Reliving a bygone era with Balbir Singh, the nonagenarian hockey legend

Ninety-six-year-old Balbir, triple Olympic hockey gold medallist, still retains a sharp memory.

Stroll down memory lane: Balbir Singh (left) with his daughter Sushbir at her residence in Chandigarh.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

His home in Chandigarh can be termed a tribute to the great game of hockey. You are ushered into the drawing room, a virtual museum displaying a magnificent collection of trophies, medals, award citations, that document Balbir Singh’s hockey journey. The trophy, his first as a teenager when in school, may have lost the lustre but not the value. Balbir’s eyes sparkle as he holds the precious belonging, his hands tremble, but he does not let go of the little gem. “It’s very dear to me,” he fumbles. And why not? It has been with him for close to 88 years now.

To call the 96-year-old Balbir frail, weak, ill, would disappoint him, for he protests by shaking his head. “I am fine,” he insists with a smile. “He is as good as he has been last three decades,” smiles his doting daughter Sushbir. She gave up hockey to pursue studies on Balbir’s advice and has not regretted it. “I have lived my hockey through my father’s exploits on the field and his love for the game.”

‘Honour’

For grandson Kabir, life revolves around Balbir. Having quit a lucrative job in South Africa and now devoted to serving his “Nanaji,” the genial Kabir is Balbir’s eyes and ears. “I just love every moment spent with him. His energy and memory are an amazing source for all of us. It is such an honour to be known as his grandson,” gushes Kabir.

Balbir, triple Olympic hockey gold medallist (1948, 1952 and 1956), has spent 160 days (from October 1, 2018 to November 20, 2019) in hospital — 95 of them in Intensive Care Unit. He returned from the brink to the warmth of the house, owned by Sushbir. “He would divide time here and in Vancouver (with two sons). He is grandfather and great grandfather in Canada,” smiles Kabir.

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According to Sushbir, Balbir needs constant attention. “He needs the help of a care-taker but also insists on doing things by himself too, like having his food, milk and juices. He loves reading newspapers and watching news. He can stay up late if there is a hockey match to be watched live. He had to keep himself abreast of the happenings the world over.”

Unforgettable

As for Balbir, his memory is sharp, if not razor sharp as it used to be. He recalls the 1948 Olympics with amazing details. “There was no greater joy for me than seeing the tri-colour going up. The National Anthem and the fact that we beat our rulers (British) on their home soil to win and retain the Olympic hockey gold can never be forgotten. Never,” the excitement in his tone confirms the awesome feat of the team at London.

The family has kept him in the dark on the loss of some of the memorabilia he had donated to the Sports Authority of India. “It was callous of them to have lost such priceless gifts from his personal collection,” says a sad Sushbir. She and Kabir have made frantic efforts, in vain until now, to plead with investigation for retrieving the valuables — medals, trophies and blazers.

“Come again soon,” the grand old man of Indian hockey says with a warm handshake. You wish him “good health,” holding on to the hands that created magic on the hockey turf.

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