It was the summer of 1987. Mohammad Tahir and his wife Naiyer Kazim had rushed their week-old baby, Aatika, to the Kasturba Hospital in the walled city area. She was burning up and had been diagnosed with infantile jaundice. But even as they ran around desperately, holding their tiny, cloth-swaddled bundle, no help was forthcoming.
The city’s doctors were on another flash strike and they would not treat the child. “If it hadn’t been for that delay in her treatment, she probably would not have been what she is today,” recalls Tahir, his eyes clouding over at the memory, even as his 20-year-old daughter sits watching him, mouthing sweet nothings and making affectionate gestures.
The illness not only took away Aatika’s speech and hearing but also left her intellectually disabled. ‘The damage is done, not much can be done now’, the doctors would tell a distraught Tahir and Naiyer later, changing their lives forever.
But, as Tahir says, Aatika was destined to be a special child, albeit of a different sort. On September 27, Aatika, a basketball player, and 138 other special Indians will leave for Shanghai from Kolkata to take part in the Special Olympics. It will be the proudest moment of the Tahirs lives, one that will be as poignant as it is celebratory. For the journey to this point has been difficult.
“In the years after that illness, even the most basic form of communication became a monumental task,” says Tahir, recalling an incident when Aatika was just seven. “For an hour, she kept struggling to explain what she wanted, but we just couldn’t figure it out,” he says, looking back in his mind’s eye. “Finally, she drew a twisted figure…it was a custard apple. I bought a whole basket of the fruit for her.”
But slowly and surely, things changed. In fact, they have changed so much that even Tahir finds it difficult to believe that his daughter, once considered a problem child, has now discovered her calling and herself through sport.
“I must thank her speech therapist Yogender Kumar, who insisted on her taking admission in the Balvantray Mehta Vidya Bhawan. She not only received vocational training there — she can weave and sew like an expert — but also took up basketball.”
At the school, her coach Shivani Gupta identified the latent talent in her and helped her take up the sport, but back home, sister Aamina, a post graduate in neurophysiotherapy, was the one who helped her get through innumerable tough times, like whenever a doctor was unavailable.
Two years ago, there was a turning point of sorts when she was selected for an inter-school meet, after which she went on to represent Delhi at the special Nationals in Jabalpur in March, where the state won gold. In August this year too, her team won a gold in the Delhi basketball state competition and Aatika, a defender, made the national squad.
There is no mistaking the pride that Tahir, who works as creative director in the ad agency Interpub, takes in his daughter. And it is wonderful to see. “I think she is my gift from God. I just want to say this to all parents who have such kids — take care of them and love them more. Aatika is a beautiful example of what such kids can do if they get the love and attention they deserve.”