Breather before London

Some of the members of India’s winning hockey team as they take a well-deserved break at home before the London Olympics

Written by The Sunday Express | Published: March 4, 2012 2:30 am

Tushar Khandker,Bhopal

Daksh Panwar

At the coffee shop in a bustling mall in Bhopal,where Tushar Khandker is sipping hot chocolate with his wife Nidhi,there are no curious glances thrown in his direction. “Never mind,” says Tushar,stirring the sugar in his cup. “Of the very few perks that hockey players get,one is that we can take our wives out for a quiet dinner.”

For Tushar,moments like these provide a breather—to use a hockey term—from the rigours of a professional hockey player’s life. And he perhaps deserves it a little more than the others,for he got married just over a month ago and hardly got to spend time with his wife.

“You can call it breather,but I’ve hardly had time to catch my breath,” the 26-year-old says. “After the (Olympic) qualifiers,I am here trying to set my place up. I have been out buying a refrigerator,washing machine,TV and other household stuff. These are things that guys generally do before their wedding,but I am doing this one month later. Besides,Nidhi keeps complaining that I don’t give her enough time.”

Wives of professional hockey players have good reason to complain. Unlike in cricket,WAGs,as a rule,do not accompany hockey players,who sometimes spend 250 days a year on the road.

“I wasn’t much of a hockey fan earlier,” says Nidhi,who is studying for her M.Tech in Computer Science,“but he converted me into one.”

Tushar has four crucial months ahead of him before the London Olympics. “It’s the India team that has qualified,not Tushar Khandker. I’ll have to train harder than before,be even more focused to ensure that I’m on the flight to London and playing in the Olympics.”

Once he has done so,he plans to get the Olympic rings tattooed on his left arm. “I believe one should always live somewhere between happiness and fear,because you’ll cherish happiness all the more when you have this fear of losing it,” he says.

At the moment,though,there are no in-betweens for the Khandkers. In this precious little time after the qualifiers and just before the build-up to London,it’s a state of bliss.

S V Sunil,S K Uthappa,V R Raghunath

Bangalore

JOHNSON TA

There are few places in India where people will walk up to an international hockey player and shake his hand or speak a few encouraging words. Kodagu,a district in Karnataka,a cradle for Indian hockey for many years,is one such place where hockey players are recognised,respected and encouraged.

In the Indian hockey team that recently won the FIH Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Delhi,there were three players from Kodagu—speedy winger S V Sunil,midfielder S K Uthappa and drag-flicker and defender

V R Raghunath.

Given their common origins,the trio are good friends,hang out together a lot and are almost family to each other. Raghunath,who experienced the collective Indian heartbreak of failing to qualify for the 2008 Olympics and now feels redeemed,is in fact a bit like an elder brother to the other two.

Handed a two-week break after spending nearly four months on the road with the team,the trio are looking forward to spending some time with their families in Kodagu. Before heading home,Sunil,Uthappa and Raghunath have been doing a bit of catching up with friends,coaches,work,college and even some hard-won adulation in newspapers and television studios in Bangalore.

For someone who hails from Kodagu,24-year-old S V Sunil is not built like a typical Kodagu player—he’s almost diminutive. The story of Sunil’s journey through hockey is the stuff dreams are made of. The eldest son of a carpenter,Sunil has no hockey lineage other than being born and brought up in a region where hockey is an abiding passion.

“My family background is largely responsible for my determination to succeed in the game. I come from a poor family. I need to do well for my family to do well. I have to make a lot of sacrifices. I have to stay away from my family for long periods of time. My father died when I was playing the Azlan Shah Cup,and I could not come to see him,” says Sunil,who almost gave up hopes of playing for India in 2008 after suffering a debilitating knee injury that later required a major surgery.

On his break now,his coaches have advised him to gain some weight. “It’s full rest for three days,after that on alternate days,it would be light weight training,” says Sunil.

Meanwhile,21-year-old SK Uthappa too is in the city taking a much-needed break.

As a 14-year-old,when he was chosen for a special scholarship in a hockey talent search conducted by the Sports Authority of India,Uthappa was expected to leave home and join the SAI Sports Hostel in Bangalore and study in St Joseph’s Indian High School.

