Our Forgotten Heroes
If India does not care for those who earned glory in the past, it can expect none in the future.
By Ramesh Vinayak and Rohit Brijnath
Your son is an aspiring sprinter. Sit him down. Take this photograph, black and white, frayed and fading, and show it to him. Then tell him this story.
When traffic policemen stopped his truck and demanded a bribe, he would hand the photograph to them. It showed a young man, smartly dressed, receiving the Arjuna Award from then President S. Radhakrishnan. Even the policemen, stunned, could tell that the greasy, dishevelled trucker was once the young man in the blazer. "Bewildered by my past, sometimes they would let me go."
Introduce your son to the man in the photograph. Let him see failure close up. Makhan Singh, gold and silver medallist, Asian Games 1962. Makhan Singh, nobody, 1999. Forgotten by a nation in whose name he ran.
But not forgotten alone.
Unlock just one door of a thousand to India's sporting past and the stories tumble out. Jamshed, the caddie who rose to win the Arjuna Award, is back to being a Rs 30-an-hour caddie. Hockey Olympian S. Dungdung who says, "Companies refuse to hire me as a security guard." Some men have no names, some no fixed address, it is all so terrifyingly vague. Ashok Kumar recalls meeting a fellow hockey Olympian in Chennai whose name he is unsure of, "living like a beggar". A footballer mentions he heard Mohammed Ali, who played for India in the Merdeka Cup in the '60s, was working as a coolie at Kampti railway station in Maharashtra. Is that true, is he alive, does anyone care?
It is asked on occasion, why doesn't India win many medals at Asian Games, Olympic Games?
In village Bhagta Bhai Ka in Punjab a young boy listens to a local politician promise a stadium in his grandfather's name. Not a brick has been laid. He hears his grandfather shout, "Do I have to beg from them?" telling visitors how the Punjab government refused him a pension as he had represented the Services. He sees his grandfather, the triple Asian Games gold-medallist Parduman Singh, lying partially paralysed in his cot, and says, "I'm proud to be his grandson but the medals don't inspire me to play sport."
Well done boy, go to school. Sport will get you nowhere. Play for India and they'll pump your hand and plead for autographs. Then they'll turn the page and discard you. When wrestler Madho Singh, fifth at the 1960 Rome Olympics, wanted a job as a school coach he was told, "You're illiterate."Nobody told them there was a price. Noor Mohammed remembers "putting my books under a stone and playing all day". Yet the man who played football in Asian and Olympic Games now wonders about his tuberculosis and if his son, an electrician, has the money to pay for his medicines.
So how does one put this? The athlete is owed. You sleep, he runs; you loll in the shade, he trains in the sun and vomits. Yet you win together. He gets the medal, you get pride, pleasure, escape. Some mornings you feel better about being Indian. For that he is owed.
There is more. You can write books, play the piano, sell stocks, be a whiz of a marketing man till you're 50, till 60. The athlete at 30 plus is mostly dead. The best of him is gone. As he starts life again, he could do with a helping hand.
But it's not only the poverty that hurts. It is the indignity of worthy men who look into mirrors and see failure. It is the trauma of anonymity, that the men who once lauded them now throw their petitions in the dustbin. It is the flight of self-esteem. Hockey Olympian Gopal Bhengra remembers being chief guest at the 1993 Albert Ekka hockey tournament. "The VIP who inaugurated the tournament poured praises on me. But it stung because I know the same chap will kick me out from his office if I go to him for a small favour."
These men know there were no guarantees, that no one said if you ran for India you'd be rich, famous, satisfied. But they deserved honour, appreciation. "Honour!" barks Madho Singh, "playing for India didn't even give me a cup of tea." The wives agree for they saw shame the closest. Kusumtai, whose late husband K.D.Jadhav won a wrestling bronze at the 1952 Olympics, lifts his medals and says: "What's the use of all this when he died unrecognised." Take another story. Biswasi Toppo's late husband Noel was in the 1966 Asian Games hockey team; today, as she struggles on her nurse's salary of Rs 700 a month, she feels he would have been better off as a shoeshine boy.
But here it is, the insanity of it all. Despite everything, the romance endures. Under his bed, in a trunk, Noor Mohammed still has them, crumpled, shrunk, faded. His priceless blazers. Touching the crests that say India, Football, Asian Games, he says, "They are like platinum for us." Far away in Punjab, Madho Singh mourns he has no son. Someone to wrestle for India he says. Insane yes, but it is this purity of passion that drives nations forward.
Corporations, cri-cket crazy, must put some away for India's athletes. Federations must organise benevolent funds. The government grants some financial assistance to troubled sportspersons and pensions to Asian, Olympic and World Championship medallists-but Rs 2,500 a month for Olympic gold medallists is too little.
"The state rejoices in the deeds of these men, so now it must bear the responsibility," says Sunil Gavaskar. It does not, so it is sportspeople who respond. In Punjab, Milkha Singh helps fellow athletes financially. Gavaskar has launched champs which will aid needy heroes and aspiring hopefuls. In Mumbai, table tennis players Farrokh Khodaiji, Gautam Diwan and Niraj Bajaj set up a trust to assist fellow players. One incident demands retelling. A former champion, V. Shivraman, fell on hard times and received help over three years. He recovered, and says Khodaiji, "wrote to say we should use the money for someone more deserving. Only a sportsman would have done this".
These men know how hard it must be. For an athlete to arrive at a point when he walks into a pawn shop and tentatively hands over his medals. How much, the athlete asks. How much, he means, am I worth?
Some years ago Sarwan Singh took his 1954 Asian Games gold medal to the jeweller to sell. He was told it was worthless.
-with Amarnath K Menon, Sheela Raval and Sanjay Kumar Jha
© Living Media India Ltd