Inspired by Gandhi, couple goes on hunger strike over pickleball noise

Rajnish Dhawan fasted to protest the noise from pickleball courts near his home in Canada. MUST CREDIT: Harpreet Dhawan

Rajnish Dhawan awoke about 8 a.m. Sunday and sat to eat a bowl of Cheerios inside his home in Canada. As he ate, he looked out the window and saw the nearby pickleball courts – a reminder of why the cereal would be his last meal for the foreseeable future.

For nearly a year, Dhawan has complained to officials from Chilliwack – a city in British Columbia – about high-decibel noises from the three pickleball courts that are about 20 feet behind his property. He said he and his wife have endured auditory hallucinations, heart flutters and insomnia since players started flocking to the courts in 2021. But Dhawan, 52, said little has changed.

Since pickleball began exploding in popularity in 2019, people have griped about the noises near their homes, causing neighborhood disagreements, calls to police and lawsuits. But Dhawan and his 51-year-old wife, Harpreet, took a new stance.

Inspired by Indian activist Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Dhawans decided that, starting at 9 a.m. Sunday, they wouldn’t eat until the noise improved.

“We would prefer to suffer rather than continue to live the life of Second Class citizens,” the Dhawans wrote in a letter to city officials on July 20.

Three pickleball courts, left, in a Chilliwack park. MUST CREDIT: City of Chilliwack

The Dhawans moved from a Chilliwack townhouse to their current five-bedroom home in February 2017. They enjoyed sitting on their deck to watch children play on swings and neighbors walk their dogs at the park behind their home.

Then, in the spring of 2019, Chilliwack added pickleball courts to the park that are visible from the Dhawans’ house. The courts grew more popular when the city added a new surface in the spring of 2021. The Dhawans tried to ignore the popping noises, even playing pickleball sometimes themselves to see what the hype was about.

But last summer, Rajnish said the sounds became unbearable. He said he slept poorly, and when he did rest, he awoke in the middle of the night hallucinating the noise of a ball striking a paddle. Rajnish, an English professor at a nearby university, and Harpreet, a dental hygienist, fell behind on their work and started to see therapists for the first time.

The couple’s 23-year-old daughter lives in Vancouver, B.C., but rarely visits home because of the noise, Rajnish said. The Dhawans sometimes leave their TV on high volume to muffle the sounds.

Last October, Rajnish sent his first of many letters to city officials to complain about the noise.

“You feel as if someone is consistently punching your head,” Rajnish told The Washington Post. “It’s literally like living next to a gun range.”

A spokeswoman for the city of Chilliwack said in a statement that officials “have regularly responded” to Rajnish’s grievances and “have taken substantial action to help mitigate the situation.”

For instance, the spokeswoman said the city only allows pickleball play between 9 a.m. and dusk, and has recommended that players use practice foam balls after 4 p.m. Still, Rajnish said people play daily until 9 p.m.

In March, he wrote an email to the city’s pickleball club that said playing on the courts near his home was “an act of aggression committed against me and my family.”

The courts reopened in April this year – a month later than usual after a winter hiatus – because of Rajnish’s complaints, the city spokeswoman said. The city covered the fence with black tarps in hopes of reducing the sound.

Still, Rajnish said he canceled his two summer courses and flew to his birthplace of Amritsar, India, to prevent his anxiety from worsening. He hoped the situation would be resolved by the time he returned.

Harpreet, who stayed behind in Chilliwack, developed similar symptoms as Rajnish, and players yelled at her when she asked them to stop playing at night, Rajnish said. On Rajnish’s flight home on July 20, he drafted another letter to city officials.

“As staunch followers of Mahatma Gandhi, we have decided to follow the path shown by him to deal with systemic injustice,” the Dhawans wrote – using the honorific by which Gandhi was popularly known that means “great soul” – before signing the letter “the less privileged residents of Chilliwack.”

The couple hung a red-and-yellow banner outside of the pickleball courts announcing their “DAILY HUNGER STRIKE AGAINST HARASSMENT AND DISCRIMINATION BY CITY OF CHILLIWACK.”

After eating breakfast Sunday, the Dhawans began their hunger strike by sitting on the pickleball courts, even as some people played nearby. Harpreet felt lightheaded that night and broke her fast, but Rajnish, who felt nauseous, continued.

The couple returned to the courts about 5 a.m. Monday, holding umbrellas in the rain. Two men decided not to play after speaking with the Dhawans, Rajnish said, but a woman complained the couple was preventing people from competing. The Dhawans juggled their protest while working from home.

By Monday night, Rajnish said his nausea had grown worse, and his heart rate had increased. The city had not taken action and, fearing long-term health effects, Rajnish ended his hunger strike around 10 a.m. Tuesday, after 50 hours.

“I’m not Gandhi,” Rajnish said. “I don’t have millions of followers.”

He drank a glass of sharbat, a drink made from flower petals and a sweetener, and planned to eat snacks – fruit, cereal, nuts – throughout the day.

The Dhawans’ problem might be solved in a few months. The city is building an indoor pickleball facility and plans to close the courts near the Dhawans’ home in November.

But for the Dhawans, that’s not soon enough.

“We shouldn’t be forced to move,” Rajnish said, “just because a mistake was made by the city.”



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