Darpan Inani was 3 when he completely lost his eyesight.
In an incident that put a rude halt to an otherwise ordinary course of childhood, he was left sightless as the result of an incurable infection. On the other hand, however, it may have been this incident that prompted Darpan to take up chess nearly ten years later in his life. It was a game that would end up being his passion, legacy and identity for the years to come.
It was a desire for equality that prompted the now 24-year old from Baroda to choose Chess as his game. It was a conscious choice stemming out of the need to find a space where his competition would not just include unsighted athletes.
For the longest time, Darpan would want to know what it was like playing an open field and emerging on top with no strings attached.
This inclusiveness has ended up defining his life for the most part. As a child, he received a normal education- for the lack of a better adjective- in his school Baroda where he was the only blind student. To the school’s credit, they did quite well to integrate a wholesome learning system which ensured that the best education possible was being imparted to each student. To Darpan’s credit, he lapped up all that was taught to him and promptly made it a habit of finishing towards the top of each of his classes. But chess was always special.
“Chess was the only game where I felt that I could prove myself by competing with the sighted,” says Darpan in a conversation with The Bridge. “There would be no discrimination, no special category. The rules are the same for everyone.”
What sets Darpan apart in the limited pool of visually impaired chess players in India is the fact that he competes with the sighted. Playing with sighted champions brought him history. It made him the first ever visually impaired chess player to win the Creon Open in France in the rating category back in August 2018.
The practice, however, has its own set of challenges attached to it. Modern chess is a discipline with time constraints. The fact that it is timed consequently means that feeling around the board to check positions of individual pieces is not an option. True to his resilient self, this hurdle was overcome with discipline which helped him remember and visualise the chess board in between moves and plan the rest of his game accordingly.
“I always say one thing,” Darpan muses. “Chess is a game of vision and not visibility.”
“If you look at other disciplines like the ones included in the Paralympics or even a sport like Blind cricket- it’s the disabled competing against the disabled; a practice which can completely be avoided in a game like chess,” he adds.
It is quite fascinating if you think about it. In recent years, the average age for aspirants to take up chess and gain ground has been quite low, especially in India. In that situation, picking up chess at 13, late by current standards, and having prodigal tendencies enough to create history within the span of a few years is a remarkable feat indeed. But for Darpan, this process of continuously challenging himself has come at a cost.
To nurture his dreams of doing away with boundaries when it comes to his favourite game, Darpan took the crucial decision of playing directly under the All India Chess Federation (AICF) quite early on in his career. The administrative body directly responsible for the development of Blind chess, the All India Chess Federation for the Blind (AICFB) is an affiliate body of AICF.
“It was more about convenience for myself. The shift brought me some recognition which had previously been lacking. I’m not putting any blame on anyone but sometimes, consistently winning at the international level is not enough to sustain you,” he says.
This shift did not come without implications.
Come the first week of October, 187 Indian hopefuls (according to the interim list sent to the Sports Ministry for approval) will be travelling to Jakarta for the Asian Para Games. The list has not been finalised yet, neither have stakeholders been informed about their respective inclusions or exclusions. But for Darpan, one thing is clear.
“I will not be travelling to Jakarta because I am not eligible,” he says with a tone of finality on the subject. A quick dive into the workings of the AICFB is enough to answer why.
As is the case with most non-generic sports in India, the AICFB website is quite outdated with the more recent information being practically unavailable. There is no mention of the selection procedure which was followed while drawing up the list for the Asian Para Games neither do results from recent domestic tournaments find a mention.
The Bridge then reached out to Mr Manish Thool, the General Secretary of the AICFB who shed some light on the matter.
“We have a National selection cycle comprising of a triad structure- there are Zonals, National B and National A. At the end of it, a team of players are selected who then represent India internationally,” says Manish. “Participation is mandatory and to be eligible to be considered; you should have cleared every single level in the cycle.”
This goes partially in tandem with the circular sent out by AICFB on April 20 to all the registered players. The e-mail communication, of which The Bridge has access to, read:
“Selection for the 2018 Asian Para Games will be done on principles of AICFB guidelines and other criteria suggested by Selection committee constituted by AICFB. Please note winning at the National Para Games will not result into a direct selection, but participation in the National Para Games is mandatory for players to be considered for selection discussion.”
To put this a little more into context, the National Para Games were scheduled to be held at Bangalore from June 28 to July 6 earlier this year. The multi-discipline tournament did not take place and, in a rather unceremonious manner, athletes of all disciplines were simply told that it had been “postponed” with no explanation given for the same.
“That would have acted as the final selection test,” Manish adds. “But since it did not take place, we relied solely on our National Cycle which got over in February this year.”
This poses a bit of a problem for Darpan. International fixtures, coupled with his aspirations to establish himself as a successful Chartered Accountant have left him with little time to accommodate the AICFB calendar with all its mandatory domestic tournaments. While the Chess body is entirely within its rights to frame their own rules and policies- it is a little heartbreaking to imagine that one of India’s top-ranked Blind chess players will not have the opportunity to play at the Asian Para Games.
Even if he were to give a shot at qualifying for the Asian Para Games, the last resort, the final selection process for the Jakarta tournament, was scrapped without explanation by the highest bodies of Indian sports administration.
For his part, Darpan has calmly accepted his fate and his resultant exclusion from the Indonesia-bound team. He has nothing left to prove to anyone having emerged from some fantastic performances recently.
But stories like his raise a pertinent issue. Was it negligence or the lack of a coherent structure which prevented India’s top-rated blind chess player from participating at the Asian Para Games?
So far, there has been no word on the National Para Games and the perceived “postponement.” No new dates have been announced, and the tournament, which was supposed to act as a selection for more disciplines beyond Blind Chess, has been hushed up. No questions asked, no red flags raised.
“I hold nothing against the Federation for their rule of playing every domestic tournament,” Darpan says. “It’s inconvenient for me, but an organisation is completely within its rights to have ground rules.”
The author, however, is left wondering as to why international rankings and consistent achievements do not play a role in the selection criteria. Furthermore, the email intimation came with a subtle disclaimer towards the end.
“Note: It shall be the sole discretion of the AICFB to select participants in the appropriate categories for the 2018 Asian Para Games from amongst [the participants]”
Where is the transparency? What enables ones selection then? Even if the National Para Games had taken place, what would the criteria for selection have been?
Maybe with time, a more wholesome system can be put in place. For now, we can only look forward to the Asian Para Games with equal zeal as it gets underway in Indonesia in a couple of weeks.
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