Harvard Coach Returns to Empower Kids of Rickshaw Drivers, Domestic Helps With Sports

When Satinder Bajwa was coaching the Harvard University, USA, men’s and women’s squash teams, around 2006, the university’s Athletic Director asked all the coaches to do something for the community. So, Bajwa created Kids Squash, a programme that gave young people in the community the chance to play squash at Harvard on the weekends. Shimla-born Bajwa found his way to Harvard via a colourful, circuitous route. He was a trainee aeronautical engineer with British Airways, followed by a brief career as a squash pro, and then manager-mentor of the legendary Pakistani squash player Jansher Khan, during six of the latter’s eight world championship titles.

Once Jansher retired, Bajwa moved to Harvard as the university’s Director of Squash. There, Kids Squash turned out to be a hit and it got Bajwa thinking. “If people in America needed this, then those in India probably needed it much more,” Bajwa, who is now in his early 60s, says. “I decided I would add an academic and yoga component and opened Khelshala in India in 2009.” Together with a member of his extended family, Bajwa bought a plot of land in Attawa village that lies within Chandigarh city limits.

Today, Khelshala occupies the basement and ground floors of the building they constructed, while the first and second floors have been made into a hotel. It began with 35 children, most of whose parents were labourers, domestic helpers, or rickshaw drivers. But by the second year, they had a waiting list. Buoyed by this early success, Bajwa opened a second site in Majra village, Punjab, in 2012, and this time focused on tennis. The after-school programmes at both centres cater to about 125 students over the year. Khelshala charges the parents about Rs 100 a month because the nominal fee encourages them to take the programme seriously. “We found that charging nothing had no meaning,” Bajwa says.

In Attawa, the students arrive at Khelshala around 3 or 3:30 pm. The teachers at Khelshala help the children with their homework, lead them through an English newspaper reading, and hold general knowledge sessions. Some teachers also help those in classes 9 to 12 with advanced math and science. The kids are only permitted to play squash after they have completed their academic work for the day. They are also taught yoga three days a week. Another important ingredient at Khelshala is service – the students are given the collective responsibility of sandpapering the squash courts and keeping the facility clean. But the biggest challenge lay in convincing the parents that sports could help their child do better in life, including academically. The parents also expected to see results immediately.

“Explaining to the parents who are not educated is the biggest challenge,” says Sujata Singh, who oversees Khelshala’s programmes.

“They don’t understand that this process will take years. It is slowly changing but it remains difficult. They expect everything from us, and we have to tell them to be patient; that we are not cheating them.” Singh works as a teacher in a local co-ed school before heading over to Khelshala. She says there is a big difference between the children who attend Khelshala and those who don’t. She adds, “[We give them] holistic development, so you can easily identify them … There is a change in their personality, their way of talking, their way of behaving, and their thinking process.” For her, education is the only way these children can break free of the “conservative and restrictive society” from which they come.

“If we can change 200 students, then we can make a change in the wider society also,” Singh says. Of course, this requires the children to put in long hours. Subhashini, who is 17, joined Khelshala in 2017. Her mother is a maid while her father lost his job during the lockdown. Her day begins at 4 am and she arrives at Khelshala for squash practice an hour later. When her school ends at 2 pm, she goes back to Khelshala until 6 pm and after freshening up manages another hour of squash practice late in the evening. The effort is worth it, she says, because the benefits are tangible. Subhashini says, “Before I came to Khelshala, I struggled to read in English. I shared that with my teachers, and they gave me a lot of help. Despite COVID, I got 85% in class 10 because of their help.” There’s also been a change in her personality. “We know how to handle ourselves,” Suhasini says. “Thanks to squash, we feel confident that we can speak to anyone.”

