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India Today, March 8, 1999
March 8, 1999



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NEGLECTED CHAMPIONS
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

Gopal BhengraYour 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?

Why?

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.

Him too?
If you dishonour your past, do not expect a future.

-with Amarnath K Menon, Sheela Raval and Sanjay Kumar Jha

GOPAL BHENGRA
HOCKEY WORLD CUP, 1978

Gopal BhengraVyur Guria village, 55 km from Ranchi, Bihar. The man is wearing a lungi and a banian. His wife is wrapped in a torn sari. His house is made of mud, straw and wood. Till three months ago he broke stone in a quarry.

Gopal Bhengra is an advertisement for not playing hockey for India.

The man, who played for his army unit with such distinction that Ashok Kumar remembers him immediately, needs to catch fish from a dirty pool nearby to get by. The man who played for India in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina can't afford to buy vegetables most days on his monthly pension of Rs 1,475.

He shows you his hands that were made to dribble, not crush 100 stones for Rs 50, and says it is his destiny. What else can a man say? When he retired in 1979 from the army he knocked at the doors of ministers, bureaucrats, businessmen. No one opened. He wrote to Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi asking for a peon's job. No one answered. Says he: "For any sportsman nothing could be worse than being ignored and humiliated by his own people."

Get in line.

PS: In Vyur Garia village, two young boys say they want to play hockey for India. Their father agrees. His name is Gopal Bhengra.

-Sanjay Kumar Jha

 

SARWAN SINGH
GOLD IN HURDLES, 1954

Sarwan SinghVisitors? for me? Unsure, the farmer cycles home from the paddy fields. Is it the buffaloes they wish to speak about?

No. They want to speak to him about that other man he was. And he, 70, the retired "Subedar" to his neighbours, is stunned. A grin springs forth: "No one has ever visited me to know how I am doing."

It's the last time he smiles. A light from his past has blinked on and he wishes it never had. He remembers Jawaharlal Nehru's words, "If you win it would be the nation's victory." He remembers the tricolour rising when he won the 110 m hurdles gold at the 1954 Asian Games, "feeling like a war hero". Then he remembers the taxi he drove for 20 years.

His army pension was too meagre, so he searched for a job. "No one gave a damn. The medal moved no one. Driving a taxi was better than begging for a job as a gold medallist." One thing though: he would drive his taxi only in Ambala, far from his friends in Ropar district.

Now, on request, he searches for his medals. Eventually he finds them, an entire heap. This is treasure, a nation's athletic history. "No," says his son, "this is junk."

He must leave now, for he tills another man's land. It pays some bills. The Rs 1,500 monthly pension from the government pays others. "That I exist in government records is a small consolation," he says wryly. Only on paper in a dusty file in a Delhi room does his heroism still breathe weakly.
-Ramesh Ninayak

 

MOHD YOUSUF KHAN
GOLD IN SOCCER, 1962

Mohd Yousuf KhanTime flies, and who would believe he once did. Mohammed Yousuf Khan sits in the sun and trembles. His hands shake of their own volition, his walk is a shuffle, his body racked by Parkinson's disease. One day a schoolboy who was passing by stopped to enquire about his trembling hands. With the directness of the young, he asked, "Didn't you do some physical exercise when you were young?"

The boy hadn't noticed the words "Arjuna Award" on the nameplate.

The boy didn't know that in 1962 India beat South Korea to win its first ever Asian Games football gold medal.

The boy hadn't read that only two men from that team made it to the Asian All Star XI.

One of them was the man with the trembling hands, the player known as the "The Bearded Horse".

"This horse can no longer trot, leave alone run," he says now, as he leads you to the front room of his tiny three-room house in Hyderabad's old city, where the ceiling is an asbestos sheet and dust powders every surface. Here in one corner stand two cupboards as old as time, repositories of his worth as a man: chipped medals, rusting cups, frayed clippings.

He does not have much else left. Dignity has flown and poverty lurks in the shadows. The Rome Olympian, of whom was once written in Sports and Pastime"he can be banked upon always to give his best in keeping the country's flag flying", remembers days when he couldn't repair his shoes because he could not afford a cobbler. Now with a Rs 4,500 pension he manages to support his family.

Cricketers in Hyderabad have been allotted government land in upmarket areas like Banjara Hills. Mohammed Yousuf Khan the footballer, his slipper affixed together with a safety pin, unable to afford a cinema ticket, has been allotted humiliation. Says the old man with a saddening charm: "I am ashamed to talk about how I meet my expenses."

That day when the boy asked him whether he'd ever done physical exercise, Khan replied, "Yes, I played football."

Said the boy, "You should have played cricket."

-Amarnath K. Menon

 

MAKHAN SINGH
GOLD IN RELAY, 1962

Makhan SinghWho told Makhan Singh to run?

Why didn't he finish college, find a job, raise his kids, watch television?

Which world was he living in that he believed a gold and a silver at an Asian Games (1962) would make him a hero forever?

Understand why this is being said. Look there at that dishevelled cripple with the artificial leg, at that stationery shop on the Chandigarh-Hoshiarpur highway, that's Makhan. Yes, once he ran like the wind. Once. Now he drinks up a storm.

Most nights he downs his bottle of rum, hoping the alcohol will mute his pain. Instead it stirs his melancholy. He weeps, he shouts: "Keep this Arjuna Award away from my eyes." This morning, he hops around the room placing small utensils on the floor to catch the rain that is seeping through his roof. He is not poor, this man; he is belittled.

This year he went to the Rail Bhavan in Delhi to get a complimentary railway pass that Arjuna awardees are entitled to. He couldn't get past the reception. The staff sniggered. Asian gold medallists don't walk around on crutches, they said. "They thought I was a beggar," says Makhan. It took two hours before the man who beat Milkha Singh by two yards in the 400 m in 1964 in Calcutta was recognised.

Milkha beat him to gold at the 1962 Asian Games, but they won gold collectively in the relay. Then life went bad. He drove a truck, lost his leg, chased politicians for a gas agency outlet without success. When he pleaded with a Punjab MP for assistance two years ago, the man asked for Rs 5 lakh.

Now Makhan asks himself: who told you to run?

-Ramesh Vinayak

 

 

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