“I was not ready to leave Coorg (Kodagu). One of my cousins persuaded me to come to Bangalore. I was very homesick then,” says Uthappa who found his way into the Indian team only early this year after being adjudged the best player at the senior nationals in 2011.

Uthappa,a final-year commerce degree student,says he now finds himself at home playing hockey,and his separation pangs from his parents and their coffee estate in Kodagu are well over. “Ever since I started playing for my country,I have not been home,” he says. Before heading home to Kodagu,he wants to catch up with the staff of his college.

A few years before Uthappa made the trip from Kodagu to the SAI Sports Hostel in Bangalore on a hockey talent scholarship,V R Raghunath,25,had travelled the same path. The son of a SAI hockey coach,Raghunath did not experience the early homesickness that his younger teammate says he felt.

“When I left home for the SAI programme as a 14-year-old,I knew fairly well what I was going to do and what I will face largely because my father was a coach. He sat me down and told me how to face up to various things. I was mentally prepared to make something of my life through hockey,” says Raghunath.

The win at the Olympic qualifiers for the Indian hockey team has been like a breath of life for Indian hockey itself,he says.

After months of thinking only hockey,Raghunath says he and his teammates found some time to let their hair down after the victory at the qualifiers.

“It has been hockey,hockey,hockey for several months now but it all paid off when we won the qualifiers. The moment you win,all the pain you experienced in the preparation is wiped away,” he says.

Shivendra Singh Chauhan,Gwalior

Daksh Panwar

One of the most striking images in contemporary Indian hockey is that of a long-haired forward leaning sideways as he runs towards the corner flag,one hand raised in salute. With his signature celebration gesture,Shivendra Singh Chauhan,27,comes across as someone oozing attitude. First impressions couldn’t possibly be so wrong.

A narrow lane in the lower-middle class Tansen Nagar in Gwalior leads you to a sarkari-styled double-storey building. A dark flight of stairs takes you to a compact ‘quarter’. The small living room seems claustrophobic thanks to the oversized furniture,and a little puja place carved out in one corner. But the homely warmth has enough place to spread around.

“I can shift into a new,bigger house in some posh residential area,but I can’t call that home,” says Shivendra,his two-year old nephew playing in his lap. Everyone in the house goes barefoot—the shoes have to be removed outside. “This is where I have grown up. Chain yahan par aake hi milta hai (it’s here that I get my peace of mind),” he says.

Fame hasn’t affected Shivendra one bit. His brother Lokendra,six years older,vouches for it. “Call it sanskar (values) that our father has given,Shivendra has no airs. Although I am a software engineer and I have played basketball,I sometime can’t help but advise him on how to play. I don’t know whether he listens,but he does nod patiently,” the affable Lokendra says with a smile.

For a family that is spread out—two of his brothers live in Mumbai,as does his wife Nishi,a national hockey player,while Lokendra and the parents are in Gwalior—it’s very closely knit. Shivendra distributes time between Mumbai and Gwalior. The problem is,there is never enough time.

From behind the curtain,his sister-in-law whispers something to her husband. “It’s puja time,” announces Lokendra. As the conch shell is blown,Shivendra folds his hand and bows his head,cutting a vastly different picture from his on-field image. It’s a salute nonetheless—to the Almighty.

P R Sreejesh,Kerala

Nihal Koshie

AS a 12-year-old,P R Sreejesh reluctantly approached his parents with a request. He had been picked by the local hockey team as a goal-keeper and needed pads that would cost Rs 4,000.

Father Ravindran,who grew paddy on his one-acre land,hadn’t budgeted this spending when he had pushed his son to pursue sports. After dabbling in athletics,basketball and volleyball,hockey was Sreejesh’s latest interest but the father wanted to support his son’s sporting ambitions.

Ravindran made a tough call the next day. He sold his cow to get his son the goalkeeping pads he wanted. Life got harder for the family without the extra income and Sreejesh’s determination to make a mark in hockey increased.

“Actually,hockey was the last resort. Growing up,I was on the heavier side. I had tried shot put but I didn’t have the power. I didn’t have the athleticism to be good in basketball and volleyball. Being a hockey goalkeeper suited my physique. Surprisingly,I was rather good at it and was picked for the state Under-16 team and then progressed through the age-group levels,” says Sreejesh.

