On a hot summer day, Madhusudan Pandit, 42, a homoeopathy practitioner in Saraunjha village of Begusarai district in Bihar blows his whistle as a command to Payal, his daughter, to take another lap in the River Balan.
Meet Payal Pandit, 12, a state swimming champion in the Under-19 category. As she practices her butterfly stroke, curious villagers stare at this girl, clad in a swimming costume moving ahead effortlessly in the water. After an hour-long session of free style, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly stroke, Payal is out of the water and in no time changed and ready to walk back home - about four kilometres away - back to homework and household chores. While there is a pond - Kuranva Soti - near her home she can no longer practice there because it is filthy and under dispute.
Payal's tale is no ordinary story. Born into a lower middle-class family, she is one of the five children of Rajkumari and Madhusudan Pandit. Despite the odds, Payal is a three-time state swimming champion. She has participated in a number of national-level competitions in addition to the 24th Sub Junior National Aquatic Championships 2007 held in Goa last year and the National Junior/Sub Junior Aquathlon Championships in Pune in December 2005.
Payal began swimming at the age of seven - egged on by a father determined to make his children excel at the sport. Even though Pandit found it difficult to cover costs, he tried his best to give his eldest two, Payal and son Pratinidhi, whatever facilities he could afford - swimming gear, training equipment and the opportunity to travel to national-level competitions beyond Bihar.
Petitions to the district administration and the state government for assistance have fallen on deaf ears. The result - Payal has not yet won a national-level competition. "Girls from other states are coached and learn techniques required to win. Payal doesn't even have access to a swimming pool for practice. But if she gets the required facilities, I am sure she would do the state proud. I don't have the finances to provide for her. But no one is interested," says a hapless father.
Ironically, Payal is a known face in the state. She, along with two girls from the Mallah community of her village - Savitri Kumari and Baby Kumari - was the star in the UNICEF calendar of 2007. (The Mallah community is a lower caste fishermen's community found in states such as Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujrat and Madhya Pradesh.)
Despite the star status, there was no financial support forthcoming from any quarter. The trio simply remained poster girls - creating a feeling of optimism and hope for the state - even though not much was going for them.
But perhaps Payal is better of with her poverty - when pitted against her swimming cousins, Savitri and Baby, who now bear the consequences of their families' Naxal leanings. Since March 28, Savitri, 14, has been on the run and is untraceable. Members of the Mallah community explain that the police are after her family. Her cousin Baby, 12, and her mother have also gone underground, even as Faudar Sahni, her father, is in jail in connection with the Kuranva water tax dispute case. (Faudar Sahni was one of the 17 accused in the Kuranva water dispute case. The person who has been granted the fishing rights of the pond had accused that Sahni and 16 others were illegally fishing in the pond and they had also resorted to violence.)
In the March 28 encounter between the police and the Mallahs - who are believed to have given refuge to the Maoists - arms, ammunition and Naxal literature were seized from them, according to SHO of Beerpur P.S. Ram Dular Prasad. This resulted in the arrest of several people and the disappearance of many male members with largely only women and children being left behind in the village. Some policemen were also injured in the crossfire, explained Prasad.
(Maoists/Naxals are part of the underground revolutionary group - Communist Party of India (Maoist), formed with the merger of two prominent naxalite outfits, the People's War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre. Labeled a terrorist outfit by the government, the Maoist outfit conducts guerrilla warfare and is currently active in Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and tribal-dominated areas in the borderlands of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Orissa. Insurgents garner support mainly through violence, while some in the hinterlands view them as champions of the poor.)
However, Draupadi Devi, Baby's mother, narrates a different tale. According to her, the police attacked and looted nearly 20 homes of her community after these families were wrongfully indicted by a bunch of criminals. The criminals had a vested interest in the Kuranva Soti pond, a source of fishing for the Mallah community and the swimming pool for the budding swimming champions.
As a result of the recent turmoil, the sisters are no longer a household name. While once the villagers of Saraunjha had eagerly pooled in to send the girls for a national competition in Pune, today most families - including their mentor Pandit - don't want to have anything to do with them.
Baby seems to be losing her hopes to insurgency and certainly not because of an absence of talent. A student of class VI - in the same school as Payal - Baby stood first in the XXIX Bihar State Age-Group Aquatic Championship-2006 and the 30th Bihar State Senior Aquatic Championship-2007. She and her cousin have also participated in the National Junior/ Aquathlon Championship 2006 in Bhopal, 24th Sub Junior National Aquatic Championship 2007, the 53rd National School Championship (Aquatic) organised by Sports Authority of Gujarat in Surat and the 17th National Junior/Sub Junior Triathlon / Aquathlon Championship held at Porbander in January.
Water babies of change for their community, the youngsters are now engulfed by a sinking feeling.
Even as the glint of determination and visions of becoming the next Bula Choudhary - the first Asian swimmer to swim the English Channel twice - has not disappeared from their eyes, the consistent lack of facilities quietly pulls at their hearts. So while Payal hasn't given up her dream of crossing the Channel, she hears the harsh voice of reality when her dejected father says, "I can't afford it any more."
On her part, Baby wonders when she will get to hear from her father, who languishes in jail in connection with the very pond that once made her buoyant with hopes?
Remove the poverty and political tangles and these 'Star Girls' have shown that they can make a mark for themselves and stay neck-and-neck with the more privileged of society. Perhaps, it's time society took the plunge for them.