A promise fulfilled as I visit a squash program that helps children in a remote part of India
By JOHN LEAVY – Squash Mad Special Correspondent on a return trip to visit Satinder Bajwa’s Khelshala project
It took me a few years but I finally accomplished not one but two things that have been on my mind for a while. Glad I did because the rewards were enormous.
I have been friends with Satinder Bajwa going on 40 years. He initially hired me to help coach at a summer camp at Amherst College in Massachusettshe and another fellow, David Carr of McWil Court Systems, had started. I had just moved back up to New England and it was fun. Mostly adult campers and a few guest Pros that came in to help. “Baj”, David, and myself formed a lasting bond.
Over the next few years Baj and I hit the tournament circuit hard, playing on the weekends. He ended up at Bowdoin coaching for a year, then on to West Point. I ended up at Wesleyan University coaching and Baj, besides teaching the cadets, took over the job of guiding Jansher Khan for six years of the eight that Jansher was world champion. I spent some winter holidays in London and a few other European cities getting to play with the No.1 in the world and his coach.
I made a move to the southwest part of the US, Houston, and we stayed in touch. Next I hear from him he has accepted the job as head coach at Harvard.
His experience and insight into the game, I believe, brought a new breath to the program. Luckily for me I got to teach with him for five of the 11 years he ran summer camps at Murr Center, home of the Crimson. Not to rest on his laurels, Baj somehow fitted in running a Premier Squash League team in London for two years and promoting the Super Series Finals at some innovative venues.
In 2009 he started Khelshala. Deciding to move back close to where he was born in Chandigarh, India, a city known for its modern architecture and urban planning in 20th century India.
From the first day, children from the very poor village of Attawa lined up to go to classes, Hindi reading and writing, computer skills, and an emphasis on self-reliance, integrity and honesty. Sport, of course, is a huge part of the kids’ day also. Two squash courts, yoga, and now tennis is part of their day.
Baj asked me to be on his board of directors. When I found out his vision for the school I said yes immediately. A few years later I was able to get some time for the long journey. I found a vibrant, educational, organized setting for 80 to 100 kids every day.
My 14 days there were busy, meeting all the kids and watching the teaching happening in class and playing some squash. Upon leaving I made a promise to return to the kids and to myself.
Baj makes pilgrimages here in the US for fundraisers which I try to attend, bringing in old friends, players, people that know what good is going on at Khelshala that want to contribute. We also get together for an annual doubles tourney in Aspen, Colorado, for a bunch of old and new friends that has turned into source of contributors to the program.
Which brings me to 2018. My plan formed to go back in April to see how the students I met on my last trip, and have kept up with through Baj, were doing. Arriving I find an even bigger facility, more kids, modernized facilities and an environment filled with learning. Hanging for a few days, we had an opportunity to visit Nepal and go trekking. I had been before and wanted to go back. My second promise to myself.
As always Baj was up for an adventure. So off to Katmandu we went. If you have never been and feeling like you want to see the Top of the World, go!
We spent the first seven days headed towards Everest Base Camp but took a left and headed to Gokyo Ri, a spectacular peak that rises to 5,357 meters. As our guide said, “Nepal has a lot of hills, but this is a mountain!” Boy, was he right. Satinder made it to the very top with a few others from our group after a 4am wake up call and a 4 hour uphill the last 800 meters. Kudos to him but it’s part of his DNA to finish !
Back to Katmandu, on to Delhi, and a flight back to Khelshala to see the school and the students again. To my delight I got to see one of my favorites and the risen star of the program. A young lady, who I saw on my first trip when she entered Khelshala at age 11, has excelled at not only academics but squash. Now, nine years later she has been awarded a Young India Fellowship Award. A very, very prestigious honor. I also got to talk to others that I met that first trip that have gone on to accomplishments I do not believe they would have made without Khelshala.
Time to head home, which went smoothly. Khelshala has a Board of Directors, here in the US who are putting together fund raisers in the fall. Proudly I am part of the planning of those. Which brings me to my end – almost
If you have read this and felt a tug at your heart strings and a heavier tug at your wallet I have succeeded in my goal. There are a lot of Urban Squash Programs running now. Satinder Bajwa has had a storied career in our game. But then to head back to your birthplace, in a village where a dollar buys ten times what it does in the west and help the poorest of the poor succeed, is worthy of your attention and a few dollars. It will go a long, long way. Visit khelshala.in to make a contribution.
John F Leavy
See also: Transforming Lives Through Squash
Pictures by JOHN LEAVY