at Sheikhwara Kupwara, Zahoor fell off from a walnut tree. One of its branches tucked inside his spinal cord and badly bruised it. For the next 1.5 months, he was admitted in SKIMS Soura. After the hospital refused to do a surgery on him, he got it done from New City Hospital, Tengpora.

After the surgery, although he was able to eat by himself, working was out of question. As a labourer and only breadwinner for his family, he would take care of his younger brother’s study. “My brother was pursuing graduation then. But after the incident, he left his studies and now works here and there. He looks after us now,” says Zahoor, expressing regret on his face.

Often times, such patients fall prey to depression and anxiety, says Dr. Bashir Ahmad, administrator at Shafqat Special School. “Such patients become suicidal and therefore need counselling and psychiatric help from time to time.” As life becomes meaningless to them, he says, the focus remains to tackle them on both physical as well as mental level. Once they achieve their physical rehabilitation target, they’re given therapies, so they become mentally strong.

“Then we go for the community integration,” says Dr Bashir. “They start living in their own places. One among these therapies is this Basketball therapy.”

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid

As a sport, Wheelchair Basketball is a part of post-rehabilitation therapy that helps the team to be physically active, have a goal in life, interact with people having similar problems in their life and also to be an inspiration for many considering suicide after being hit by a similar calamity. The same therapy saw Tangmarg resident, Waseem Ahmad aka Lala—the heart and captain of the team—to recover from his spine injury he picked up after falling from a wall at home.

Before his back injury, he happily used to drive passenger cab during summers and go for skiing to Gulmarg in winters. But now, he is walking on elbow crutches.

“I had a very active lifestyle,” he says. “I would drive all day long but now I cannot even go on a bus.” Lala considers the team as his new family and guides them all the way through like an elder brother. But he regrets when society makes him and his tribe feel in a certain way. “Wherever we go,” he says, “we mostly see no ramps for us and stairs everywhere, like we’re not the part of this society.” Whenever these societal indifferences distress him, he longs for the peace while being the part of the wheelchair basketball team.

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid

As a sport, the wheelchair basketball was introduced in India in 2014 which was when the authorities working at VMC-SRC decided to make a team of their own. Seven members of the team were sent off to Chennai to participate in seven days advanced Coaching Programme organised by Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India in partnership with International Committee of Red Cross, YWTC Charitable Trust and Vels University.

On Sept 3, 2015, they played Nationals at Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad. They also attended various workshops at Hyderabad and Chennai. One of the best players of the team Farooq—who met an accident and survived with a spinal cord injury—was recently selected during the Nationals held in Hyderabad. The team is hopeful to see him among the ten to be selected for the International Wheelchair Basketball event at Jakarta Indonesia.

The sport has already shown a way for the members including the former mechanic from Rafiabad, Baramulla. In 2014, Ishfaq Ahmad, 24, met with a bike accident and suffered a spinal cord injury.

“I gained my consciousness at SKIMS Soura after 7 days,” he says. “I underwent a surgery and stayed home for about a year.” But after he landed in Shafqat Centre and became the part of the team, he now wants to do something else in life: starting his own venture. His other team members (Rafee, Tariq and Ruksana) harbour no different life goals now.

As the tenacious ten—who are among the 2000 patients rehabilitated at SRC—keeps the basketball court abuzz, they seem to exhibit a hope to change the world around them. Perhaps the newfound attitude makes a complete sense, as the yesteryears’ pain in their eyes has now made room for dreams.

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