Growing up at my hometown Talwara, as I would accompany my friends to the ITI hockey ground near the Pierre Jeanneret designed buildings, most of the hockey players would talk about triple-Olympic gold medallist Balbir Singh Senior. Much before smart phones became our source of exploring any subject; I had read occasionally about Singh in the sports books at our school library and the local players would also talk about getting a chance to meet the hockey legend.
A trip to Chandigarh later that year would also see me getting a copy of his autobiography “The Golden Hat-trick”, a book which gave insights into his heroics in the 1948 London Olympics final, world record feat of scoring five out of six goals in the final against Netherlands in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, captaining India to its sixth consecutive gold medal in Olympics in Melbourne in 1956 apart from being the chief coach and manager of 1975 World Cup winning Indian hockey team. Like every youngster, I also wrote these facts in my scrapbook, a thing which also helped us winning an Inter-University quiz during my days at my college at Jalandhar.
Even though we would hear about Senior coming to Panjab University grounds during sports meet during my days of pursuing a masters course in mass communication, I would never get a chance to meet Senior. It was few months after I joined The Indian Express office at Chandigarh that I got the chance to meet Senior for the first time.
It was during a press conference of the All India Gurmit Memorial Hockey Championship that Senior wearing a red turban made his arrival with all those in attendance standing up to greet the legend. Post the conference, as I introduced myself to him and told him that I had just joined the paper, Senior would tell us, “Hockey meri te is desh di jaan hai. (Hockey is life for me and this country). Whenever you want to ask me anything about hockey, you can call me anytime,”.
The next one hour was spent listening and asking Senior about his playing and coaching days. A year later, when the Indian team failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics, I once again talked to Senior about his views and he sounded disheartened by the development. He would also tell me about his second book “The Golden Yardstick” and would discuss some of his views about coaching. While Senior would also spend his time at Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, he would visit India every year in winters giving us an opportunity to meet him during the Gurmit Memorial tournament and Rock Rovers Hockey club matches at Sector 42 Hockey Stadium. Every meeting would see him coming out with a new idea or fact and as we would scribble our notes, he would say, “Main holi tan nahi bol raha (Am I speaking too softly).”
Almost every year, his daughter Sushbir Bhomia and grandson Kabir Bhomia would celebrate his birthday on December 31 and sometimes, we would also get a chance to wish Senior on his birthday. He would show us his first trophy and medals and old pictures apart from his three Olympic medals cheerfully and would smile on seeing us being mesmerized by the Olympic medals.
The last time, I met Senior was in 2018 when BJP leader Amit Shah visited him in Chandigarh. After the meeting, I told him about my son starting kindergarten school and Senior told me “Sports zarur khilayi apne bete nu. Hockey vi te hor sports vi (Make sure that your son plays sports. Hockey and other sports too),”.
Four months later, Senior was admitted to PGI for 108 days before he made a recovery. I had a glimpse of Senior while visiting Senior at PGI last year before the hockey legend made a remarkable recovery. He would watch hockey matches at Sector 42 Sports Complex and his grandson Kabir would also send us his latest pictures.
Earlier this month, when he was admitted at the Mohali hospital after suffering from pneumonia, we wished to see him making a recovery once again but his death on Monday felt like a personal loss for all of us.
Adieu Balbir sir for all the memories and the lessons you taught us.
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