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Manoj Sarkar: The ‘Racket Man’ Like No Other

India’s Tokyo Paralympics chapter finally came to a glorious end. India’s scripted history at the world’s most celebrated sports podium. And each Indian is proud and elated to see India’s glory at the Tokyo Paralympics. India recorded its best-ever medal tally at the Paralympics. The heroes returned home with 19 medals, 15 more than their previous count. 

The journey of each Para-athlete is the story of empowerment, from initial hurdles, challenges, to being underestimated to playing at the world’s biggest sports podium. Today, we are going to talk about the journey of Para-badminton star Manoj Sarkar. Sarkar has had some incredible successes in his sport in the last few years, and yesterday he bagged a bronze at the Tokyo Paralympics

Although he started playing state and district in 2007 only and the most extraordinary part of his journey is that he started competing in para-badminton in 2011. Before that, he didn’t even know that there is something called para-sport for athletes with physical disabilities. 

He did his schooling at Janta Inter College, Rudrapur, Uttarakhand. While talking to Sociotab, Manoj Sarkar laughing tells that he started his M.com in 2013 and still hasn’t been able to complete his M.com.  Read the inspirational journey of the ‘Racket Man’ , how he made the offensive words of people his driving force to rise ahead in his career. 

Excerpts from Interview before he headed to Tokyo Paralympics: 

How are you feeling to start your Tokyo Paralympics journey?

I won’t say I am nervous. But definitely, it is a dream for many players and I am really excited to live my dream. Whatever may be the result later I am really excited to play. I will give my 100 per cent and enjoy the game. 

How is the atmosphere at home?

Everyone is really excited at home about this tour, of course. Also because of all the sacrifices I have done to be here today, it seems it is all paying off. It is an overwhelming journey for each player along with their families. They sacrifice a lot and go the extra mile to support you and trust you in the journey.

Now, all their patience and sacrifices are paying off. So they are very excited “at least mai unke liye ek medal laau, yeh unka sapna hai yeh”   (Sarkar says laughingly)

Can you talk more about the sacrifice and your initial journey?

We were not very financially strong. “Ek chhote se lekar bade kaam ke liye paise ikkata kare hai.”  I have collected money for my shuttle and for my racket. However, my family supported me all the way through. My mother was my biggest support. Initially, my father was hesitant about my career choices but came on board later. But in hindsight, I feel all those doubts, questions, sacrifices made me who I am today. And my family has a big role to play in this journey. 

Why didn’t your father support you initially? 

 Frankly speaking, due to my disability, my father wanted me to study and get a government job. 

“Unka sapna tha mai padhu likhu aur government job ki tayyari karu.”

 So, how did you choose a sports career when your father pushed you for a government job?

Honestly, I had bigger plans.  I remember one incident, where once I went to a bank manager’s house with my father, and the manager said really offensive things, that literally pierced my heart. 

“Uss din maine thaan liya tha ki ek din mai kuch aise karunga ki yeh mujhe khud apne ghar bulayenge.”

I will especially go to the meet after the Paralympics. (he says laughingly). My parents are no more, so I am trying to fulfil all their dreams and make them proud. 

Almost every Indian parents want their children to be in a government job, sports is a hugely neglected career choice. What do you have to say about the lack of awareness in a career in sports?

 I feel the media has a crucial role to play in filling this void. When I started playing I didn’t know what Paralympics were. For 4 years I played able-bodied and represented the state. I had it all, but I was not aware of the Paralympics. 

I remember, one of the coaches there asked me to try for the Paralympics, I literally had no clue what he was talking about. 

He said, “aap abled body mai itna accha khelte hai, para mai khelenge toh aap India khel jayenge.” 

 There was no looking thereafter, next year I played national, and next to next year I played my first International match representing India, it was a different feeling altogether.  

So what I am trying to emphasise here is the lack of knowledge and awareness regarding parasports. And I wouldn’t hesitate to say that people are still not fully aware of it. 

“India ke kone kone mein logon ko pata hi nahi hai, para sports kya hai.” So media, social media and print media have a huge role to play.  I feel that if there is enough awareness about para-sports, then the kind of problem my parents had, especially my father wouldn’t be there. They think you can’t make a career in sports, it is more profound for a person with disabilities given the existing prejudices. They think you are just going to play with your friends and have no future whatsoever. 

