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Flagging off

Flagging off

(more pics to follow)

I woke on the first ring of the alarm. It was 4 a.m. and I was vastly disoriented. I put it off. I had no time to ponder on how much I could snooze. 3.5 hours. That’s how much I’d slept. A host of last minute changes and running around meant I finally had everything packed and tucked into bed by 12:30. Ideal for the first day of paddling. A flurry of activity followed and by the time the driver showed at our door, we were running late. Bundling food, clothing, equipment, paddles and ourselves in, we rushed to Gateway. When I say rushed, I meant meandered like a river in the flat plains, as our driver is one hell of a cool cat.

By the time I was at the Yacht Club, I had received a bunch of calls. A wake up call to Rajan and our kayak was out the back door. Homi had come down to see me off, and as we strolled up to the Gateway, I observed my high school seniors Akash and Suven were helping dad put up my banner on the perpetually pestilent police barricades that marr Gateway’s morning beauty. Mom was content watching it unfold. Good mom. Nikhil and his wife were a welcome sight and as we started to set up things, a good crowd
started forming. Our local policeman was not to be left behind as he came asking for permissions at the first sight of a congregation of more than 5 people. This must be a habit evolved from the Raj, of which he was clearly a strong believer. Content with our papers, he left us to it.

I have to say that it was a real pleasure having Zubin Dubash, one of the strongest supporters of my expedition, at the flag off early in the morning. Just as with all these months, he was full of that miraculous energy he just exudes. Thanks Zubin.

Zubin & Fali
Where the nickname/brand KK came from.
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Ze Old Gang
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Mom & Dad. Being their supreme best.
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The delightful Avnish Dhall bringing morning cheer to the flag off

 

 

One of the biggest surprises was Avnish Dhall walking right through the crowd to announce he was there. It’s been a relationship that has been a cornerstone of this journey and despite his crazy travel schedule, his advice and help has been pouring in constantly for the last 2 months, so it was great of him to shuttle straight from the airport down to the flag off. Melanie and Patrick were quick to tell me it was a bloody brilliant expedition and I had to agree.

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Paddle Hard & Monjin 🙂
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Goa is That way.

And just like that, the flood gates on well wishers blew right open. The old gang was there with Meds, Pooja, Arun and Swati driving down for their cups of chai and Ali (minus Zoya) walked up to tell me he would rather sleep off my next launch than kayak out with me.(I’m going to have you on the water next time man) Anurag Aggarwal, a spitting image of his brother and dear friend Ankit came all the way from goregaon to see me cast off, and it was a very sweet gesture indeed. Fali, the christener of my

nickname KK, and a rock behind me in tough times, came down and it was great meeting him after these months. Hermann, one of my oldest sailing friends was kind enough to get my mom a PFD, and as always brought a smile to everyone there. Ninad and Mithu, both seasoned sailors and great people to hang with, came by to wish me all the best and it was really good to
get their backing on this expedition.

I had been hoping that the promise Joieta and Jaideep, both stalwart of the cause, had made would come true and then, right in the middle of it all, making the chai conversations a full blown party were the children of MagicBus. Adorned in their lovely blue t-shirts they made for the biggest and loudest and funnest contingent to see me off. It was fun being introduced to the gang again, a ceremony everyone should do in their lives. And I wasted no time in showing them the shiny new kayak and explain to them what I was about to undergo. Just like at Shivaji Park, I could see it spark their imaginations. The white kayak eventually took center stage, and we spent a good deal of time posing and cheering in front of the kayak and the banner. One of the nicest gestures of the day, was that they brought a big cake out for MagicBus’ 16th birthday. Yes, it’s been fighting the good fight for 16 years now. And along with the youngest of the fray, I cut the cake. Thanks so much for being a part of this. It’s been a real honour and a pleasure working and doing this event in support of you.

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Happy birthday MagicBus
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Bright early smiles on the Bright kids at MagicBus

 

Shanj and GC were both the most active people at the event making sure every moment of the event was captured and without them, Tarun, Cam & Shreepad, I’m not sure this would have been a success.

Finally, my mom and dad, who’ve from the moment ‘Goa’ have said ‘Let’s do it’ were on set and we took some shots with the banner and the kayak.

A round of photographs ensued. A moment to spend some time with all the people who’d attended the event and it was time for warm up. There’s a different charm to doing your stretches between the Gateway and the Taj as the morning crowd swept past. The kids who’d taken some time to take in the Gateway were back in time for the Pooja of the kayak and the journey. Family comes first and when my aunt or chotti-atya as we lovingly call her, my cousin Prasad and his father showed up, we took a moment to ourselves.

Finally it was time to hit the water. The jetty was open, and as I lifted the Kayak, I could feel the collective eyes on me. I walked it down to the water. Stretched my legs a little. Assembled my paddle. And got in the seat. As I swept my feet in, I looked back to a crowded slipway, and the walls surrounded by well wishers. I must be doing something right.

So I paddled hard.

Every smiling face

Every smiling face

Yesterday I wrote about how sport helps transcend boundaries. Today it played out before me in spectacular fashion.

I woke up early today to attend the MagicBus session. I was a little nervous and my perennial stubble / beard was the first to take a hit. A dear friend of mine,  Siddharth Menon, architect, sports lover and humanitarian, was accompanying me to see the kids. Reaching Dadar with 25 minutes to spare, we were hopelessly lost much to our and our hosts despair. We finally found the distinctly red Sai Swamy Vayam Mandir and seeing the white tshirts with MagicBus emblazoned on them meant we had arrived.

