SRINAGAR: It was a matter of chance that the three-year-old Zainab put on the skis -- but thereafter, it seemed as if she was born to them. She skied with a natural felicity rarely seen even in people of mature age.
Zainab's father, Sheikh Zaffar, who runs a hotel in the north Kashmir skiing resort of Gulmarg, playfully put on the skis on Zainab during winter while his two children were visiting him from Srinagar on a weekend.
To his amazement, his little girl -- who still nurses a milk bottle -- took to skiing as a natural and onlookers could not help but cheer the child prodigy as she slid on the gentle snowy slopes of Gulmarg.
Enthused by her natural skill, Zainab's father took her to the Gulmarg-based Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering (IISM) where trainers -- at first sceptical -- looked on in wonder as the three-year-old adapted to the skill easily.
Institute principal Colonel J.S. Dhillon, impressed by Zainab's performance, told his instructors to take care of the little girl.
Zainab is the youngest skier to qualify for the national-level advance course in skiing, having cleared the IISM skiing test with flying colours -- scoring over 70 percent and taking everyone by surprise.
She can barely speak a full sentence but she has already won many hearts -- with a milk feeding bottle in her hand and a pair of skies on her feet. Her admirers call her "Wonder Child" and "Miracle Girl".
"I got into adventure sports some 15 years ago and I have never seen any skier of this age or close to this. I was fortunate to have been selected as instructor for Zainab," Gulzar Kashmiri told IANS while speaking about her ability to pick up the nuances of the recreational activity and winter sport.
Zainab's father Zaffar and mother Nazrana Hafiz take her for skiing classes early in the morning and often forgo their daily routine for the wonder girl.
"It's too early to say, but if my daughter, once she grows up, would like to opt for skiing as her profession, I will support her at every level... I will take her wherever better coaching is possible," Zaffar told IANS.
Zaffar wants his child to represent India at the Winter Olympics some day.
Zainab says in her halting voice: "My name is Zainab... mujhey skiing achhi lagti hai (I like skiing)."
Col. Dhillion, who was amazed after the wonder girl got high scores in her skiing exams -- a basic requirement for the national level advance course -- believes many Kashmiris have a natural affinity for the sport. He had brought down the minimum age required for entry to a skiing course from 14 years to six.
For Zainab, he had to further reduced the age requirement to three years.
Gulmarg resort is located in the northwest of Jammu and Kashmir. The number of ski terrains in the area is virtually unlimited and include alpine bowls, chutes, cornices, glade skiing amongst ancient pines, and glacier skiing without the glacier.
India is not an obvious destination for skiing, but there has been a resort at Gulmarg since the days of the British Raj. Gulmarg's legendary beauty and proximity to Srinagar make it one of the premier hill resorts in the country. Pahalgam and Sonamarg are the other two popular resorts in the state.
In winter, people come to Gulmarg for its off-piste, deep-powder, long-run skiing and snowboarding.