Wednesday, December 2, 1998

Medal in the Sky

It was early evening as the train pulled into the yard outside Jhansi station. The year was 1974. For many of the boys on this forty-day educational tour round the country, part of their final-year engineering course, it was the first trip outside Delhi, and they were determined to make the most of every moment.
Dhyan Chand with the ball agains France
in the 1936 Olympic semi-finals
As Ajay, Sunil, Ajit and Satguru stepped into the town, it struck them that Major Dhyan Chand lived in Jhansi and on an impulse, they decided to go and seek him out. They stopped an autorickshaw. “Dada!” the auto driver exclaimed, wagging his head with enthusiasm. He drove them to a playing ground where the hockey legend spent most of his evenings coaching. But he was nowhere to be found in the crowd of players. Disappointed, but still excited and proud to be taking fans to see the great man, he ushered them back into his vehicle and drove on.
They pulled up outside a small village house with a mud wall. A cow was tied in the enclosure. No one was about, and they hesitantly entered. A woman came out and when they stated their mission, welcomed them warmly and seated them. They declined the offer of tea – surprised at being treated like honoured guests when they had been uncertain of even a glimpse of their hero.
Sunil and Ajay relaxing by the victory stand
Delhi Polytechnic c1974
The kind lady went inside and they could hear her bustling around. Suddenly, Satguru spotted the Olympic gold medal. There it was, hanging from a nail on the wall. In awe and excitement, the boys got up to examine it, daring to let their fingers stroke its contours before they sat down again, silent and awkward.
The front door swung open and Major Dhyan Chand strolled in. Introductions were made, and the gangly, tongue-tied boys called on their halting powers of adolescent conversation. They politely asked about his routine, and how his son Ashok Kumar was doing. The gold medal was taken down, and they each marvelled over it again (this time officially). Dhyan Chand, the incomparable hockey idol was the most unassuming of people – simple, fulfilled, and relaxed. Somehow, an autograph just didn’t seem necessary. The auto driver was waiting to take them back to the railway station and stoutly refused payment for his services.
Ajay told me about this incident decades later.
We were on board an Indian Airlines flight from Delhi. Coffee had been poured, and Ajay picked up his cup – and it nearly clattered from his fingers when he saw who had poured it. He smiled and asked eagerly, “Ashok Kumar!”
The steward stepped back, embarrassed, and mumbled, “Yes,” his brilliance on the hockey field camouflaged under a new persona. His smile was polite but there was not the slightest flicker of pride at having been recognized – not even a trace of memory of his days as one of the top sportsmen of this country. Even when we stepped off the aircraft, there was the former Olympic player standing by the door, wearing the bland, trademark IA namaste smile and a distant, formal expression in his eyes.
With Ashok Kumar at his academy in Bhopal in December 2015
For years to come, when Indian media moaned about India’s poor showing at every Olympic Games, I thought about Ashok Kumar standing at the aircraft door, a non-entity hero, and felt a pang of pain thinking about how the Indian government and the Indian people have failed our sportspeople.
first appeared as a Times of India Midde on 2 Dec 1998

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