Hasmat ‘Bob’ Ullah, a 60-year-old volunteer with desi roots and wearing the kilt, lingers around where Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu have just finished their practice sessions and wonders aloud if the Indians at the Badminton World Championships would mind very much if he asked for a picture with them.
A coach with Badminton Scotland, Hasmat celebrated India’s twin All England crowns, in 1981 (Prakash Padukone) and 2001 (P Gopichand), and now, on the eve of this week-long event, reckons it’s India’s time again. He will duly cheer for Sindhu should she stake claim for the world title.
Of Punjabi descent, he settles for calling her “Sundhu”. “She’s something else, isn’t it? India has a potential world-beater in badminton, and what more could an amateur player like me ask for? Someone from my country looking like the best in my sport,” he gushes.
Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei remain at the centre of the buzz, and Carolina Marin might be aiming for her third crown, but it’s an Indian summer — riding on Sindhu, and Kidambi Srikanth in men’s singles — that the desi community, which knows its badminton as intimately as cricket, is excited about.
Cricketers of subcontinental origin are a widely celebrated lot in the UK, but Hasmat believes many more took to badminton naturally, including England’s European champ Rajeev Ouseph.
Ask him about Badminton, the parish in Gloucestershire where the sport was codified, and the Glasgow-born guffaws, “No, that’s just the English gloating. Badminton village is more famous for its horse trials — cross-country and show-jumping. Not our sport. But most of the UK plays shuttle enthusiastically.”
Scottish badminton maintains its quaint vibe, despite boasting one of the most modern facilities in the sport in the form of the Emirates Arena. And Hasmat rose from the same charming background of ‘shuttle-in-a-kirk (church)’. “I started off in church halls. Most people in the countryside still play badminton in the church, where the seats are moved to set up a temporary net. Church leagues still exist,” he says. Hasmat even trained children in churches on the dotted Scottish islands of Orkney and Barra (Outer Hebrides).
Some church halls are so tiny that the back lines run onto the walls or up the door after the four chairs that form the pew are set aside. There’s obviously no lifting of the shuttle, just flat strokes, given some roofs are as short as 9 feet. These one-court halls are still common in Worcestershire, Starbridge and Staffordshire south of the line, as well as in the central belt of Scotland, where the sport is widely played.
Scotland has gone all out to make this special for their best player, the women’s singles shuttler Kirsty Gilmour, who lives 15 minutes away from the stadium, and huge hoardings have her alongside the game’s greatest, Lin Dan. For Hasmat though, it’s the one chance to cheer for the “Indian girls”. Don’t be surprised if bagpipes start playing some desi tunes this coming week as a man with a proud Glaswegian accent cheers for a country he has never visited, but always loved dearly.
“One grandmother of mine was Scottish, she came from the house of McIntyres,” he says, before adding grimly, “My maternal grandmother is buried by a railway track somewhere in Jalandhar. She died during the Partition riots.”
His mother, 87 now, suffers from dementia, and has been getting fits of anxiety these last few days, recalling in bits and spurts those traumatic days right after Independence, before she was whisked away to Glasgow by relatives.
In this eastern Scottish city, she would meet and marry Hasmat’s father, a door-to-door salesman born to an immigrant, who ran a grocer’s shop and first headed to the ship-building town in the 1930s. Hasmat is keen on visiting Jalandhar where his parents came from, but claims has been denied a visa to India repeatedly. “Maybe because they think I’m from Pakistan. My wife, who’s Malaysian, will get a visa for India in 10 minutes, but not me,” he smiles wryly. He’s made peace with the fact that he may never go to India, and is glad that he can at least support talented players from “my first country”.
So now Hasmat plans to support every Indian playing at the Emirates vociferously, realising badminton could be his only remaining link with a “home” that remains out of reach. “I automatically picked badminton and hockey in school, and went on to coach several youngsters after finishing my advanced certification,” he points out, stressing no borders can kill such affinities.