However,his career seemed to have stagnated as he attended national camp after camp but wasn’t picked when teams were announced. But his career got a fillip when he was picked for the Junior World Cup squad in 2005. “Once I played for India,I gained immense confidence. When I started off I never imagined I would be an Olympian.”

Back home in Pallikara,Sreejesh is enjoying a break. “Kerala isn’t hockey country. In fact,the number of tournaments has fallen too. But in my town there is a keen interest after the Indian team qualified for the Olympics. My parents wanted me to play a popular sport instead of hockey. Now they are over the moon,” he says.

Sardar Singh,Chandigarh

Uthra Ganesan

When he made it to the national camp the first time,Sardar Singh was a shy youngster who was still thinking if moving to the US was not a better option. Today,he knows his decision to stay put and grind it out here was the smartest thing he did.

Sardar,who belongs to Sirsa,an area known for hockey and the Namdhari Academy,started out at the Academy before moving to the Namdhari Academy in Ludhiana. In 2005,he was named in the Junior India Squad.

Like many of his teammates,25-year-old Sardar loves to live his life to the fullest. As he drives an SUV on the streets of Chandigarh while juggling an iPhone and a Blackberry,you can see he likes the good things of life. “Saath kya jayega? It may be true that some of the players may not be very well-off,but trust me,no hockey player struggles to make both ends meet. We may not be on a par with cricketers,but then you cannot compare everything to cricket,” he says.

Sardar likes to wear branded clothes and accessories. He loves cars and bikes. His latest love is a Harley Davidson that he plans to buy soon. He is the happiest when with friends,and doesn’t think twice before throwing a party for them. “What is the point if you can’t enjoy your rewards with people who have been with you all through?” he asks.

Sardar goes to the same juice corner that he has been going to for years now,and makes small talk with a roadside vendor he has known for long.

Khadangbam Kothajit Singh,Imphal

Esha Roy

Khadangbam Kothajit Singh has come home after three years. “Kothajit had taken a vow not to return home till he had played for the Indian team and till he had played an international match,” says his elder brother Kh Ranjit.

Kothajit,who will turn 20 this year,has been attached to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Lucknow and recently played for India in the FIH Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

“Ever since I was a child,I wanted to play for India. I wanted to be on the field with the crowds singing the national anthem. My first international match was against South Africa a week before the match against France,’’ says Kothajit. “After he played the India match I told him,ab to ghar aaja yaar,’’ says Ranjit who plays hockey for ONGC.

The brothers are now in Imphal where they live with their parents at Leirik Yengbam Maning Leikai,a stone’s throw from Imphal’s main Khuman Lampak stadium run by SAI. In fact,all four brothers are professional hockey players with the eldest two playing for the Indian Army. “One of my sisters also used to play hockey before she got married recently,’’ says Kothajit. With their father being one of the first hockey players in the area,they grew up with the sport.

“We all used to play and so did all the other children in the colony. But while children still play hockey in the colony,the game is not so popular in Manipur now. Maybe if I get to go for the Olympics,things will change,’’ says Kothajit,sitting under the partially constructed roof of the house they are building to replace a dilapidated 50-year-old tenement.

He is keen to mention the names of all the coaches who have “got me this far’’—local coaches Romesh,Chandi Kumar,W Herojit and Mohamad Raza in Lucknow. “I would not have been able to have come this far without them,’’ says an unsmiling Kothajit.

“He is so serious about hockey,he rarely smiles when he is playing. His coaches keep complaining to me—he needs to smile more often,he should have fun,he should enjoy playing,’’ says Ranjit.

Kothajit breaks out into a rare smile. “There will be a reason to smile if I get selected for the Olympics,’’ he says.

Danish Mujtaba,Allahabad

Wajiha Shah

When Danish Mujtaba,23,was born,his grandfather saw his legs and said he would grow up to be a good hockey player. If he gets selected for the Olympics,it will be something his mother Shaheen Mujtaba,52,has been praying for decades. Her father,the late Idris Ahmed,was an international hockey player and so was her brother,Atif Idris,while her other son,Hamza Mujtaba,26,has also represented India at the international level—but none of them could get to the Olympics.

