“Saari bhainsein ek jaisi dikhti hai,” Manjit Singh says with a grimace on the sidelines of a FitIndia event, while speaking of the trauma he fled when the gold medal he won at the Asian Games spared him the responsibility of taking over the family’s dairy business.For the rare track and field success story from India’s boxing and wrestling hub in Haryana, the trip to Mumbai could’ve instead been under less pleasant (and fragrant) circumstances than a brand endorsement-slash-felicitation at the Marriott as an 800m Asiad champion.
His family are large-scale milk suppliers to Mumbai, but the Murrah buffaloes never quite captured his imagination like the Half-Mile race did. “The best thing that the Asian Games 800m win did was to relieve me of the pressure to return to farming and the buffaloes. I am 29-plus, and the only option, had I not won, would’ve been farming. Log kehte, patri se utarkar seedha kheti mein aaya. They would’ve taunted saying, after 18 years of toiling in Athletics, he’s back to farming and milking cattle,” Manjit says relieved at the turn of events.India’s gold glut at the Asian Games in track and field has changed many lives, and most of all for Manjit, who is now looking at a choice of SPM / DSP (admin or police) postings. It’s increased the gush on social media too.
“I used to think people only follow cricketers. Meri personally cricket se koi dushmani nai hai. But now even we are made to feel like celebrities on social network,” he says.He will revive his 1-2 rivalry with Jinson Johnson – whom he beat in the 800m, but who picked gold in 1500m – when the two return in 2019. “At the warmup area and in the cold rooms, we are always like a team and wish each other well. We both know that neither will benefit if we focus only on beating the other one. Globally the competition is huge,” he says, wizened from awareness of what lies ahead – lots of speed/endurance training, if they want to even stay competitive with the Kenyans.
For triple jumper Arprinder Singh, the coming season poses some primary challenges he’s set for himself. As a start, the Asian Games medal has pushed him towards getting obsessive about maintaining a steady weight. “79 or 80 kg, not more than that,” he says, adding that butter and ghee are totally off the table now.He recalls binging on KFC during his three-year training stint in London – when a highly indisciplined life pushed him to the edge of oblivion in sport. Then there was that time when he finished out of the medal bracket at the inter-state meet in 2016, and spent a month and a half at home, going up to 89 kg, gorging on gulabjamuns at home for 20 days. “I needed to go to Kerala for two months, far away from the comfort of Punjab and the food, and stick to boiled chicken to get my weight down to 81,” he recalls of his obsessive weight-watching.
While he hasn’t been home for 6 months – he returns later this week – Arpinder is determined to stick to the greens. “Green tea aur green salad. Donon pasand nai hai utna, lekin ab koi galti nai hogi,” he avows, fresh from having landed some brand endorsements.Felicitation functions still continue, and most of them end up being enjoyable. “But some of them are boring. People just keep giving long speeches. You are sitting there for a long time listening, and the next thing you know, you have a stiff back,” he laughs. One of those athletes who shifted allegiance from Punjab to Haryana, Arpinder says frustration with Punjab authorities in his early years, compelled him to move to Haryana where facilities were forthcoming, the move from Amritsar prodded by his sister who lived at Sonepat.
“Back in 2006-9, the condition of the track at Jallandhar was really bad. Then later when I moved to Ludhiana, I faced a gym official who refused to let me work out. Even the DSO couldn’t change his attitude, and he would allow only those who bribed him. It was a nice grassy track at GuruNanak stadium, and the gym was in great condition with a sauna and good equipment. But this man just wouldn’t let me train. Sochne pe majboor karte hai ki kyu main aise struggle karta rahoo, so I moved to Haryana,” he recalls.
His father had been an army-man, and he knew that ultimately he would represent India and not get defined by a particular state. “I would like to show that official my Asian Games medal now,” he laughs.
The medal has come on the back of many years of hard work and a renewed commitment to discipline after he wasted away for a few years in London. “My father had been a circle kabaddi player, but I tried 100m, 200m and 400m and failed at all. Then a good SAI coach directed me to triple jump at Gandhi ground in Amritsar,” he remembers.
Arpinder has faltered far too often to give it away again this time. The devil is in the details of the food he eats, though kadhi chawal is his staple. He ignores the double takes it elicits when he says the Punjabi in him has deeply, truly, miserably missed the one delicacy that he’s found nowhere outside of his home: a karela sabzi, something he pined after, even in the days when soulless KFC binges were threatening to careen his career.