On Monday night when Tajinder Pal Singh Toor touched down at the international airport on return after winning the men’s gold in the shot put at the Asian Games, there was a welcome party waiting outside the terminal to kick-start the celebrations. His colleagues from the navy were restless in anticipation of the arrival of the new hero. The marigold garlands were out and the shutterbugs were waiting to capture every gesture of the gigantic athlete.
Just as he stepped out of the terminal building, Toor received a call from home and the mood immediately turned sombre. The caller at the other end conveyed the heart-breaking news that Toor’s father Karam Singh, who was battling cancer, had passed away just a few hours ago. Toor controlled his emotions and travelled by road to Khosa Pando, his village, an eight-hour drive from the capital city. His coach MS Dhillon provided him the moral support during the difficult journey home.
On Tuesday morning, Toor was understandably emotional while talking to The Indian Express at his family home. “I had thought that I will put the medal around my father’s neck on my return. But that will not happen now. This medal belongs to him and the whole of India,” Toor told this paper.
His family had not informed Toor of his father being admitted to the Command Hospital in Panchkula. Karam passed away four hours prior to Tajinder’s arrival in Delhi.
Before Toor scaled the lofty heights at the Asian Games, it was Karam who made the family famous in and around Khosa Pando. Karam was a much-awarded athlete in the traditional tug-of-war competitions, which were immensely popular in rural Punjab. He, however, ensured Toor got hooked onto shot put by asking his younger brother Gurdev Singh, a former international medallist, to take him under his wings.
Toor started making waves and soon won state-level titles in sub-junior and junior events and things were looking up for the family until Karam was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2013. He underwent chemotherapy and seemed on the road to recovery when there was a relapse. He was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2016. This was also a period when the family was struggling to make both ends meet. The family farm had been given on lease but the income was not enough to meet medical bills.
“When my father was diagnosed with cancer in 2013, we did not earn much from the farm land. When I won the bronze medal in 2015 nationals, I was only given a cash prize of Rs 20,000 by Punjab Government. And that was also spent on his diagnoses. Apart from our relatives, one of my coach’s trainees Raj Kaur, who is based in Australia and also came to watch me compete in Asian Games, helped us with money. Later in 2016, my father was again diagnosed with cancer but when I joined Indian Navy six months later, some of the expenses were met,” Toor said.
Incidentally, on the day Toor won the gold at the Asian Games by rewriting the Games record (20.75 metres), his father’s health worsened. The proud father did manage to watch his son winning the gold on television.
“When Tajinder won the gold medal, Karam’s health was getting worse. He told us to prop him up on his bed so that he can watch. He was keen to go along with Tajinder for the felicitation ceremony which would be held once he returned to India,” the shot-putter’s uncle Hardev Singh said.
In anticipation of Toor’s return to the village, desi ghee laddoos were being prepared. “Now we will distribute the laddoos among poor children,” Hardev added.
Toor missed the felicitation ceremony hosted by the sports ministry on Tuesday evening and he prefers to cocoon himself from the celebratory mood in the capital where the medal winners will be hailed as heroes. “My father never celebrated any of my medals. ‘You have to win the biggest medal’, he would say, As I entered my home today, I saw the Olympic logo on the gate and remembered my father’s dream. My father would listen to radio commentary of sports events. One day I hope news of me winning the ‘biggest medal’ will be relayed over the radio. I am sure my father will be watching me from the heavens.”