A couple of weeks before she competed at the Asian Junior Championships, Bushra Khan called her mother. The athlete was in tears. Her track running spikes had been worn threadbare.
“She asked me whether I could stitch them up for her. They were really worn out. I knew that even if they were repaired, she could slip and get injured. I told her to buy a new pair and that I would send the money,” says her mother, Shehnaz.
Breaking in a new pair of running shoes ahead of a major international competition might seem like an obvious purchase, but not for Bushra. A new pair of Nike running spikes — of the kind the 19-year-old needed — costs Rs 16,000. It is a hefty expense even in good times for the family. This wasn’t a good time. It had not been a year since Bushra’s father, Gaffar, the family’s primary breadwinner, was killed in an industrial accident.
Since then, Shehnaz and her three daughters have struggled through on a one-time compensation of Rs 1 lakh given by the owners of the factory where Gaffar worked, and financial support provided by the Madhya Pradesh government to Bushra. There were months where even a roof over their heads wasn’t assured. A pair of track spikes would take a hefty bite of the family’s life savings.
Bushra wanted to decline. “She never wants to ask for anything. She said, ‘If you spend that much on a pair of shoes, what will you live on?’ I replied, ‘ Meri beti thodi nange pair bhagegi (my daughter isn’t going to run barefoot is she)?” says Shehnaz, who sent over the money. “ Bacchi hai meri. Jitni de sakti hun usse jyada karna hai mujhe (She is my daughter. I have to give her even more than I can),” she says.
The reward was worth it. Not just that Bushra won a silver in the women’s 3000m race in Yecheon on Tuesday, but simply that she was competing and living her dream as an athlete. “I watched her race on a phone. I watch all her races. Itni khushi hoti hai usko bhagte dekh ke (It gives me so much joy to see her run),” says Shehnaz. This has always been the case.
Growing up in an industrial area of Sehore, just outside Bhopal in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, Shehnaz Khan and her husband always wanted to see their daughters play. Neither was highly educated and both worked jobs at the factory.
“Where we are from, girls are not supposed to play sports but we were never like that. Her father was always fascinated by sportspersons. He always dreamt that his daughter would compete for India in an international competition. When I was a child, even I wanted to run, but did not know the path. So, both of us wanted to see our daughter succeed,” says Shehnaz.
They did whatever they could – enrolling their daughter in a private school, even though a government institute would be cheaper, and ignoring taunts from others. Bushra had the talent and was eventually scouted at a state-wide talent hunt competition. She joined the Madhya Pradesh Sports Hostel in Bhopal.
Sheo Kumar Prasad, the coach who spotted Bushra at the talent hunt, says, “She was someone who stood out. She had a fast stride, good height, long legs and very good endurance, which is good for her event but she also had a real zidd (stubbornness) and a never-give-up attitude without which you can’t be a sportsperson.” Prasad has been coaching her in Bhopal for the last five years.
Even when Bushra trained in Bhopal, her father would take the time out to come visit her. “At least three days of the week he would come to see me train. He would always ask me if I needed anything. He would always make sure I got juice and milk to drink,” says Bushra over the phone from Yecheon.
Coach Prasad remembers Gaffar well. “He was the kind of man you would say was from the working class, but he was devoted to his daughter. If she asked for something such as a pair of shoes, he wouldn’t say no. He wouldn’t say I have to run the family for a month in that amount. He would arrange it somehow. Sometimes, he would tell me and he would give some of it and I would find a way to make up the balance,” says Prasad.
Indeed, the family was never financially well off but they always found a way to get by. Bushra too was improving steadily. She won a gold medal in the 1500m at the U-18 national championships in 2021 and also holds the 2000m record in the women’s U-16 category.
Bushra says her father had even bigger dreams. “He was determined that I should carry an Indian flag and compete outside India. I think he was even more interested in this than I was. Kehte thhe mein apni beti ko bhej ke rahunga. (He used to say, I’m going to find a way to send my daughter abroad).”