First things first, I was surprised to see it wasn’t a closed room the children were in. They were merrily gathered in the open field that is Shivaji Park. While a whole military parade practiced for the upcoming Republic Day, 21 children listened intently to their bubbly, confident and charismatic mentor, Manohar. Sandhya from MagicBus welcomed me and before I knew it I was part of the circle playing a curious game of Introduce Yourself. It took just one Dabaang-inspired-move to get everyone to join in and chime out my name. As I laughed at the hilarity of watching 20 small kids turn up their imaginary collars and strut to the center of the circle saying – Hi my name is Kaustubh Khade (in imitation of me) I realised that in that small act, I’d already been accepted. Everything after that ran as smooth as a hot knife through butter.

In the circle with the kids
The Inner Circle

Manohar was running a small game to gauge the kids attentiveness and from the screams of delight, it was going very well. Barely had Sandhya started on telling me about the program that our attention was diverted to a much more pressing issue. The kids were sorted into teams and were about to start their practice game for the inter-zonal MagicBus football tournament. It was naturally of paramount importance to play for a team. And old friendships were turned into rivalries as Sid was chosen to play for the blue team and I was playing for the whites. As any game of football this one was particularly important and I was chided early by my young captain for letting Sid past me( a cheeky nutmeg I inquired very sternly about later). I hate letting any team down and I resolved to do better against sid later 😉 The excitement was palpable and my side found its feet very fast. Some deft passing and clinical finishing from our forwards put us 2-0 up in no time. As anyone in football will know,  goal celebrations are everything and I was blown away with how inclusive they were in my team. Everyone high fived everyone and I would be lying if it didn’t melt my heart when the smallest girl on our team, would smile the shyest smile, run over with both hands in the air for her high fives. Everyone contributed and our defender Jyoti made me smile a proud smile when she cleared a clear run from the opposition and then asked me – ‘was that good?’ More than you know Lil one.

Everything was a blank slate. And all that mattered was the moment. Falling on your knees, shrugging it off and getting back to the game became commonplace. The team urged me to attack and score some goals, but I chose to play the playmaker role, lest the blues feel cheated in practice. There was a time though when the build up play left me with the ball in front of the keeper and I lobbed it in. And I turned to look for my team, and they came rushing in. Much excitement followed. And all the familiar feelings of winning as a team came rushing back.

As one team came off to make space for the other, Manohar ran the kids through the technicalities of the game and what constitutes a clean game. There was much happening, and I was caught between the kids repeating after their mentor, the engaging game going on, where Sid was conducting his side’s defences, and Sandhya’s effervescent answers to my many questions. I was immersed and it felt good.

Me with the kids, trying to answer some questions
Manohar Conducting. Kids Engaging.

Right after we played some team work games and while we all played for points, one could clearly see how teamwork and understanding and taking defeat magnanimously was the purpose. Everyone laughed and discussed strategy and played their part. When our white team lost, the victorious yellow team shook hands and were taught to say ‘well played’. If everyone in real life were like this, the world would be a better place no?

While Sid was busy discussing the details of MagicBus, I was busy being dragged from one group to another and playing with the children. I would not have known we had spent 2 hours there were it not for the phone calls and list of emails I’d so easily ignored. Right after the program, we boarded the MagicBus Bus. Sandhya and Manohar kept us both engaged with stories on how long the program has been run and the impact.

The bus took us from Dadar to Dharavi, a place I’ve known for a while now. The idea was to visit the homes of the children and meet the parents. And it was a very rewarding experience. MagicBus also organizes for football tournaments for the parents of the children and we met with 4 mothers who’d played this year. Talking while washing the dishes, taking time off sewing or house hold chores, we met a very bubbly and alive set of mothers who clearly enjoyed being associated with MagicBus. While the first mother we met spoke forcefully about her matches and having to fight to win, another regaled how her son was now practicing football at the Sports complex just opposite their chawl. We were told that the water lasted 2 hours in the morning and it explained the rush of people washing and cleaning; and that the tiling above the gutters that ran between two houses (that sufficed as a road) had been built in light of the elections. The open sewers that emptied into the ‘khaadi’ had resulted in 2 dengue deaths and hygiene was a constant problem. To be faced with such reality was to open one’s eyes to the Pandora’s box we so often neglect in our daily lives. As a testament to the mothers though, not a single one spoke about it. All they talked about were their children, and how they enjoyed MagicBus. How the tournament was a welcome change in their lives. How MagicBus would come to individual houses to ensure children stayed regular and learnt their lessons. There was much to be happy for, much to stay in the program for. Dropouts are at a minimal and children are transitioned from the learning phase to the livelihood phase. The mothers were thankful and I sensed a great satisfaction and pleasure there.

 

Induced smiles from a parents stories in Dharavi
Induced smiles from a parents stories in Dharavi

One doesn’t have to ponder too hard whether a program this inclusive and engaging can have long term effects on a community. Will the next generation in Dharavi learn right from wrong by learning to respect one another on a playing field? Will the shy girl on the field find a place and be loved as we did when we won? Will they be humble in victory and strong in defeat? I believe so.

As an end note, there is much and more that we are fortunate enough to have in our lives. In conversation with the children, mothers and the staff at MagicBus, a lot of joy can be brought in the little things. The white t-shirt and black shorts with the MagicBus symbol depicts a symbol of unity and hope here. I urge you to support the cause. Please come forth and visit the centers. Find out for yourself. So I request you to visit the page – www.ketto.org/kayak4acause and be generous.

When I was being introduced, one of the MagicBus staff said – he is helping raise funds for the cause. I feel a great sense of pride in it. I know you will too.

The bus!
The bus!
All aboard the bus
All aboard the bus!