Suhasini is currently doing her plus-2 in Arts at the local Government Model Senior Secondary School and dreams of becoming an IAS officer. “If I focus, then anything is possible,” she adds. Before joining Khelshala, Suhasini played kho-kho and even competed at the Nationals. But she prefers squash because she can keep playing the sport beyond school and college, unlike kho-kho. That’s one of the big advantages of squash, according to Alisha Mashruwala, one of Khelshala’s trustees and a former member of the Harvard women’s squash team under Bajwa. After graduating, Mashruwala co-founded an education company called OnCourse.

“A lot of people who are high up in corporates are all playing squash,” she says, adding, “The managers at Goldman all play squash. When you get the opportunity to talk to people and aspire to do things like that, it is a big deal. [And] everyone is willing to help everyone else in the squash community.” Bajwa compares it to the kind of network a student can build by attending a good college. “When you put a racquet in the kid’s hand, you have elevated his or her network from 2 to 9 out of 10 [friends]. Some of my kids at Khelshala are Facebook friends with Mukesh Ambani’s nephew because they play squash.” One of Khelshala’s students, Priya, recently received a Young Indian Fellowship at Ashoka University, Haryana.

“She is now a mentor at Teach for India. She went from strength to strength,” Bajwa reveals. “Then we have three girls right now pursuing their Bachelor’s in Physical Education. They are good at sports. One of them has already done a coaching course at the Squash Federation of India, so she will have a coaching certificate under her belt [when she graduates]. A couple of kids have been ranked in the top 10 of juniors. One got invited to the national team trials.” There have been similar successes at the tennis centre as well. “We had a kid at Majra who is now a [tennis] coach at India School of Business,” Bajwa says.

“That’s a highlight. He was a boy from a village who had never seen a tennis court [before joining Khelshala]. Another kid is coaching at an elite private school in Chandigarh.” Here students are encouraged to explore other opportunities around the sport, such as becoming a referee or a coach, or even learning how to string racquets. But Bajwa claims the biggest highlight of running Khelshala is seeing how “even a kid who is not good enough to play a match is enjoying squash and having a better outlook on life.

Even those kids who are not naturally gifted and are average at sports and education, are showing traits of confidence and are aspiring towards a better life.” Newer goals The organisation seems to have weathered the disruption caused by the COVID pandemic, but it took a combination of sacrifice and ingenuity to get through it. The staff agreed to a 50 per cent pay cut and switched to online tutoring. They also did a fundraising campaign to buy phones for the children. As if that weren’t hard enough, Khelshala’s FCRA license also expired while government offices were shut, which cut off their funding from the United States, where Bajwa could tap into his squash network. According to him, half their yearly budget of Rs 23 lakh came from international sources.

“You can either give up or look at other channels,” Bajwa says, adding, “One of my friends – Anil Nair (eight-time India national squash champion) – kept telling me, ‘Satinder, there is more money in India than you think. Don’t just take the easy way out’.” Forced to improvise, Bajra leaned on his trustees to raise money to fill the gap and they have done so. Another former squash student of his also offered Khelshala Rs 10 lakh this year to fund the renovation of their courts and their track.

Thanks to these new funding sources, Khelshala is creating an international fund that will provide financial aid for their children to go to college in the United States. Their experience with online teaching led to another unexpected outcome. Three months ago, Khelshala started an online chess program. Someone whose son and daughter are national-level chess players in Mumbai approached Bajwa about starting online chess classes.

“I would never have entertained that [before the pandemic]. But squash is physical chess and now we have mental chess and the two connect very well,” Bajwa says. Khelshala’s Attawa location is now back to full strength, with almost 60 per cent of their students being girls.

“We are very happy about this,” Bajwa says. However, their Majra site hasn’t bounced back the same way because the migrant labour left during the pandemic. Bajwa also found that when the children turned 14, they would often leave to join their parents as farm labourers.

“We can’t hold on to them,” he says. Their new strategy is to focus on the children who live in the area and to convince the local schools to send their students to Khelshala as part of the curriculum. Then there is the desire for Khelshala to evolve as well. “I am actively looking to scale Khelshala to greater heights,” Bajwa says.