Furthermore, my father was hesitant to take up sports due to my disability. He never thought I could have a future in sports or have a future at all.  So the whole game is about the awareness and filling that knowledge void, here media and organisation as yours come into play. Talking, writing and spreading the word. 

So, What can be done to fill this void?

I think you must spread awareness about the different games under para-sports and the various categories and the various events that take place. Recently, I organised a camp in Uttarakhand to train and coach interested players for Para nationals from the state and honestly many people were not even aware of the whole para-sports thing.  We trained them for the nationals. Initially, we focused on para-badminton, later when the government got involved we took on other para-sports as well. 

People with Disabilities are held with a lot of prejudice and stigma, were you underestimated when you first started playing?

What you are asking is absolutely on point. Although I never had self-doubt. But people around you don’t take you seriously. I won’t take any names but there were people who underestimated my potential because of my legs.  But on the positive side, when people underestimate your worth it gives you the strength to prove them wrong. When people ignore you, sideline you, that is the time you challenge yourself to prove them wrong. “Logon ko dikhaye ki aap kaun hai.” I channelised it into a positive way and it has been my driving force initially.  They didn’t believe me but I believed myself and today I am here. 

Any instances to share that really pained you and you can’t forget?

Initially, we used to play outdoors, when I started playing indoors people used to say, “yeh ladkiyon ka game khelna kahan ja raha hai.” You see there are prejudices and stereotypes on so many levels. “Pagal ho gaya dophara mai racket lekar paunch gaya hai.”

The words deeply affected me, and I remember sometimes my seniors used to say “tera kuch nahi ho sakta, tu aage kuch bhi nahi kar sakta badminton mai.”

Those days and today, now they are desperate to meet me. That is life. 

Moving ahead, What do you do in your leisure time?

 There are a lot of things actually. If I am at home, I really enjoy the company of children, so I really like to spend time playing with them. Secondly, I really like to listen to good music. Whenever I am free, I also train young children. Even before playing Para-nationals, I was training young athletes and children. Whenever I feel low or depressed, the badminton court is the only place that brings me peace. Being in the badminton court is really therapeutic for me. 

How did you tackle the lockdown?

  I think lockdown was the best time for me. I tried to contribute and give back to society. Also, it filled me with gratitude when I saw the situation in the country that our problems are nothing, and I was so grateful to my parents  “unhone hume kabhi bhooka nahi sone diya.”

 Also, it was also a good rehabilitation time from a fitness point of view.  I had back pain, but due to back to back games, I didn’t get enough time to recover from rehab, so I got enough time during the lockdown to recover properly, so lockdown for me was a good time. I worked a lot on myself. 

Olympics and Paralympics are mega sports events, however, somehow the Paralympics is kept on a secondary pedestal when it comes to promotions. So, have you seen a shift in audience attitude and enthusiasm when it comes to the Paralympics? 

 I don’t think so. It was definitely a case ten years ago, but today people have started loving sports. And honestly, when people love sports there is no such thing as the Olympics or Paralympics, for a sports lover, sports is sports. They celebrated each sport with an equal amount of love and enthusiasm.  Also, I noticed the government today is really invested and even our federation Paralympics Committee of India or SAI is very supportive. We really don’t feel that we are differently-abled sportspersons. And it is not just the government or our sports federation, also the society and the country is supporting us endlessly. 

How is the bonding in the Para-badminton team?

We all are from different categories. There are various categories in para-badminton like Krishna Nagar is from Rajasthan and is like a younger brother.  He is in the SL6 category “aur hum unse bahut umeedein hain ki woh iss bar toh gold le hi aayenge,” (Sarkar says laughingly). 
Pramod Bhaiya (as Sarkar calls him) has been my doubles partner and is currently World No.1. We both are in the same category, so we have played a lot of games together as opponents and otherwise also. We always give a good fight to each other but most of the time he wins.  Then you have Tarun Dhillon, and DM Sahab he says referring to Suhas Yathiraj. Honestly, the bonding of the para-badminton team is really strong. We often practice together and have fun. “Sab ek chhote bhai aur bade bhai ek hisab se hai.” We give 100% inside the court and outside we share everything and now we are all going for the Tokyo Paralympics. It will indeed be a fun journey.

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