“You can always dream another dream.”
That’s how Ishrat Akther starts the conversation. For a 23-year-old who has had to battle challenges in several walks of life in the last six years, her ‘never say die’ attitude is what has strengthened her faith in the words she has just quoted.
But resilience hasn’t always come easy to her. It was an incident in 2016 that shook her world — a fall from a balcony in her hometown of Baramulla, Kashmir, changed the way the young girl began to see life.
The accident resulted in a damaged spinal cord and unending pain that followed for years to come. However, the 23-year-old decided hope does not end until you say so, and through a series of changes she made in her life, has come a long way.
Today, Ishrat is the first international wheelchair basketball player from Jammu & Kashmir, an award that she was presented with on 26 January 2019 by Farooq Khan. Accomplishing this feat hasn’t been an easy road, but she says it was worth it.
An accident that crushed her spirit
24 August 2016.
It was a day like any other. Ishrat had completed her Class 10, abuzz with plans for college and the future. Whilst she was near the edge of the balcony, her foot slipped and she fell from the second floor. It was gruesome, and a blur for the then 15-year-old and her family.
She was rushed to a hospital in Baramulla and operated on. Following this, she spent a year in her room on bed rest.
This time, she recounts, wasn’t the easiest for her.
“I would confine myself to my room and wouldn’t venture out at all. There would be unbearable pain when I would try to sit down,” she says, adding that she’d spend her day crying and wondering how life could be so unfair to her, as to change completely in a matter of seconds.
Her family tried their level best to help, but couldn’t do much that would help the girl gain back movement in her feet.
“I was depressed for months on end,” says Ishrat.
While she never completely recovered from the shock of the accident and how within a split second, her life had changed completely, she began taking things in her stride.
It was in 2017, that her family got to know about the Voluntary Medicare Society, a medico-social voluntary organisation that helps patients with rehabilitation.
They were conducting a camp in Baramulla that same year, wherein they were providing people with wheelchairs and aid.
“My parents took me to this camp, and the consulting doctors asked me to come to Srinagar, where they had another centre of theirs. Here they said they would continue my treatment,” says Ishrat.
So, Ishrat moved to the NGO in Srinagar, with her father, where she remained for a year. All her medical expenses were taken care of, and she was provided with physiotherapy, corrective medical procedures, and more.
Slowly, Ishrat began regaining her confidence and felt better to a point where she could now sit comfortably in the wheelchair.
Through this time, Ishrat also saw a new side of life. While she had often seen the chair as a symbol of confinement, she began to interact with others in the NGO who had accepted their disabilities and partook in various activities on campus.
‘Basketball gave me new hope.’
“There were a group of boys in wheelchairs, playing basketball on the court, and they made it seem like so much fun,” she says. As she would later learn, the boys belonged to the Jammu Kashmir boys basketball team.
Having not had many interactions with peers in the year following the accident, she was reluctant to engage in conversation, but couldn’t stop herself from wondering how a sport could make people so happy. In the days to come, she approached the team.
“The boys told me I wasn’t the only one who was interested in basketball. They said so many other girls were also struggling with a certain physical disability and desired to play sports,” she says.
Ishrat began enquiring about this with the authorities at the NGO and began practising with the boys under medical supervision.
She attended a basketball camp in 2018 and was selected to represent Delhi at the National Basketball Championship in Tamil Nadu.
This was the time when phones were banned in the Valley and so Ishrat had no idea about her selection.
“One day in 2018, the police and army knocked on the door and they had my coach on the line, who told me that if I was interested I would have to be in Chennai within a day, where there would be a three-day selection process for the national team.”
Taking all this in within a few minutes, was overwhelming, she recounts. “However, Major Chandan Singh Chauhan from the 52 RR army battalion told me that this was my chance to shine and do something out of my comfort zone, and this filled me with a zeal.”
Ishrat left for Chennai where she was part of a selection process. Recounting why she represented Delhi and played with the girls from there, she says it was because Jammu & Kashmir did not have a female wheelchair basketball team at the time.
On returning home after playing the national, Ishrat now had a new purpose — connecting with other women in Jammu & Kashmir who were physically disabled and wanted to play basketball.
A slew of victories
“Basketball made me feel like I wasn’t incapable, but rather, in control,” she says, adding that she wanted others to feel the thrill she did.
In 2019, Ishrat made her town proud once again when she was selected for a national camp by the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India. This time it was to represent Jammu & Kashmir at the national level in Mohali
“The Federation saw to it that I had everything I needed and all facilities were provided,” she says.
The team managed to reach the finals and Ishrat went on to represent India at the international championship in Thailand in 2019.
Beating the odds
As someone who has battled depression, played with a damaged spine and still managed to shine, Ishrat says, “Whenever I am called as a motivational speaker at any college in Kashmir, I always share this irony that I have witnessed through life.”
She adds, “People who would see me in a wheelchair would often comment and express concern about how a disabled girl like me could ever play a sport. But today, those same people are shocked about how far I have come.”
She adds that there have been a few people without whom she’d never be able to accomplish these feats.
“Among these are Colonel Isenhower and Captain Louis George and 52 Rashtriya Rifles battalion. They have always guided me like my parents.”
Ishrat is now back to her studies and is pursuing her first year of Arts.
“After a break of four years following the accident, I went back to studies in 2021, and I’m getting a grip on life,” says Ishrat.
Six months back, she also received her driver’s license for four-wheeler vehicles. While the accident, she says, shattered her faith, she found the right people along the way and opportunities that proved to her that all is not lost.
“You can always dream another dream.”
Edited by Yoshita Rao
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