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How a bus conductor is driving her son's cricket dreams

By HARISH KOTIAN
September 18, 2019 09:24 IST

Until September 14, Vaidehi Ankolekar was a bus conductor on Mumbai's famed BEST buses.
Now, she is known nationwide as the mother of India's latest cricketing hero.
That Saturday, her son Atharva bowled India to the Asia Cup Under-19 title.
Harish Kotian/Rediff.com meets the proud single parent.

IMAGE: Atharva Ankolekar, right, is greeted by mother Vaidehi on his arrival in Mumbai on Sunday night.

It was the first time in five years that Vaidehi Ankolekar was keen to leave work early.

Having missed duty a couple of days earlier -- her younger son Parth was ill -- she had to report for work on a Saturday, which has gone on to become a significant day for her family.

 

Her gracious bosses at BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport) allowed bus conductor Vaidehi to leave office early, and not without reason.

Her 18-year-old son Atharva was playing for India in the Under-19 Asia Cup final in Colombo and there was no way she could miss the big game.

It was also the first time she was watching her son playing a game live.

"I left early from work that day, at around 2 pm, so I could watch the match," she tells Rediff.com

Left-arm spinner Atharva made it a special day for his mother with a match-winning five wicket haul, including the last two wickets which helped India edge past Bangladesh by 5 runs in a low-scoring thriller in Colombo to retain the Asia Cup.

Vaidehi can't hide her joy at her son's splendid showing in the title clash, saying in this competitive world of cricket a youngster needs to make most of every opportunity he gets.

"I always tell him first attempt or last attempt, you have to prove yourself. If you want to stay in the team, you have to prove yourself at the very first attempt, because a second chance is not guaranteed sometimes. Whenever you get an opportunity, grab it with both hands and give your best.

"He played a big part in India's win in the final, but that would not have been possible without the contributions from all his team mates. It was not a one-man show from Atharva, but the last two wickets he took when Bangladesh needed 6 runs for victory, that was a crucial moment in the game.

"When he wore that India (Under-19) jersey, it was a great moment for me. I feel proud he is representing the Indian team and him playing a part in the final victory was such a big moment for me," says Vaidehi.

IMAGE: Vaidehi Ankolekar, right, with a friend.

After her husband Vinod passed away suddenly in 2010, Vaidehi reveals the family faced very tough times. Initially, she started taking tuitions to provide for daily living expenses before she joined BEST in 2014 as a bus conductor.

"His father was diagnosed with malaria and jaundice and we didn't know about it till the last minute. It was very tough days for us. Twenty days before that my father passed away. We never expected something like this to happen to Atharva's father. He was a fit man, weighed around 90 kgs. He never had any alcohol, never smoked, didn't have tea too.

"He used to drink milk with Boost with his kids. It all happened so quickly, in a matter of days after he was admitted to hospital," she recalls.

"I used to take tuitions after my husband passed away. Four years later I got the job in BEST. The only opening was for the post of conductor which I accepted as I had no other option. I had to look after my family.

"The money earned from tuitions was not enough to run my family and also look after Atharva's schooling and cricketing needs. Luckily, Suren Ahire, his coach at his school, Parle Tilak Vidyalaya (Vile Parle East, north west Mumbai), took care of his school fees and cricketing expenses. He helped us so much during those tough times; he is like God for our family because at that time when even my family didn't support us, he went out of the way to help us.

"My children supported me a lot during that time and they continue to support me. I leave home as early at 5.30 am. In the past we had a small 10x10 (square feet) room and our water tap was outside the house. Both kids used to fill water from the outside tap as I was away at work. After filling from the tap they would do all the other work at home and then leave for school.

"Atharva is quite tall, but our house was so small that he could not sleep straight. The room was not long enough. I used to tell him to sleep in a curved position. Those were very tough days," Vaidehi remembers.

Atharva Ankolekar

IMAGE: Atharva Ankolekar in action during the Asia Cup Under-19 final against Bangladesh in Colombo on Saturday, September 14, 2019. Photograph: Asian Cricket Council/Twitter

Vaidehi, who is posted at the Marol bus depot, north west Mumbai, also takes tuitions in the evening to ensure that her sons get the best of everything; more importantly, that their cricketing careers never take a backseat.

Life starts as early as 4 am for the mother of two, as she cooks lunch for her sons before leaving for work from which she returns late in the evening.

"I work six days a week with offs every Sunday. I wake up daily at 4 am to cook food for my kids. At 6 am I drop my younger son (Parth) to the bus stop in Andheri East (north west Mumbai), from where he takes a bus to Dadar (north central Mumbai) for his school and cricket practice. I go to the BEST depot in Marol after that.

"I don't have a fixed bus and whichever bus is assigned to me, whatever duty is assigned, like 7 hours, 8 hours, 9 hours, I have to do that.

