Nakul Shivani/ New Delhi
Chapak…Chapak…Chapak…The magical sound of a paddle piercing the serene waters of the Dal Lake in Srinagar. With a cool breeze drifting across, as the water droplets fall on the face and body, the Canoeist pushes through the current to reach the finish line. At the end of the exercise, each muscle has been tested, the hands pushed to the limit, the energy sapped from the body.
The canoeist takes off the helmet, ties her hair and looks back at the route taken. Her smiling countenance reflects the joy and satisfaction at the journey so far.
Meet Bilquis Mir, the first female water sports international player and coach from the Kashmir valley.
“It has been a very tough journey for me. Much tougher than you can imagine,” says Bilquis.“Imagine a girl from a place like this (Srinagar) defying all odds, breaking stereotypes, kicking away all obstacles to travel the world and make a name. You cannot imagine how much has gone into this journey – the pain, the struggle,” she adds.
Builquis’ love for water sports started when she was seven years old. Invited by a friend who lived near the Dal Lake for a visit to the iNehru Park, Bilquis loved the place. “It was my first visit to the place and I loved every bit of it,” she says.
Bilquis Mir with the gen-next of rowers from Kashmir
Her love for the place was to blossom even further. A water sports coach there asked her to either try the sport or leave the place.
“I did not know how to swim. I put on a life jacket and hopped on to a boat.”
Though her first experience did not finish in perfection, since she fell into the water and reached home completely drenched, Bilquis had fallen in love with water.
“I reached home completely wet. My parents scolded me. But I knew my journey had just started,” says Bilquis.
A few months later she won a sub-junior event. “Along with a medal, there was cash prize too,” she says with excitement in her voice.
“Bas fir kya. Soch liya thaa yehi karna hai ab.”(There was no looking back; I had decided to pursue it)
33-year-old Bilquis Mir’s resume’ reads like a glossary of greatness. She is the first and so far, the only Kashmiri woman to represent India at the Canoeing and Kayaking World Cup, the first woman from the valley to coach the Indian team, the first Indian woman to be inducted into an international referee panel.
Her most accomplished achievements have been reaching the Semifinal of the world cup in 2009 and being appointed the first woman to judge from India at the Asian games 2018.
Her journey from the Dal Lake to testing the treacherous waters across the world has been full of a stutter-start phenomenon.
“Do you know there was a time I had to hide my paddle in a pheran (Kashmiri winter robe) while going for practice,” she asks me in disbelief.
Bilquis Mir has proved adventure and sports are meant as much for girls
Like all women sportspersons, Bilquis too went through the agony of being dissuaded from taking up sports - the societal pressures, taunts of neighbours, demotivating comments from those around her were common.
“I was constantly told toughness and adventure are not meant for girls. Each time I put on the track-suit I was mocked at,” she says.
But such was her determination, that more the people taunted her, the more she resolved to not let her dreams die.“I was determined, come what may, I will ride against the tide. I have seen talents go waste here. I did not want to travel the same route.”
As years passed, Builquis Mir bust the myth that girls cannot do tough work, can’t play sports. First as a player, then as a coach she continued to make a mark for herself, crafting herself as a role model for young girls in the valley.
What made you not give up despite the societal pressures?
“Main tooti nahin,” she says.
“I never accept defeat. I took each challenge as an obstacle. I wanted to show to the world if given the right platform, girls too can shine.”
There were times when Bilquis contemplated leaving the sport. A shoulder injury after the 2009 world cup was one such time. But her mother pushed her.
“My mother told me if I quit, it will be a defeat for all girls of Kashmir. I stuck on to the course.”
Bilquis Mir is a role-model for young girls in the Kashmir valley
Bilquis won her first medal in 1999 at a state-level meet in Srinagar. In no time her talent was recognized. Four years later, she got picked for the state team for the nationals in Hyderabad. This was also the first time she travelled out of the valley.
“I travelled in a train for the first time. I was so scared that I cried throughout the journey.”From the young girl who cried during her entire first train journey, she went on to test the waters across the country and the world.
And now she dreams of putting the next generation of water sportspersons from Kashmir on the world map.
I have trained more than 200 girls till date. We have a lot of potential. Inshallah, we will soon see a Kashmiri girl represent the country in Olympics,” she says with hope in her voice.
*Canoeing and Kayaking are Olympic level sports boat race. In a kayak, the paddler is seated and uses a double-bladed paddle while in a canoe, the paddler kneels and uses a single-bladed paddle to propel the boat forward in a race.