Made in Dharavi: Aspiring Paralympian Mohammad Shams Aalam Shaikh reflects on his struggles

Aalam's life changed at the age of 24 when he developed a benign tumour in his lower back which immobilized his lower half
By Samrat Chakraborty

Life often throws challenges at one and how we overcome them defines our character. Such is the story of Indian para swimmer Mohammad Shams Aalam Shaikh, who is paraplegic, but hasn't given up on his Paralympics dreams at 34.

Aalam, who finished fourth at the 2018 Asian Para Games, was a national karate champion in 2010. But his life changed at the age of 24 when he developed a benign tumour in his lower back. Several unsuccessful surgeries later he was left immobilized.

He narrates the harrowing tale.

Shams Aalam 

"While I was studying Mechanical Engineering, I got back pain," Shams Aalam told the Olympic Channel.

"I was finding it difficult to walk from one place to another or climb up staircases. Plus there was a tingling sensation in the second finger of my left leg and I was started losing my control over bladder. The MRI result showed that a benign tumor in the spinal cord was causing compression and I had to go for surgery.

"I was a national karate champion at the time in 2010. So I was hopeful. Doctors said, 'Shams you will definitely play for the country but if you don't get the operation done there is a chance that this could be fatal.'"

"Unfortunately, the first surgery was not successful as he removed some soft tissues rather the tumor. After the operation, I did another MRI after 4-5 months.

"The scan showed that the tumor is still there. It was a real shock and a big fall in my life. It made me think twice about what to do. I didn't have the money as I had spent around INR 5-6 lakh in medical expenses already. But then I found Ram Krishna Mission hospital in Mumbai, which was less expensive.

"They removed the tumor, after which I became a paraplegic," he added.

Following his surgery, Aalam took to para-swimming and the results were encouraging. Over the years, he has bagged 15 medals at the Indian National Para-Swimming Championships.

But success did not come easy to him in Dharavi, Mumbai, which is known as one of the largest slums in Asia.

"Dharavi is a place where I started swimming. Accessibility is a major issue. Every day I needed someone to take me from my house to the swimming pool because the place is very inaccessible for wheelchair users."

"I approached so many people to help me to go to the swimming pool. Sometimes, if my nephew or sister weren't there I had to ask someone else to take me to the pool. That was really difficult. There are so many people with disability there who want to achieve things in life. But they cannot because of the lack of accessibility."

Aalam has also been a victim of societal ill-treatment.

"One of my relatives said if you don't have the money then why have you kept him," he recalled. "Give him poison. But my mom was very supportive. She was always there."

Rather than dwell on the struggles, though, Aalam is channeling his energy to become a better swimmer.

A four-time gold medalist at the Indian Open Para Swimming Championship, he has acquired significant technical coaching in the last few years. His immediate goal is to qualify for the World Championships.