Kannagi Sivakumaran, 29, has been working as a domestic help since the age of 16 and has two children. She earns about Rs1,000 a month sweeping floors, cleaning utensils and washing clothes. She lives with her family of four in a 10x10 sq. ft room in a facility set up by the Tamil Nadu slum clearance board.

Big shot: Ilavarasi (left) and Divya hope that squash will be their ticket to scholarships and higher studies. Photograph courtesy sharp image

Divya and her friend and neighbour, 11-year-old Ilavarasi Aruldas, are part of a squad run and funded by the Squash Rackets Federation of India and its Chennai-based training school, Indian Squash Academy (ISA), under the National Squash Development Programme.

Both Divya and Ilavarasi live in box-like single rooms with leaky roofs and shared bathrooms—but the location worked to their advantage. Their homes overlook the ISA—where their mothers used to clean the courts.

Three years ago, one of the coaches asked the two women if they were interested in enrolling their children at the academy. Both mothers thought their boys would benefit from the opportunity, but when the sons were deemed too old to start training, they asked if their daughters could be given a chance.

The programme, launched in 2002, has 40 children (10 of these are girls). For the underprivileged children who are trained under this programme, the ISA waives the monthly coaching fees, provides rackets, goggles, shoes and clothes (at a total cost of about Rs7,500). “We want to give these children a chance to excel in sports," says Srivatsan Subramaniam, the Malaysia-born international coach at the academy. “Due to the lack of exposure these children tend to be hesitant in the initial stages, but once they understand the game they are as good as anyone else." The coaches say that the children are extremely shy. “We didn’t even hear Ilavarasi’s voice when she started," says K. Vinod, a coach. “She and Divya, like other kids, were sensitive to criticism, but gradually they lowered their guard. That’s when we saw their fighting spirit."

The twice-a-day weekly training comprises fitness exercises as well as game practice. Girls get to train with boys, who tend to hit the ball harder, to up the power quotient of their game. “Now there’s a discipline instilled in her (Divya’s) routine," says Kannagi. “I didn’t have an inclination to study and had to quit school but I want my daughter to get ahead in life and this game could give her that opportunity."

Ilavarasi’s father Aruldas makes sure she wakes up at 5.30am on days she has to train. A contract painter, 40-year-old Aruldas, who now works at a museum for a salary of Rs3,000, says: “I get a peek into the other world out there through my daughter. But I don’t have the confidence to watch her play."

Divya and Ilavarasi are aware that squash could well be their ticket to college via a sports scholarship and could even lift their family above the poverty line. “They learn not just about squash but also through their travels (they) have learnt how to eat, introduce themselves to others and how to keep clean," Subramaniam says. “They pick up life skills." Ilavarasi has shed her nervousness and loves to hang out with her friends during training. She hopes to study computer engineering one day.

The coaches, however, don’t yet see signs of the girls making it to the top of their sport. One reason is diet. Poor eating habits often leave the girls breathless on court and they are low on stamina. Divya is unable to sustain her powerful shots and although Ilavarasi is able to cover ground on court, her returns are weak. “They come from families where their parents cannot afford or enforce good eating habits," says coach Vinod. While the academy provides nutrition supplements, there’s little it can do to compel parents to provide hearty meals. “Diet is always an issue since we are unable to afford fruits or meat," says Aruldas.

For now, the girls are regular at the academy and are eager participants in inter-group matches.

And, hopefully, their parents will worry less about their future.