“Olympics is something that has been eluding our family,” says Shaheen. “When my husband and I had gone for Haj in 2010,we prayed that India should qualify for the Olympics and Danish should become an Olympian and make the country proud.”

“After the qualifiers,my brother Atif came to our house and started crying while congratulating us. Atif played at the international level for eight years but could not play in the Olympics,” she says.

Her eldest son Shariq,30,has played at the national inter-varsity level.

“I have grown up watching hockey. My father Idris sahab often took me along with his team,and I loved posing with the trophy when his team won. I want my sons to become champion hockey players for the country. When Danish was in class IV,I stitched a brown suit for him and embroidered crossed hockey sticks and a ball on it. I told him to hold hockey close to his heart.”

“My grandfather and uncle had been good players in their times but they could not play in the Olympics. Now I hope to fulfil their dream,” says Danish.

Danish’s father,Ghulam Mujtaba,who retired as an office superintendent with the Uttar Pradesh Police in 2010,was a state-level football player but took to hockey after marriage and played in zonal police meets. It is his wish that Hamza and Danish play together for India at the international level. “Hamza was nurtured as a right-in player while Danish was groomed as a left-in so that they can make to the same team.” Hamza is currently participating in the WSH,representing the Chennai Cheetahs.

Yuvraj Walmiki,Mumbai

Bharat Sundaresan

Over the last six months,Meena Walmiki has seen life around her change dramatically while her son Yuvraj Walmiki spent days away from home,playing hockey. Her home,the garage of a building where she once worked as a help,is now a swanky one room-kitchen with electricity connection. But through all this,she missed Yuvraj,her eldest son and Indian hockey’s rising star.

But the new 21-inch television set has helped her cope with the frequent farewells. “It has been difficult with him away so often. But I am in front of the TV every time Yuvraj is playing. Now I understand hockey quite well. I can even give him a few tips,” says Meena,who sat through all of Team India’s matches as they played the Olympic qualifiers.

Her 22-year-old son’s meteoric rise has got the entire neighbourhood around the Marine Lines railway station hooked to hockey. “Ever since our win five months ago at the Asian Champions Trophy in China (Yuvraj’s maiden tournament in national colours),people crowd around our TV whenever I am playing,” says Yuvraj.

But Meena had to deal with disappointment during the Olympic qualifiers. While Yuvraj played the first three qualifying matches in Delhi with a fractured middle-finger on his right hand,his participation came to an end when he pulled his hamstring. Seeing her son limp off the field,Meena looked away from the television screen. “I couldn’t watch. And I wept through the night when he told me he wouldn’t be able to walk for at least a month,” she says. It won’t be until mid-April that Yuvraj will be able to play again.

Meanwhile,their house,which is still being done up,will be ready by the time the Indian hockey team leaves for London. And Yuvraj insists it will be on a wide-screen LCD monitor that his mother will watch him win Olympic glory for the country.

Rupinder Pal Singh,Chandigarh

Uthra Ganesan

He belongs to Faridkot but for Rupinder Pal Singh,Chandigarh is where his heart is. The 21-year-old drag-flicker,the youngest of the three specialists in the Indian team,honed his skills at the Chandigarh hockey academy and has been staying with his relatives in the city since he was 11. He considers them closer than his family,and they too have never treated him as a guest.

It’s a modest house,but there is no mistaking the comfort Rupinder feels in its surroundings. His own room is neatly arranged. A few of his medals are on display,but other than that,there is not much to indicate that the place houses one of India’s hockey talents. And Rupinder is fine with it.

On the field,it is his lithe 6’4” frame that marks him out. But the face is set in concentration,no smiles evident during a game. Off the field,he can’t stop laughing. “Jugraj Singh is my idol. He used to give 110 per cent on and off the field and never mixed the two. I want to be like him,” he says. Jugraj is not the only one,though. There is no lack of inspiration around for Bob,as he is fondly called,related as he is to former India star Gagan Ajit Singh.

Lavjeet and Rajeev Duggal,with whom he stays in Chandigarh,fondly recall Rupinder’s early days in the city. “He and Daanvir,our son,are the same age and together they were a nightmare. But when it comes to hockey,he is always serious. He thinks a lot about his game and a bad day leaves him disturbed. We get tense seeing him playing on TV. There is no dearth of superstitions around at that time,” says Lavjeet.

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