“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we often might win, by fearing to attempt.” William Shakespeare
Ali Noor stared at the students in the parade ground with a hungry look in his eyes. It was a clear, sunny day and the rehearsals for the Annual Sports Day were in full swing. All his school-mates were busy marching on the field, their footsteps perfectly matching the beat of the drum.
Some were rehearsing acrobatics while others were practising relay and sack racing. The parade leaders were twirling their batons while the Sports Teacher supervised the practice session. Each student was trying his utmost to display his strength and agility. The whole place was abuzz with noise, colour and excitement.
Ali Noor sat alone under an old tree. Every fibre of his being wanted to be on that sports field, running and marching and proudly raising the red and gold school banner but a tragic reality prevented him from doing so. Ali Noor had been paralysed in his infancy by polio. He belonged to the tribal areas and had not been vaccinated.
When he was five years old, polio had struck and left his left leg useless. His father, a wealthy carpet dealer had left no stones unturned for his son’s health but to no avail. Extensive physiotherapy had given him some use of his lower limbs but Ali Noor would never regain full mobility.
Later, his father decided to shift to Islamabad and Ali Noor was enrolled in a new school. He was a quiet, studious boy but a bit of a loner. He did not want to be pitied or get involved in students’ activities so he shunned all friendships and liked to be alone dreaming of all the things that he could not do.
Just then, something landed at his feet with a thud, snapping him out of his reverie. He looked down at the black and white football near his well-polished shoes. He wanted to kick hard at it to vent out his frustration but as usual his left leg refused to act. Ali Noor heard running footsteps and swallowed his tears of bitterness. He looked up and saw Zaheer, captain of the school sports team who had come to retrieve his football.
“Hello Ali. How ya doing?” Zaheer asked cheerfully. Unlike Ali Noor, his shoes and pants were covered with dust and grass stains marred his white and gray uniform.
“It must be tough for you, sitting here all alone.” Zaheer added conversationally.
Bitter words sprung up in Ali’s throat. He knew that Zaheer had not meant to be unkind but his words hurt nonetheless. He looked at Zaheer with resentment, tinged with envy. Zaheer was tall, athletic and extremely well built. If seeing him run after the ball during school hours was not enough, Ali Noor had to bear the sight of him playing every evening as well.
They lived across the street from each other. Every evening, while Ali Noor was bent over his books, he heard Zaheer and his friends playing cricket or dribbling the football on the concrete road outside. This was usually accompanied by shouts of joy, laughter and high-fives. Ali Noor would draw his curtains in an attempt to block out the sight of these boys enjoying themselves but the sound of running footsteps would continue to torment him.
“What would you know about what’s tough for me, Zaheer?” he asked bitterly.
Zaheer’s smile faded when he saw Ali Noor’s stony face. Ali’s hostile gaze had made him uncomfortable. He was a good natured boy who made friends easily. He was highly revered by his coach and class-mates for his athleticism but this attention had not made him vain.
He did not know how to respond to Ali’s blatant antagonism so he shrugged and tucked his football under his arm. He turned to race back toward his team-mates but something made him check. He was struck by the anguished look in Ali’s eyes. He came back towards Ali and looked down at his crippled class-mate.
“Listen, Ali,” he said earnestly. ”Would you like to compete in a race?”
Ali Noor’s face darkened with anger. He felt sure that Zaheer was making fun of his disability.
“Yes, Zaheer,” he replied sarcastically.” Maybe we should have a wheelchair race and I’ll be the only participant and we’ll see who runs the fastest.”
“I did not mean to hurt your feelings, Ali,” Zaheer added gently.” We are having a three-legged race. If you agree to be my partner, you’ll be able to participate in the sports day with the rest of the school. I’ll talk to the coach.”
Zaheer’s words left Ali speechless. He was suddenly ashamed of his outburst.
“It’s not possible, Zaheer. I’ll slow you down and you’ll lose the race.”
“Maybe. But maybe I’ll win a friend, instead.”
Ali Noor’s head was suddenly filled with visions of him running alongside the school’s sports captain. He wanted to run, to feel the wind on his face and to feel that rush of adrenalin. He imagined himself racing towards the finish line, faster than anyone else……
The coach’s shrill whistle brought him down to the earth. He looked down at his leg encased in a metal and wood brace, deformed and shrunken. He let out a half-laugh, half-sob sound.
“No, Zaheer. As I said, it’s not possible. Other students will either pity me or mock my efforts and I can’t face that.”
As Zaheer tried to convince him, Ali Noor gathered his crutches and turning his back on Zaheer, walked away.
Later in the evening Ali sat in front of the TV, flipping channels morosely. The door-bell chimed and a few seconds later, his mother led in Zaheer.
“Come on, champ. At least give it a try.” Zaheer bent down and forced Ali Noor to stand up
Ignoring Ali’s protests, Zaheer firmly led him outside. It was dinner time and the street was deserted. Ali Noor tried to extricate himself from Zaheer’s clutches once again.
“Go on, son. At least give it a try.” It was his mother’s gentle voice that made Ali straighten up his shoulders.
“Oh all right then. Whatever you say,” he capitulated
Zaheer tied Ali Noor’s left leg to his right leg. With their arms around each others shoulders, they tried to run a three legged race. It was extremely slow going. Ali’s movements were slow and awkward and he kept tripping over.
“It’s no use, Zaheer. Maybe you should find a new partner,” Ali panted.
But Zaheer would not let him quit. Next evening and every evening after that, the two of them practiced under the light of the street-lamps. Gradually, their movements became more coordinated and their friendship grew. While Ali learned to appreciate Zaheer’s “never-say-die” attitude, Zaheer too learned to value all those simple things which he had always taken for granted…. the ability to run, jump and dribble and kick a ball.
Finally, the Sports Day arrived. Ali Noor was extremely nervous. He looked at the spectators’ pavilion which was filled to its capacity. His own parents were also there. As the commentator announced the start of the three-legged race, the students took their positions at the starting line. Ali Noor’s anxiety gave way to pure dread and panic. He looked at the blue ribbon stretched across the finishing line and it seemed miles and miles away. He imagined himself sprawled on the sports field and all the people laughing and jeering at him.
“I can’t do it, Zaheer. I am sorry.” He turned away but Zaheer grasped his arm firmly.
“Listen, Ali. Sports isn't about running fast or jumping high. It is about team spirit and giving your best when the chips are down. Right now your team needs you and if you quit, I’ll have to forfeit too.”
Ali looked up to where his parents were sitting. More than anything else, today he wanted to make his parents proud. He unclenched his hands and gave a thumbs-up to Zaheer. The whistle blew and they all set off. Ali saw the contestants on his right tumble and fall in a comical heap. People applauded and cheered them.
The contestants to his left were also having a difficult time synchronizing their hops. Filled with a sudden feeling of exhilaration, Ali grasped Zaheer’s shoulders even more firmly and they propelled each other forward. Faster and faster, they hopped till the blue ribbon loomed ahead. Ali stretched his hand forward and to his delight, they were the first one to cross the line.
The whole school stood up to applause his remarkable feat. Ali and Zaheer embraced each other as their team-mates surrounded them, slapping their backs and hugging them. Ali Noor saw his father on his feet clapping hard, unashamed tears of joy rolling down his cheeks. His mother too looked at him with pride and love.
“Thanks Zaheer,” Ali wanted to say more but words eluded him.
“No sweat, champ. Maybe you should train for the sprint race now,” Zaheer joked.
Ali grinned and took his crutches from the assistant coach. He had learnt to laugh at his disability and not wallow in self-pity.
After all, isn't life all about overcoming the disadvantages and surmounting the setbacks? What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?