The platform at Jhansi railway station is unbelievably spick and span. The Uttar Pradesh Tourism counter has a man at the counter who is least interested in worrying about the lack of inquiries. He is not even aware of the location of the Major Dhyan Chand Hockey Stadium in the town. One of Jhansi’s most iconic figures is a forgotten man in his own backyard.
I wait for Ashok Kumar. He is on his way. I am in Jhansi to spend the day with the Dhyan Chand family, which resides in Sipri Bazar, Prem Ganj. The excitement to visit the home where the legendary hockey star lived increases with every passing minute. I am restless when Ashok Kumar arrives with a smile on his face.
We decide to visit the Senior Railway Institute. “There is a statue of Babuji (Dhyan Chand) which you must see before we go home,” says Ashok. It is early March and the sun is beating down. “The heat can be unbearable here in May-June,” warns Ashok as we reach the venue. The ground is in a bad shape and the statue too is neglected by the authorities.
It is time to look for shelter and Ashok decides to drive home. I, however, insist on seeing the other two statues — at the Major Dhyan Chand Hockey Stadium and the one at the Jhansi Heroes ground, which is being redeveloped by authorities. “It was once a lively place with so many matches during the season,” Ashok is wistful.
In the distance, on a hilltop is one more statue of Dhyan Chand. “It is a beautiful spot and attracts quite a few people,” says Ashok, who engages in conversation with the workers to check on the pace of construction at the Jhansi Heroes ground. “We are looking to revive some hockey activities,” he remarks.
As it becomes hot, Ashok decides it is “time to go home.” The house is not far and typically takes you back into time. There is a small courtyard that leads you into the house, which boasts of a room full of trophies and shields won by Dhyan Chand. “It is the best corner of the house. These medals remind us of his glory and of the great times when hockey was the most popular game in the country. It was a matter of pride that the family earned respect because of Babuji’s hockey deeds,” notes Ashok.
The room that displays all the hockey memorabilia of Dhyan Chand demands lot of attention.
“We ensure the trophies are cleaned every month. For us, it is a museum that stores memories of Babuji. His presence had an aura and we basked in the popularity that he had. But believe me, there was no way we could exploit the advantage of being part of a celebrity’s family. The instructions to us from Babuji were strict: not to use his name to push our case.”
The hockey medals from 1928, 1932 and 1936 have been a precious legacy of Dhyan Chand. “In fact, it is Jhansi that takes pride in the fact that Babuji hailed from this town, which is far more famous for the historical contribution of Rani Lakshmibai, the queen who stood up to the British. Jhansi has a rich history of brave warriors and Babuji is considered one on the hockey turf. His exemplary performance at Berlin in 1936 and his exchanges with Adolf Hitler are folklore,” Ashok says.
“The medals have never left the home. In fact, we have not kept it on public display for security reasons. These medals are an integral part of our growing-up years. There is history, passion and pride attached to the medals. It has meant so much to the nation. Three successive gold medals at the Olympics. We worship these medals and have preserved them with great care,” Ashok’s emotions are not to be missed.
“I have fond memories of Babuji. He was strict but also loved his family. Nothing could wean him off hockey. For my generation of hockey players, Babuji was a great source of inspiration. The hockey story that they wrote was a glorious chapter in the nation’s sporting history. We were not a patch on the stars of yesteryear and we knew that well. But Babuji was always encouraging the youngsters by recounting takes from the past. He was a very popular man in the world of hockey and also very down to earth,” adds Ashok.
It pains the family that there is no culture of preserving sports history. “The medals are all we have to remember the great tradition of hockey. The medals meant the world to Babuji. Holding them in hand gives you a great sense of achievement. The medal may be just a piece of metal, but the worth can’t be measured in terms of money. We won’t trade them for all the wealth in the world,” asserts Ashok.
When I express my desire to see the medals, Ashok’s sister-in-law Meena brings them out from the closet. Ashok’s brother Umesh joins us and the gleam in their eyes as I hold the medals conveys their admiration for them.
“You get some kind of positive energy, some positive vibes, when you hold the medals. Imagine how hard the team must have worked to win the gold. We have to respect that hard work,” says Ashok.
The medals have a story to tell. A story of how a talented bunch came together on the hockey turf to win accolades in gold at Amsterdam (1928), Los Angeles (1932) and Berlin (1936).
That Dhyan Chand played a dominant role in those epic triumphs is well documented. The family lives those moments once in a while when it brings out those medals with immense pride. “The medals are part of the sweet memories that Babuji has left us with,” adds Ashok as he carefully restores the priceless belongings of the Dhyan Chand family to the safe confines of the closet.
As we take the night train back to Delhi, I wonder if the Railways can immortalise the place of Dhyan Chand’s abode by naming the railway station after one of the greatest hockey players the world has seen.
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