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Being Budhia

From being the youngest athlete to run 65 kms to being the youngest to be subject to a dope test. It has been far from a dream run for four-year-old Budhia Singh. Does anybody care?

May 12, 2006

Budhia Singh photo

Budhia Singh says he wants to run. He says he is under no pressure. Unfortunately, his voice is being drowned out by our self-appointed custodians of righteousness. Everyone from government officials, policemen, politicians, to the media are clamouring to rescue him. Never mind if he does not want to be rescued. All he wants to do is run. But is anyone even listening to this boy wonder? 

Panels of doctors, has-been sportspersons, and government officials are trotting out the same line: Budhia should not run. It seems to be the instinctive reaction of a hysterical society. There is no circumspect thought. No worries of what such a steam-rolling approach will do to a child. No attempt to understand where this child comes from and what this means to him. 

Budhia looked unwell, and as kind and sympathetic citizens, we should jump to his rescue - by doing what? Saying that he should not run. Probably taking away the only bright spot in his life. And also destroying any fledgling hopes of a better life. And as usual, has any of these do-gooders an alternative plan? Of course not. The only plan is that he should not run. And separated from his foster father. What happens to Budhia then? He goes back to a life of begging and living on scraps. Back to a children's home, maybe. Where is the great spirit of generosity and kindness? Budhia should not run. Duty over? Not even noblesse oblige? Come on.

Here is what Woman and Child Development Minister Pramila Malik has to say "We will not allow him to run because if he develops ill health, then people will blame the government." Touching concern for Budhia, I must say. And what a scintillating plan for his future.

Have any of these self-righteous souls even thought about where Budhia came from and what this achievement means to him? Sold for a mere Rs 800, this wunderkind would probably be begging somewhere if it wasn’t for his coach and foster father Biranchi Das. It was Das who has done more than any of the platitude-mouthers have ever done. He pulled Budhia Singh out of his gloomy circumstances and gave him something to live for. 

True, it may be argued that Biranchi Das did it for his own self-interest. But show me one parent who wouldn’t want to encourage his or her child’s talent? And would all of that be selfless? Would there be no vestige of pride and a desire to bask in the reflected light of their progeny’s success? And in all this hoopla is anyone even listening to what the child has to say? Budhia has made it very clear that he wants to be with Biranchi Das. To separate them would be cruel.

Let’s get down to the nub of the issue. It has been argued by most of those who are “concerned” about Budhia’s health that he is headed for a burn-out. (Some media reports in their usual proclivity to overstatement are already calling it a burnout.) Examples have been cited of Nadia Comaneci and Martina Hingis. Nadia was a gymnast and everyone knows that the shelf-life of a gymnast is very low. So, it’s not at all surprising that Nadia bowed out in her twenties after, mind you, a very successful career. As for Martina Hingis, anyone can have ligament injuries. There is no reason to suppose it’s a burnout. And in any case, she is back on the circuit.

But there are other examples of child prodigies who started really young and have gone on to great success as well. Tiger Woods, for one, started at the age of three! He won the Optimist International Junior tournament at age 8.

Then there is soccer player Jean Carlos Chera who attracted attention for his skills at the age of six. There is H.P. Lovecraft who recited poetry at age of two and wrote long poems by the time he was five. It is for talent like this, that we have the term child prodigy. They are prodigies because they can do what normal people cannot. By that logic, it might be inconceivable for any other four year old to run 65 kms in seven hours but it’s not for Budhia. Therefore, normal standards should not be applied to him.

The panel of doctors that conducted tests on Budhia has decreed that if Budhia continues to run, he may get arthritis, heart problems and suffer from stunted growth if groomed unscientifically as a runner. I am amused at the high-jinks of all these well-wishers. We are reacting just like paranoid Americans. You hug a child, and before you know what you are slapped with charges of abuse. There seems to be no sense of perspective whatsoever.

Beside aren’t achievers world over achievers because they pushed limits? Aren’t we being myopic here? Of course, Budhia needs to be groomed in a healthy manner but his coach seems well aware of that. If we are so worried, let's keep an eye on him, monitor him. So, why the hoopla?

Budhia’s coach is doing good work for him. He may or may not be equipped to groom such talent. But, nevertheless, he should be supported. Instead of attacking Bircharan Das and squashing Budhia’s talent the state and the “concerned” should worry about how such talent can be nurtured. And the most important thing is that as of now, Budhia wants to be with Bircharan Das. It may damage the child if he is separated from the mentor he so loves.

Biranchi Das has already moved the court against the doctors, child welfare committee members, and government and police officials for the way in which they have conducted forcible tests on the child. Good for him, I say. 

Already, Budhia has missed out a good opportunity for exposure. Budhia was to fly to London to shoot a documentary being made by Touch Productions for Discovery Channel and Five. That has now been indefinitely postponed after the government pronouncements of not letting Budhia run anymore. It may have opened new doors for him. But then again, he has already featured in an Oriya music video, is already a hero in that state, and the state government has postponed any decision on banning him from running as it has belatedly realised that there are no rules to let it do so.

But, everyone is so caught up in their own smug muddles of rectitude that they are not even willing to spare a thought about what this will do to the poor child. Being in the middle of all this conflict, may do irreparable damage to the child’s psyche. It will engender anxiety at the best and make him completely withdrawn at the worst. This is a boy who has just stepped into what may be a glorious future. But with the insensitive battle that is being waged over his head, we just might end up annihilating what could be a great talent in our talent-starved country. In the meantime, Budhia will make another world record: that of the youngest athlete to go through a dope test. Nice!

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