When I was asked to write an article about what it was like to meet Balbir Singh Sr., the first thing I realized was how little I remembered the outside of the visit. I can barely remember what time I visited, only in the morning and I waited briefly in a nearby park before I rang the bell outside his gate.
I can’t say much about his house. Located in sector 21 Chandigarh, a subtle but not luxurious part of town. For a caliber athlete, there are a number of sports mementos. Of course no one will mark him as one of the most beloved sports icons in the country. There is no Olympic gold medal at his home. The most prominent trophy is the small trophy which he will share later is the first trophy he won as a teenager.
I never thought it would be like this. I decided to meet him in early August 2017 to discuss his role in the hockey team that won the gold medal at the 1948 Olympics. This was one of the biggest achievements in Indian sports and Balbir was a big part of it. But even when I went to Chandigarh, I wondered to myself what I would do from the meeting.
The aging process can be a cruel thing. Balbir was 93 years old at the time, and I wasn’t sure how much I could suppress it and how much detail he could recall his achievements from almost 70 years ago. Perhaps cynically, I felt I might have to include observations about his house, family – the devoted daughter of Sushbir and Kabir’s grandson who loved her – to make the story.
I finally never mentioned anything other than the words of the great man. My concern for the state of his mind and body disappeared in the first minute of meeting him as he held my hand with a strong and unexpected handshake. We talked for several hours and never did our conversation. Not once did he repeat himself, even though he rested several times for a cup of lemon tea. He recalled the details of friendship, the anecdote from the 1948 Olympics as if it had happened the previous month.
Speaking to Balbir, being introduced to the past era, when independent India was just born. It was a time when the country took its first few steps even when recovering from the horrors of the partition. Balbir has gone through all that. He had seen the first-hand bloodshed and he had almost perished, his forehead being grazed by a bullet fired by a troubled subordinate policeman. His love for the flag and the country is unquestionable and love is based on life experience. When he compared the three gold medals India won with the team won in 1948, his eyes sparkled when he mentioned how the last was the first victory under the tricolor. When he talks about flying when the tricolor rises to the Olympic flagpole, you can’t help feeling a lump in your own throat.
However, Balbir’s patriotism is not a narrow type. He suffered a personal loss in the partition. His wife’s family lost all their property. You he is talking about friends who have crossed the border and are now suddenly enemies. He spoke proudly about the last team from the united Punjab and how to win the national title in April 1947, they received a big reception in Lahore with little inkling about what was to come just a few months into the future. “It’s very strange to believe now. We are friends one day and suddenly we become enemies.”
Even 70 years later, Balbir can still remember all his teammates and their exploits. His daughter will issue the iPad with the last team from India that is undivided, easily the greatest hockey team of that generation and Balbir will point to each player and mention their exact playing position.
“” That’s the right half of Kalat … This one is Mehmood, Keshav Dutt … Woodcock, Walter Dsouza … that one is Aziz who plays for Pakistan – he also plays on the left with me at Khalsa College. King Shekhar the second goalkeeper … Jamshed, the center forward from Delhi, Gentle …, “he blurted out the names.”Bahut tagdi team thi yeh (That’s a very strong team). We play all over India and beat ‘B’ teams almost all the time. We might even win the Olympics. “
It’s a refreshing change from interviewing modern athletes, who talk about winning for India and talking about nationalism, but you suspect the empty words are self-serving. Balbir does not have that cruelty. For a tall man, he does not produce anything from his achievements.
Talking to Balbir means knowing when India is suffering, having few friends and less money, but when people unite for a far greater reason than they are. And the stakes at the 1948 Olympics could not have been higher. Balbir talked about how JRD Tata arranged for them to become the first national team to fly to sporting events, so they had time to practice.
When Balbir was dropped after scoring six goals in the opening match, he did not protest to maintain team unity, but the country’s high commissioner for England acted to improve it. And when Balbir remembers how the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru told him that India needed it to win another gold medal, you realize how much pressure these young men would bear. That’s one thing to read about it. To hear Balbir talk about it, I don’t think of any other sporting moment that is approaching significant or any achievement close to it.
Years later, you hope Balbir has changed, at least a little. Too often, the country he loves disappoints him. He was advised to remove his turban while in Delhi in 1984 to avoid being targeted in anti-Sikh riots. He even donated the 1948 Olympic blazer to charity for victims who were displaced after the violence. The priceless memorabilia he donated to the Indian government for the proposed museum has been surprisingly misplaced and is considered lost forever.
However, through all that, Balbir has nothing but to admire his homeland. I secretly took a picture of him as he looked through his old files. He dressed pretty well in a plaid shirt and gray pants. But after the interview when I asked him for an official photo he insisted I wait until he was dressed properly.
“Wait, let me wear my Indian blazer!” she says. Only after he had worn it did he comb his rich white beard, puff out his chest proudly and take a picture of him.