"Sometimes, we get long routes, sometime short routes, but I get the short routes mostly. But since suburban Andheri has a lot of industries and offices, the buses are very crowded most of the time. Now after the fares were revised last month, more people take the BEST buses.

"The buses are so crowded some times that I find it difficult to move around and wait near the entrance to give the passengers tickets when they enter. But I have no complaints. Till the time my sons are settled, I will work hard for them."

A bus conductor's job on BEST buses in Mumbai is hectic and pre-dominantly a male-dominated occupation, but it was the thought of running her family and the love for her children that made Vaidehi take up the difficult job.

"I still remember my second day on the job in 2014. I was posted at Wadala depot (north central Mumbai) and I was assigned the A/C bus which was going from Wadala to Backbay Depot (south Mumbai) and there I had a six-hour break. Since the A/C buses have fixed customers, we started the return journey from Backbay Depot to Wadala at 6.30 pm.

"All the female clerical staff at the Backbay depot left at 5 pm and I was sitting alone in the women's staff room till 6.30 pm. I was so scared at that time because it was getting dark.

"My last bus, which was No 440 (for Andheri East), was scheduled to leave Wadala depot at 8.30 pm and I ended up missing it narrowly. I was in tears because I missed the last bus and was wondering how I would reach home that night.

"I was scared for my children who were alone at home. I then thought of quitting this job. I somehow reached home that night changing a few buses, but decided not to give up so easily. From the next day I started reaching Wadala depot early, at 6 am, so I could leave early in the evening. It was very tough at the start, but I somehow fought it out, all because of my sons," she says.

Vaidehi says her husband Vinod was responsible for her sons taking to cricket at an early age.

"He was employed with BEST at their Mahim depot (Mumbai north central) and used to do night shifts so he could give time to his children during the day. He used to spend his day taking Atharva to practice. At the ground near our house, he used to make the kids play cricket.

"Those kids have all grown up now and came together to give Atharva such a grand welcome, chipping in money from their own pockets.

"A few days before he passed away, my husband had got a bonus of Rs 9,000 from BEST, but he used all that money to buy Atharva's cricket kit; he didn't use a single penny for anything else," Vaidehi adds.

Atharva had a close relationship with his dad who also played in Mumbai's Kanga League. Vinod was keen to live his cricketing dreams through his sons.

"Atharva was very attached to his father; he used to be with him all day, and didn't spend much time with me. Till he passed away, his father used to feed both the kids and they were very attached to him.

"His death affected Atharva a lot and he was in depression for days, but he never showed it in front of me. He showed responsibility at that young age because he felt he had to take care of his mother and also fulfil his dad's dream."

IMAGE: Atharva Ankolekar gets a warm welcome from his friends and neighbours on his arrival in Mumbai on Sunday night.

"Atharva made a promise to his father and this is the first step towards it. His father wanted to see him playing the Ranji Trophy.

"Whenever he leaves the house, he prays in front of his father's photograph and take his blessings before going out."

Having seen his mother slogging over the years, young Atharva has suggested that his mother quit her job as bus conductor and just take tuitions at their home.

"When I leave home early morning, he is sleeping and when I come back he is out for practice. He comes late in the evening. At that time I am busy taking tuitions and he doesn't get time to rest because there are a lot of children studying in the house.

"Only after the tuitions are over do we get time to talk. By then it is too late. We quickly finish dinner and sleep early as I have to get up early.

"He feels I am working so much and we don't get time to meet or talk to each other properly. He has been after me to quit the bus conductor job, but I will not do that till he gets settled.

"This is just the first step in his career. He still has a long way to go in his career. Parth, the younger one, is also into cricket. He has been selected for Mumbai Under-14 probables. Once I feel Atharva can take his brother's responsibility then I can think about it (quitting her job).

"He is only 18. I don't want to burden him. If I quit this job it will put pressure on him. I told him not to worry about me and just play with a free mind. I am not scared of struggles. I just need my children to support me."

As per the Ankolekar family tradition, whenever Atharva does well, Vaidehi takes her sons out for a meal.

After the Asia Cup triumph in Colombo, Vaidehi plans a big surprise for her elder son.

"His birthday is on September 26 so I want to give him a mobile phone and an Activa scooter, which he has been wanting for a long time."

Despite Mumbai's media thronging their home in Andheri East, Atharva makes sure he doesn't miss his cricket training sessions.

India's new hero with the ball takes a BEST bus to the Sharad Pawar Indoor Cricket Academy at the Mumbai Cricket Association's cricket ground, Bandra Kurla Complex, north west Mumbai.

"He takes the BEST bus as always. I give him Rs 100 for his expenses every day," says Vaidehi with a smile.

Atharva's feat in Colombo hasn't gone unnoticed. The left-arm spinner's career got a big boost on Tuesday, September 17, when he earned his maiden Mumbai call-up for the coming Vijay Hazare Trophy, the national 50-overs tournament.

Things are surely looking up for Vaidehi Ankolekar and her sons!

HARISH KOTIAN / Rediff.com
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