Jyoti outside her shelter at the Dornapal Camp Chhattisgarh, India
By Ashim Chowla
CHATTISGARH, India, August 16 - Jyoti Salaam, 14 years old, sits upright and uncomfortably before us outside her small hut in the Dornapal Camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Dantewada District of Chhattisgarh.
We tell her that she is a remarkable child. Gifted with grit and determination to succeed. How else should we describe her amazing abilities?
Jyoti managed to bag the 8th position in the long jump event at the National Schools Athletics Meet at Ernakulam where she represented Chhattisgarh. And she did not even possess a pair of running shoes.
Driven by motivation to succeed
From one event to another, starting from an inter-schools meet at Jagdalpur, followed by state-level sports events including 100 and 200 meter running events and long jump at Pendra, Kanker and Raipur, she stood first amongst unequals! Impoverished, traumatized and lacking proper nutrition. But driven by great motivation to succeed.
Jyoti started school when she turned five in Doobatota. She recalls how she felt scared after her friends told her about ghosts in the school building. Terrified, she told her father that she did not want to go to school. He understood.
In fact he felt relieved that now there was a good enough reason to send his daughter away for a while. He had been worried about the presence of Naxalites in the area.
Jyoti was eight years old when she joined the Government Girls School in Sukma and began staying at the Mission Hostel for girls located close to the school premises.
The hostel is run by Nuns and Priests of the Deenbandhu Samaj headquartered in Jagdalpur. Sister Shirley and Sister Mary Jose describe Jyoti as their favourite inmate. She is full of courage they tell us.
She stands up for her friends when they are in trouble. Anupam Mishra, her sports coach at the school tells us how he spotted her talent for athletics.
Provided support this gifted girl would go places
During a routine sports session, Anupam noticed how effortlessly Jyoti could run, leaving all the other children behind. He began training her in long jump and was taken aback by the distance she covered with ease.
He tried to push her to practice for long distance running events, but she lacked the stamina. This was obviously going to be the case, given that there was no provision for additional nutrition. After she stood first in 100 and 200 meter running events and long jump as well, Anupam was convinced that Jyoti was unstoppable, full of potential and likely to go places.
Go places she did. But as Anupam laments, if only she had the support required to go further. Jyoti requires sports gear, supplementary nutrition and lots of special practice sessions. All of which would turn her into a national star, an icon for aspiring sportspersons from Chhattisgarh.
When we met Jyoti at the Dornapal camp she told us that she wanted to become a soldier in the army when she grows up. When we asked her why, I want to fight for my country came the reply. Is it because of what happened to your house when the Naxalites abducted your father, we ask.
She turns silent and refuses to speak with us about the dark incident which overturned her life forever. But we have it from Sukri who works at the Mission Hostel in Sukma. When her brothers and a few other people from her village came one day to take her away they were sullen and quiet.
They refused to speak about why they wanted to take Jyoti back but they did mention that it was going to be for a few days only. Sukri recalls how Jyoti would often burst into inconsolably into tears after she returned.
Against all odds, Jyoti continues to put in her best
She was not her usual exuberant self. One week after she returned, Sukri went to her dormitory and asked her to come down because Jyoti’s father had come to see her. Jyoti screamed with delight as she sprinted across the room and ran down the stairs straight into her waiting father’s embrace. Her tears would not stop but her worst fears were over.
Later, she told Sukri how she had gone back to her village and witnessed the horrific scene of her house completely demolished by Naxalites, when they came to pick up her father.
But what mattered for Jyoti was that her father was alive and they were able to rebuild their lives after this incident. For Jyoti, this was her second chance in life and she was not going to let it pass.
She continues to put in her best, in sports and studies. She has started dreaming once again of a future for herself. She wants to put the past behind her and move on. The scars will heal of course, with time. But Jyoti is not alone in her circumstances. Across Dantewada, if you speak with little children, you will feel the tiny tremors; that fear of the unknown.
It can make them stop in their tracks and give up. Or like it worked for Jyoti, it can be the very source of energy and inspiration to arise and conquer the world.