All that came to an end when Gaffar died in a chemical blast at the factory where he worked. The factory was owned by Gaffar’s distant relatives. Following the shock of his death, there were further blows. “After the blast, the factory was sealed. We had lived in the servant quarters there but were told to leave,” says Shehnaz.
Beyond the modest compensation from the factory owner, the family received little help. The family ties did not count. “Instead of supporting us, they tried to make us say that nothing had happened,” says Shehnaz. With what money they had, Shehnaz struggled with her children to find a place to live.
“We were thrown out of our home at 10pm. When we came back for our belongings, we were told they had been sold. We were just going from one room to another and trying to find a place where we could stay. Bushra was at the sports academy, but I had to take my other two daughters out of their school and stop their sports training” says Shehnaz.
Bushra joined them soon. “I felt there was nothing in sport. Everything was so expensive. Each pair of shoes costs Rs 16,000. I had to change my shoes every six months. I needed money for my diet. How could I continue to be an athlete when there was no way for anyone to support us financially. I decided to quit sports and look for a job. I felt I had to support the family somehow,” says Bushra.
It took coach Prasad four months to convince her otherwise. “She was someone who had so much hunger to do well. That was one of the qualities I liked the most about her. After her father’s death she had completely given up. I told her, ‘ Beta upar wala aise thode hi chhod dega tumhe (Child, god won’t just abandon you like this).’ I told her, ‘Your father’s dream was to see you compete for India and not to work some small job. I told her it would be a waste of her talent to do otherwise. If she continued to compete in sports, she would eventually get a job,’” says Prasad.
Madhya Pradesh sports minister, Yashodharaje Scindia, too, spoke to Bushra. “She told me I had to compete because that was what my father wanted. She said if I did not do it papa ka sapna pura nahin hoga (my father’s dream would not be fulfilled),” says Bushra. Scindia also released Rs 4 lakh as support for the talented athlete and her family. This has kept the family afloat.
Incidentally, Bushra also won a gold medal in the Khelo India University Games last month. The gold ensures a stipend, and she hopes it comes through quickly.
While her father’s side of the family has all but cut off ties, Bushra is still backed to the hilt by her mother and sisters. Shehnaz and her daughters now stay at her maternal village of Chena in Morena. While their financial future is far from certain, there is at least a supportive home to live in.
With that security, Bushra has shrugged off her break from the sport. At the Indian U20 Nationals in Tiruvannamalai in April this year she took gold in the 3000m and a silver in the 5000m. “We don’t have a lot of things but we all are supporting each other. When Bushra won a silver, we were all happy, but her grandmother went around the neighbourhood, boasting, ‘Now, my granddaughter will be going to the Olympics,’” says Shehnaz.
Bushra shares that dream as well. “I hope one day to compete at the Olympics. That is what my father wanted,” she says.
The Olympics are, of course, a long way away and coach Prasad says a lot easier said than done. “She has the physical qualities but you don’t just go to the Olympics on talent. You need a proper team – physios, nutritionists, strength and conditioning experts. Right now, Bushra doesn’t have any of this. Look at the other girls here,” he says of the Asian Championships participants.
“The girl from Japan who won the 3000m had several pairs of spikes in her bag. She had one for warming up, another for training, and yet another for competition. Even the girl from Singapore who didn’t even place on the podium had five pairs. Bushra had one. Her living and training expenses are being taken care of at the MP Sports Academy, but for everything else, I really hope we can get people to sponsor her,” says Prasad.
Bushra hopes her silver medal at the Asian Championships will encourage people to come forward. “It wasn’t my personal best but it was very important for me to win this silver. If I can get some support for my shoes, it will be a big help,” she says.
Till then, her mother will fight for her like always. “There are times when Bushra worries about our financial condition and how I will pay for what she needs, such as her shoes. But I always tell her, ‘ Tu bas bhaag. Allah raasta khol dega (You just run. God will open a path for you),’” says Shehnaz.
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