Remembering Balbir Singh and his hockey fairy

On the wall at the Punjab University ground, where the team trained, Balbir Singh had got it written in big bold letters: “Gaining World Supremacy is Our Goal.”

Besides the wizardry with the stick, people felt connected to Balbir Singh for the warmth of his persona.   -  FILE PHOTO/ PTI

February 3, 2009, the city of Chandigarh, much quieter than it is now. Not too many things are as welcome as a lovely, warm north Indian winter morning. House number 1067, Sector 36 C, though, can claim to out-welcome and out-warm it.

That was the day this reporter took first steps into a virtual museum of hockey brilliance, from a time when India was the unquestioned ruler on the turf. The trophies, pictures and memorabilia from a time gone by, though, all get dwarfed by the aura and benign smile of the man in their midst – Balbir Singh Senior, the player who terrorised defenders all over and the ‘midas’ man of Indian hockey.

But it wasn’t the wizardry with the stick but the warmth of his persona that drew people to him. Even before that visit to his home, Balbir Singh had made a lasting impression on someone just learning the ropes of both hockey and journalism years earlier. A regular visitor to Delhi at that time, even for domestic events, his aura was felt every time he smiled and enquired “how are you, beta”?

That smile and warmth was always available for anyone who wanted to seek his guidance or advice or simply to have a chat on hockey. Specially the days of 1948, when a former colony overwhelmed and outplayed its former masters on their soil.

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“With every raise of the Tricolour at the Old Wembley Stadium that day, the heart beat a little faster, the pride rose a notch higher, the eyes became moister. It wasn’t just a medal – it was India claiming its place on the world stage. And it had chosen us as a means to do that. What honour! That feeling can only be experienced, never expressed,” Balbir Singh told this reporter. The Tricolour mounted on the wall in his living room was a testimony to what that victory meant.

His achievements made him proud for the country, never for themselves. “The team won. Hockey is a team game. No one wins alone,” was his firm belief. At a rare public display of Dhyan Chand’s stick used in the 8-1 demolition of Germany in the 1936 Olympics finals during the Punjab Gold Cup in 2009, Balbir Singh held it and “what bigger honour can there be for any hockey player” were his sentiments, regardless of his own stature.

He also belonged to an era when Punjabi did not equal aggression. From his teammates to juniors to his family, no one ever heard Balbir Singh raise his voice. The softness in his eyes was matched by the one in his voice, but there was no denying the firmness.

“Before the 1975 World Cup, we had a 1-1/2 month long camp in Chandigarh. Our hostel was opposite the girls’. After the in-charge of girls’ hostel complained, Balbir ji, the team manager, would simply park himself on a chair at our hostel gates every evening to ensure no boy went out. And the respect he had, no one crossed him. I can still visualise him there at the gate!” Ashok Kumar, member of that team, remembered.

READ| Hockey legend Balbir Singh Sr passes away

On the wall at the Punjab University ground, where the team trained, Balbir Singh had got it written in big bold letters: “Gaining World Supremacy is Our Goal.” The team did, the first and only time, and it remains the biggest high for Indian hockey ever since. His record as a player is common knowledge – three consecutive Olympic golds at London (1948), Helsinki (1952) and Melbourne (1956), the only Indian to do so in independent India and only the second after his idol Dhyan Chand.

His non-playing record is equally impressive – India has never come back from a tournament without a medal that had Balbir Singh as coach or manager, including the 1975 World Cup. His two books – The Golden Hat-trick and The Golden Yardstick—are a must for every player, every coach. “I remember him crying inconsolably after India lost the semifinal to Pakistan at the 1971 World Cup. He kept saying, ‘I should die. How will I go back and face the people back home? How can I explain the defeat?’ That we came back with a bronze was no consolation,” Ashok remembered.

For someone so proud – “I am grateful to this game. I am what I am only because of hockey. My first love has always been hockey. My last wish is to see India on top again," said the man who could walk into the offices of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi without appointment – India missing out on the 2008 Olympics was a catastrophe. That affected him more than anyone else, he didn’t eat or sleep properly for days. That was the first time his family feared for his health. In some ways, it broke him from within. Since then his family – daughter Sushbir and grandson Kabir – tried to keep any news of India’s losses away from him.

They also tried to keep away for long the news of SAI losing many of his medals and memorabilia. The SAI said they wanted to honour him and took his stuff to be displayed but lost them. Kabir has been trying to at least find out what exactly happened but there is no trace of all the precious stuff that belonged to India’s sporting legend. The three Olympic golds are all he has left behind.

The last time this reporter met him, Balbir Singh had become frail enough to be accompanied by Kabir everywhere. One had to sit close enough to make oneself heard and also to understand him. But the mind was sharp as ever. “Excellence is not an art, it is a habit. We have to do what we do best, not copy anyone. We did that when we played, never blamed conditions. Hard work can make anything possible,” he told this reporter. But it was all said with a smile – never in rancour.

“I liked her, respected her, loved her and worshiped her. She became my Goddess, my first love and my darling. She taught me the qualities of sportsmanship. Her love for me was eternal. Our love blossomed in London. We married in Helsinki and honeymooned in Melbourne. After a period of 11 long years, my fairy of the Heavens returned to me as fresh and charming as ever. This time she took me to Kuala Lumpur, and we were again on top of the world. She vanished again, but with a promise that she would return. I am waiting for her – my hockey fairy. She must come,” Balbir Singh wrote in The Golden Hat-Trick.

The fairy, alas, never came. Holding the Olympic golds was surreal, a reminder of Indian hockey's glorious past and a glaring feeling of inadequacy in honouring our heroes. Those first few steps were followed by many more, over years, at all places – public events, stadia, felicitations. The smile, the well-tailored blue suit with a red turban – it was always red – and the soft hands always raised with a “God bless you, beta” were a constant. Not anymore. But somewhere up there, Balbir Singh Dosanjh and Dhyan Singh Bais would surely be teaming up for the second half.

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