Famous for its beautiful mountainous landscapes and holy shrines, the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) has truly lived up to its tag of 'paradise on earth'. If the natural beauty enticed the visitors, the artistry of local artisans further allowed the J&K handicrafts industry to make a name across the globe for their exquisite designs and craftsmanship.
But, the Indian state that was once labelled as the 'Valley Of Paradise' has undeniably become the 'Valley Of Death'.
Today, this strife-torn state is only famous for the bleak stories of violence, lethal attacks, militant insurgency and never-ending protests. The education system has degraded to the extent of almost being non-existent. The infrastructure is still a work in progress. The supplies are limited. And, to top it all, the presence of Indian military forces has led to restricted movements of the locals in their very own state.
While the situation is not yet ideal in the region, the youth in J&K have found solace in sports in a bid to escape all that has affected them and their families over the years. We've seen the likes of Parvez Rasool making a name for himself in cricket, and, more recently, the spirited Real Kashmir football team proving their mettle in the ever-competitive I-League.
Now, the beautiful state of J&K has given India another sporting gem in the form of Saqlain Tariq.
© Pro Volleyball League
Born in Poonch - one of the most remote districts of J&K, bounded by Line of Control (LoC) on three sides, Tariq has spent a major part of his life hiding from insurgency and consistent shelling which often resulted in the loss of life and property. Evacuating his house, taking shelter in makeshift places and haunted by the fact that any moment could be his last; Saqlain faced it all.
While the youngsters of his age would ideally find themselves cribbing over gadgets and other material gains, Saqlain was just happy to be alive. In a place where breathing was no less than a luxury, Saqlain knew that there wasn't much he could do. His education took a toll, getting a job was always going to be difficult and the future looked bleak. But, just when all hope seemed lost, the 21-year-old found a ray of hope in volleyball - a sport that gave him an identity and made him feel that he mattered.
Picking up the sport at the age of six, Saqlain's journey in volleyball was greatly influenced by his family's support and enthusiasm for the game. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my family. They've supported me in the thick and thin of life. All my achievements in volleyball is an outcome of their beliefs in me," emotions get the better of Saqlain as he credits his family.
"Since I could remember, my father was running a local volleyball club in Poonch. He used to take me to the practice sessions when I was a kid. Over the years, I developed a liking towards the sport. But then, there were some problems. It wasn't that easy," the 21-year-old reveals before getting comfortable in the couch.
© Pro Volleyball League
Saqlain's mother, just like our own, was overwhelmed by the fear of losing him every time he went out to practice. "She (mother) was really concerned about my well-being. Given our state of affairs, she was probably right in her own domain to fear for my life. After all, she had lost her loved ones and seen too much in her life. But, this is where my dad stood out and ensured nothing was going to affect my growth as a volleyball player," he adds further.
Honing his skills and improving his game at his father's facility, Saqlain's talent was just too hard to go unnoticed. And, this when his father Mohammad Tariq Khan, a state-level volleyball player himself, took a call that would eventually change the life of his son. "My father couldn't make the cut for the national team. And, he knew, if I stayed here (J&K), my fate will be the same. I would have faced survival issues and, maybe, I would have become a stone pelter. So, against the liking of my mother and other family members, he sent me to Khanna (near Ludhiana) for studies," Saqlain recalls with a smile on his face.
But, for a youngster who shares a close bond with his parents and never left his home earlier, staying away from family wasn't easy for Saqlain. "I was there (in Khanna) for a few months before the homesickness crept in. For the first time in my life, I was on my own, dealing with day-to-day problems by myself. It took a toll on me. And, as a result, I told my father that I want to return home," the 6-feet-3-inches tall player reveals.
"My father spoke to the warden to grant me a few days leave and I returned home. I was happy that I was finally going to see my family and all. But, my father wasn't happy with my decision. When I reached home, my father didn't speak me to me once. And, after a day or so, I realised why. Realising the sacrifices of my parents and the dreams they had for me, I was left with no option, but to return to Khanna. And, the moment I told my father about my decision, he was elated," Saqlain talks about the learning curve that went on to play a pivotal role in his journey as a volleyball player.
© Pro Volleyball League
Since that day, there was no turning back for this youngster. He played his first nationals for J&K when he was in the eighth standard and rose through the ranks on the back of an improved showing in the domestic circuit. Soon, he found his way into the national team. Named as the captain of the Indian team, Saqlain had his international outing at the Asian Championship in Sri Lanka in 2014 when he was just 17. Thriving in the position of a setter, Saqlain also went on to represent India at the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Games where he played a crucial role in his side's bronze-medal finish last year.
"When I went abroad to participate in the international tournaments, I was kind of shocked to see the level of competition there. Countries like China, Japan and South Korea have dominated the sport in Asia. But, the fact that Iran surprised everyone with a gold medal in men's volleyball at the 2018 Asiad shows that it's all about improving. It was something that we (Indian players) can learn from. That's why I always cherish international exposure," Saqlain makes a valid point.
On the back of hard work and perseverance, Saqlain, then, managed to convince U Mumba Volley to shell out a whopping Rs 1.1 lakh for his services in the upcoming edition of the Pro Volleyball League (PVL). An initiative of Baseline Ventures and Volleyball Federation Of India, the first edition of the PVL is set to begin on 2nd February with Kochi Blue Spikers taking on U Mumba Volley in the first match. The league will see six teams fighting for the title which will be lifted by the winner on 22nd February in the final in Chennai.
"I have waited for a long time to get an opportunity like the Pro Volleyball League. I want to thank the Volleyball Federation of India to bring such a league to the fore. It is going to be very beneficial for players like me. Since it also involves foreign players, the league will help us in improving our game by learning new things from them. It's a great platform for the Indian players to prove their mettle and popularise the game in the country," Saqlain lauds the advent of Pro Volleyball League.
© Pro Volleyball League
As a 21-year-old, Saqlain's love for Punjabi songs and, more particularly, for Bohemia might make him just another youngster, but when asked about his message for the youth in the Valley, Saqlain answered with maturity.
"Sports are the need of the hour for the Kashmiri youth. I have so many youngsters calling me up and seeking guidance. And, I always encourage them to brave all odds and maintain their self-belief. Our state has so much talent across sports, but the lack of facilities and training centres hasn't helped their cause. I would really urge the concerned authorities to take notice of the talent from the Valley and nurture them with a prospect of making the country proud," Saqlain signs off.
Coming from a region where people have a hard time focussing on their lives, Saqlain didn't just survive, but he concentrated on the very thing that acted as an escape route from all the hardships - his love for volleyball. From living in fear to becoming the first spiker from his state to represent India in any age group, Saqlain, at a tender age, has become a beacon of hope and is the perfect embodiment of success derived against all odds, on the back of persistent hard work.