New Delhi: 29-year-old Arzoo Khan could have taken refuge under many excuses to live a non-descript life -- hailing from a backward State like Jharkhand, an extremely poor family, being a girl and that too, from the conservative Muslim community. But some are supposed to shine like the sun and brighten the path for others.
The teenager, who used to wear a burqa to hide her jersey and track pants on the way to practice grounds, is now an international Lawn Bowls player. She has appeared in several newspaper reports and channels, and says, “Many people from my community in Ranchi earlier objected to my uniform and ‘playing with boys.’ Now they say they want their daughters to succeed like me.”
Driven by their mother, who is herself just a Xth pass but firmly believes in education, Arzoo and her brother Zahid have done exceptionally well for their circumstances. Zahid Hassan is a corporal in the Indian Air Force, currently working as a Communication Assistant. He was earlier into shooting and even represented Jharkhand in the National Games; but their parents couldn’t afford a rifle and that led him to eventually quit shooting.
Their father is a farmer in the Bharno Block of Gumla District in Jharkhand. On many days, they couldn't even afford two square meals a day, Arzoo said.
“For me, Lawn Bowls happened when I went to meet my brother at his shooting range in Ranchi in 2008. Mother and I had come from our home in Gumla (district) to see bhai. My mother, Jahanara Khatun, is only an Anganwadi worker, but she is very informed. She had read about Farzana Khan, who is from Jharkhand and won Gold in Lawn Bowls in the 2007 National Games, and asked if she was present at the range and if we could meet her,” said Arzoo.
“Incidentally, Farzana was there and we ended up having a long chat. She inspired me to try out Lawn Bowls. While I had only played Marbles in school and never thought of taking up sports for a career, I took her advice and started training,” Arzoo recalled.
It was a tough journey for Arzoo who had just started her B.Sc.; chemistry happens to be her first love. “With the launch of initiatives like Khelo India, there’s still a promise of a future for sportspersons. When I had started, there was no job security or financial security. So my parents said I must continue studies alongside. I used to travel four hours daily between my practice ground and college. Sometimes, there was just no money to travel or for food; my father is a simple farmer with very meager earnings,” she said.
On top of it all were the snide remarks from people, ‘Beti ko beta banane ki koshish kar rahe hain.’ (They have mistaken their daughter for a son), Arzoo recalled.
Thankfully, with support from many corners, including the Australian coach of her Lawn Bowls’ team Richard Gayle, she started doing well. At the 2011 National Games, she won Gold in the Pairs Category. She repeated that feat at the 2012 National Championship. At the 2013 National Championship, she won Bronze and the same at the 2019 National Championship again.
“Initially, the prize money felt good. I won Rs. 7 lakh at the National Games. The money helped me finance my college studies and our household expenses. Then came the thrill of it. Today, I feel like I play for the national flag. There’s no bigger kick for a sportsperson than to see their national flag go up and the national anthem being played when they have won,” Arzoo says.
How do her parents feel today? “They are very proud, both of me and bhai. The game and our conviction has raised our economic and social standard. It has given me an identity and recognition. I am invited to the Republic Day celebrations in Delhi as a guest, and the people who spoke behind our backs now praise us profusely,” she said.
What are her thoughts on the prevailing religious divide and Hindu-Muslim acrimony in the country? “It’s sad and very noticeable. I can see that Hindus are becoming more Hindus and Muslims more Muslims in their outward appearance and behavior. This is when I firmly believe that religion is very personal, it is not to be exhibited to the rest of the world.”