Eleven-year-old Tinku Haldar lives in a slum behind Tollygunge Club. His father doesn’t work and the family of four including a younger brother runs on what Tinku’s mother earns as a domestic.
Going to school stopped years ago and like some of his friends, Tinku was earning a few bucks as a ball boy at the golf course of the club where Kolkata's rich and famous practise swings, drives, chips and putts.
Forget playing golf and trying to pursue a career in it, there was no reason for Tinku to think that he could touch a driver or a putter. His world and a golfer’s were galaxies apart.
But in a queer twist to what could have easily degenerated into another tale of a fight against poverty, this youngster has got a chance to change the course of his life.
He goes to school these days and plays golf thanks to a project masterminded by a group of people who thought it was time to systematically hone the skills of these boys — mostly children of caddies or ball boys — who hang around the golf courses in Kolkata.
Tinku with Sonu Rai came second at a recent inter-school competition and cut an adorable figure in a bunch of boys, girls and parents from the opposite spectrum of society.
Contrary to perception, golf in India is not just a rich man's preserve. A sizeable percentage of players including many of the top guns on the Indian pro tour worth around Rs 4.6 crore per year are from the underprivileged section.
The late Jamshed Ali (an Arjuna award winner), Rohtas Singh, SSP Chowrasia are just a few names in a list of many famous ones who overcame adversities and made significant impact on the greens, fairways and bunkers across the country.
The story here is that all those who had swum against the tide had done it on their own while the likes of Tinku, Sonu and six more have been brought under a programme designed to nurture skills of a school of promising yet needy boys. People in the know of things were aware of this talent pool but there had hardly been a conscious attempt to train them.
"The talent in this group of boys cannot be ignored," said Indrajit Bhalotia, director of the Protouch Academy which has taken under its wings eight talented boys who didn't have access to organised coaching.
"You can make out that these boys are good the moment you see them hit a ball," said the player with five titles on the Indian tour who splits his time between playing and coaching these days.
This programme, which came into existence last September under the patronage of industrialist L.N. Bangur (he contributed Rs 1.8 lakh in an annual requirement of around 2 lakh), has eight boys at the moment.
All are children of those associated with the Tollygunge Club and the Royal Calcutta Golf Club in some way, either as caddies or course attendants. They attend classes five days a week including a day of yoga at Bhalotia's house.
Seven of them are under-15 and 20-year-old Samaresh Sardar is the oldest of the lot. He has started playing on the national amateur circuit and made it to the top-20 despite not playing in all tournaments.
Tutul Ali, whose father repairs golf clubs, is another success story already, having done well in the national under-11 circuit.
“It increases your sense of responsibility when you see these guys perform,” said Bhalotia. “It's very touching when these boys say they want to be like me. It makes me feel I ought to do more.” The noted pro added the thought of starting this programme came after realising that there was so much talent in these kids, but they don't have the opportunity to cultivate their skills.
Developing all-round personality
Apart from coaching them and sending them to school, Bhalotia wants to make sure these boys don't feel left out. "They have to be well dressed so that they don't develop personality problems. They must not turn up in torn trousers or wrinkled clothes or without shoes."
Accordingly, the academy takes care of what these boys wear and spends a sizeable amount in ensuring that they keep attending the classes by offering them some cash and food after every class.
“It's not entirely about making champions out of them. If they stay focussed and concentrate on what they are doing, they can make a decent living by becoming coaches, course instructors or salesmen at golf shops. What I want to see is that they don't get back to caddying," said Bhalotia.
“Funds are a problem but I am confident this programme will continue and I have plans of dividing the boys into two divisions — advanced and beginners.”
There have been efforts to train players from this section elsewhere in the country (current India tour leader Ashok Kumar is an example), but an organised programme was unheard of. “Don't know whether we are the first to do so, doesn't matter. Let's see how far we can go," said Bhalotia.
“My life will be made if I do well ,” said Tutul. “I know that people like SSP have made it big from nothing,” added the boy, obviously malnourished.
“I want to be a good player, like sir (Bhalotia),” said Tinku. “I can make a good living and defy the odds that are stacked against me at the moment,” said Sardar.
Holding a golf club, teeing off at some of the most posh and venerated golf courses of the country and getting a chance to assess whether they can make the cut — this was beyond the realms of imagination of almost all the successful golf pros from a similar background.
An attempt to change the script has been undertaken.
A Tiger Woods will not emerge out of it, but even a fraction of that will be a big success nonetheless.