Cricket is about what you can do with the bat and the ball. It doesn't matter if you can't hear or speak, or, more commonly, if your father doesn't have the money to back you. As the game of cricket became increasingly akin to a massive corporation, talent that was born on the streets became more and more relegated to that unholy space. Sajan Surya Vanshi, who would like to reverse the philosophy, seemed overwhelmed to get a call from Deccan Chronicle. “This is the first time someone is paying attention to me,” he said excitedly. His foundation, the Indus Cricket Academy, works with hearing impaired and underprivileged children, to give them the opportunities they could never have dreamed of otherwise.
Vanshi started off working with the Hamsa Dhwani School for hearing impaired children in Indiranagar, which stood at the corner of a vacant lot that locals used as a garbage dump. “When we first saw this ground, it was filled with garbage about 3 feet high,” said Vanshi, gesturing to the yellow tint that marks the boundary walls. “It took us four years to clean the place.” This was preceded by Vanshi's ambition to start a foundation for aspiring cricketers, inspired by his own love for the game and also by his son, who came home to him one day and said, “Dad, you spend so much money on my cricket academies, but I learn nothing new.”
The children studying at the Hamsa Dhwani School led Vanshi to think of opening his foundation to the hearing impaired as well. “When I saw their condition at the school, how inferior they feel around other children and how much talent they have, I wanted to do something about it,” he said. There’s no point denying it – socio-economic concerns and physical differences play a huge role in the distribution of opportunities, whether or not this discrimination is justified. “I find these children are much sharper than the others,” said Vanshi, who, as a matter of principle, refuses to use sign language when he instructs the boys. “When you speak the language of the heart, you don't need words,” he says, smiling.
Clearing the field proved a gargantuan task, hampered in no small measure by the locals, who didn’t want to lose their garbage dump, for no cause is as good as one's own, usually. “The councillor and a few good people saw what we were doing and pitched in, we paid for the whole thing on our own,” Vanshi recalled. Even on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, about 20 boys occupied the nets, roughly between the ages of 6 and 16. “About fifty percent of the kids playing now come from very difficult circumstances,” said Vanshi. “But you’d never be able to point them out.”
Vanshi's determination to bring everybody together and not differentiate in even the smallest way fetched him his fair share of criticism. “We wanted to enroll our boys in a tournament organised by a very prominent cricket academy in the city,” said Vanshi, refusing to disclose the name of the institute. The response they got was terribly discouraging. “You have children who are not normal on your team,” was their reply, according to Vanshi. “Maybe you should consider enrolling them in a tournament for special children.”
Vanshi simply does not understand this. “The only thing that matters is talent,” he insists. “The ability of these kids to grasp things is actually far higher than other children, their talent is something else really, as is their dedication and hard work.” Vanshi was the recognised coach for the Karnataka state hearing impaired team, leading them to victory in the national tournament despite being the only coach who didn’t know sign language.
The fees are very nominal, even for the children who can afford it. Those who can’t get scholarships as do the children who display extraordinary talent, in what Vanshi calls a “balancing act”. It costs roughly Rs 100 for a three-hour session and the academy waives up to 75% of this fee. “Everybody must pay a tleast 25% of the fee, otherwise they don't take it seriously,” Vanshi said. That apart, the academy goes all out on innovative teaching methods with the hope of teaching children something new every time they come for practice. “For instance, I learned a new middling technique the other day, so I brought a bunch of tennis rackets and balls to teach the kids. You’ve got to keep them on their toes, get onto their wavelength and approach them from there.”
That apart, the academy also does its bit toward maintaining the Hamsa Dhwani School, which still looks a rather ramshackle old place, though Vanshi insists it was much worse, surviving, as it were, on government funding. The academy recently spent Rs 60,000 to build new toilets for the schools. “It’s part of what we do,” he says nonchalantly.
Funding is hard to come by. Cricket has so firmly installed itself in people’s minds as a profit-making venture that it is hard for wealthier patrons to wrap their heads around charity. “We get people who say they will invest and go onto what returns they hope to see,” said Vanshi. “But I’m not a businessman. This will never be a business.”
Needless to say, the going’s been tough, despite their balancing act. It’s heartwarming however, to be reminded from time to time, that good has place in this world, too.