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Paddler who beat the sound of silence

Tanuj Mukherjee looks the part of being an athlete and it is only if when you notice the earpiece tucked into his right ear, would you realise that this young man from Chandannagar, some 52km from Kolkata, has a hearing problem. 

other sports Updated: Aug 01, 2016 13:52 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Tanuj Mukherjee shapes for a forehand top-spinner.
Tanuj Mukherjee shapes for a forehand top-spinner.(Ramkrishna Samanta/HT)

Sight and sound are crucial components in sport that require motor skills. Tanuj Mukherjee is aurally challenged but in pursuing a career in table tennis, he has shown no hurdle is too high. This is his story.

“I was eight months old when doctors found out that I couldn’t hear,” said Mukherjee, 22. A tall, strapping man, Mukherjee looks the part of being an athlete and it is only if when you notice the earpiece tucked into his right ear, would you realise that this young man from Chandannagar, some 52km from Kolkata, has a hearing problem. 

Mukherjee came home last week after winning a bronze medal in the men’s doubles competition of the World Deaf Table Tennis Championships in Samsun, Turkey, with Ullas Naik. This was his first visit abroad. This was also the first time he was playing with Naik. 

Fifteen teams took part in the doubles competition and within 30 minutes of winning the first round 4-0 against Kestutis Zizunas and Viktoras Narkevicius of Lithuania, Mukherjee and Naik were back on the table for their quarter-final, on July 22, against Croats Iijla Tomic and Ivan Hribar. They won 4-1 and entered the semi-finals where they lost 0-4 to Slovakia’s Thomas Keinath and Marek Tutura. In table tennis, there is no playoff for the third place. 

The podium finish has guaranteed Mukherjee and Naik a berth in next year’s Deaflympics which will also be hosted by Samsun. 

Tanuj Mukherjee (left) with coach Ambarish Chatterjee. (Ramkrishna Samanta/HT)

In love from five 

On doctor’s orders to help him deal with the hearing ailment, Mukherjee was asked to bounce a table tennis ball on a paddle when he was five. “I have been hooked since,” he said, breaking into a slight smile. He was taken to Serampore Chhatra Samity, a club not far from his home, where he took baby steps in the sport. Mukherjee became the national sub-junior champion among the deaf in 2003 and hasn’t looked back. 

“We made and still make every effort to treat him like any other trainee at the club. For someone with his condition, it is also important that he learns to blend in,” said coach Ambarish Chatterjee, who knows Mukherjee for around 15 years. 

There are, however, some physical drills that Mukherjee needs to do more. Such as rope skipping. His coach said Mukherjee does 5000 repetitions daily. “He couldn’t walk properly because of his problem and so, physical exercise became all the more important,” said the coach. “And we get him to practice under sunlight because it helps him see the ball longer during matches.” Given that Mukherjee cannot hear the ball bouncing on the table that becomes very important in a sport where the need for speed is important. No hearing aids are allowed in competitions. 

Training primarily involves in getting Mukherjee to stay focused. “Players who can’t hear usually lose ‘sight’ of the ball after four rally strokes. The challenge is to prevent him from doing that and the only way is to put in more hours of practice,” said Chatterjee. Mukherjee also plays tournaments in the local circuit where he is always competing against players who don’t have a hearing handicap. “He usually loses in the quarter-finals or semi-finals but he is asked to play as many tournaments as possible because there is no practice like match practice. And competing with normal people and winning against them is also a massive confidence booster,” said Chatterjee. 

An arts graduate in the making, Mukherjee is also training in computer applications to be a suitable boy in job market. It meant missing the national championships for the deaf for two years but because his father has taken ill recently, supplementing the modest family income has become very important. Mukherjee said he hoped the world championship bronze and qualification for the Deaflympics would get him noticed. 

Even though he didn’t play the last two editions of the national championships, Mukherjee said he was called for trials for the world championships in May because of his overall performance. Three were selected and there was a preparatory camp from July 9-16. “Ullas and I trained for six hours daily and that was all the training we got,” said Mukherjee. 

India sent a six-member team to the July 18-24 championships under coach Madhu Dewan. The men’s team that also had Suvro Sengupta finished sixth but the women, represented by Suravi Ghosh, Shineya Gomes and Soma Kundu, won gold beating Poland and Turkey.