Balbir Singh Senior (1923-2020): Genial legend who wore his greatness lightly, remembering the man I knew a little

Balbir Singh Senior easily transcended that interviewee-interviewer divide. In a world where unabashed howling qualifies as confidence, Balbir taught us that quiet confidence resides in quiet simplicity.

Shantanu Srivastava May 25, 2020 14:38:10 IST
Balbir Singh Senior (1923-2020): Genial legend who wore his greatness lightly, remembering the man I knew a little

"Nanaji passed away this morning," read the message from Balbir Singh Senior's grandson Kabir this morning. Five curt words that, just like that, announced the end of a life well-lived. The 95-year-old was a giant of Indian hockey, a true great who was instrumental in India's three consecutive Olympic gold medals post-independence (1948, '52, '56), and a man of refined tastes.

I have had the privilege of meeting Balbir a handful of times at his Chandigarh home, and those encounters always meant more than an interview. His generosity and humility, to put it mildly, were embarrassing. For a generation that has made self-promotion an occupational virtue, his grounded, self-effacing assessment of himself may seem ludicrously funny, but that was who he was. One of my most defining and abiding memories of him was forged in his living room, when, during the course of our conversation, he excused himself for a brief moment, only to return with three rectangular cases carrying a gold disc each.

Balbir Singh Senior 19232020 Genial legend who wore his greatness lightly remembering the man I knew a little

Balbir Singh Senior passed away on the morning of 25 May, 2020. He was 95. Image Courtesy: Twitter @@BalbirSenior

A closer examination revealed their magnitude. Those were the three Olympic gold medals Balbir had won, and he insisted I touched and felt his piece of history. I hesitated, knowing fully well that I have done nothing deserving to lay my hands on his lifetime of wealth, accrued through years of sweat and sacrifice.

Balbir, perhaps sensing my dilemma, dropped a line that summed him up for me. "Hold them, son. These are not mine, they are for the nation," he said casually as I gaped awkwardly at his gleaming face. It was a strangely distilled expression of pride bereft of bombast. Here was a nonagenarian unwittingly offering a life lesson, telling a virtual nobody that greatness is as much about letting go as it is about chasing it with a maniac rigour. His going is as much a loss to hockey as to humanity.

Another tale from the same interview. The morning drives from Delhi to Chandigarh are smooth and sonorous, and an early start meant I announced myself at his residence about 30 minutes before schedule. His daughter Sushbir attended to me while Kabir readied his grandad, who appeared dot on time glowing and apologising.

He said something to the effect of: "You have had a long journey. I am sorry I made you wait." It instantly reminded me of that incident when I once went to a recently-retired cricketer's (who I shall not name) farmhouse to write a glowing profile of his career. I arrived 15 minutes early to settle my nerves, and the said cricketer arrived 30 minutes late, rubbing his eyes and still in what would qualify as sleepwear.

"Oh, did you have to wait?" the cricketer asked. "A bit, but no problem," I said. "Yeah, you were here early, so..." he said, leaving me wondering if discipline and timing, two attributes that highlighted his batting, had forgotten to touch him.

By contrast, Balbir's grace and humility shouted out to be applauded, as did the unmistakable incandescence that consumed him when his restless mind leapt decades. He grew up in Punjab's Moga district, but his hockey career bloomed in Lahore's Sikh National College and later in Amristar's Khalsa College.

"I am a Sikh by birth and a patriot by choice," he would often say, and at the same time speak lovingly of his 'yaars' who had migrated to Pakistan in the wake of partition. Balbir met Maqbool Hashmat, Aziz, Shahrukh, Ali Iqtidar Shah Dara and Khurram – all future Pakistan players – at Khalsa College, but their new nationalities never faded their mutual admiration.

"Maqbool (Hashmat) was my senior and my right wing. An excellent player, and an even better human being. He taught me to look left and pass right. Aziz was my left wing. Those were very fine players, maybe better than me," he told me.

“Then there were Khurram and Shahrukh. Khurram was an excellent full-back. Shahrukh was a very good left-half, and a fine human being. He came from Afghan royal family, and was also an Olympic cyclist. He came to India with the Pakistan cricket team in 2005-06. Someone asked him why he was in India, since he was not part of the cricket team. He simply said, ‘I am here to meet my yaar, Balbir.’ What a man!” In polarised times as these, Balbir's brand of confident nationalism was a far cry from insecure chest-thumping that has become the norm.

On the turf, Balbir was a polar opposite to his gentle self. Trained by Harbail Singh, who would be Indian hockey team's manager on the 1952 and '56 Olympics, Balbir perfected his accuracy in his backyard by aiming his hits at a brick from distance. Blessed with blinding pace, he was adept at beating defenders with both speed and dodge, and rarely missed the goal after entering the 'D'. Not surprisingly, he was integral to Punjab's early domination in Nationals.

A player of his calibre, one would think, was an automatic selection for the 1948 Olympics, and yet, when the probables were announced for the preparatory camp in Bombay, Balbir found his name missing. It came as a surprise since Balbir had played a stellar role in Punjab winning the Nationals in two preceding years, and it was only after an Anglo-Indian player (whose name Balbir could not remember) raised an alarm that he was belatedly called up.

Balbir was dropped from India's first match, against Austria, and made his Olympic debut in the next game against Argentina. He celebrated the occasion by pumping six goals in India's 9-1 romp, and it remains a record of most goals by a player on Olympic debut. He was curiously dropped for next two matches, and it was after the Indian community in London and the press took the matters to VK Krishna Menon, India’s then High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, that Balbir's name was pencilled in for the final against Great Britain.

True to form, Balbir scored twice in the first half itself to take the match away from the hosts as India completed a 4-0 hammering of their former colonial masters. "I could have scored a few more, but the team decided to defend," Balbir told me with childlike mischief.

He excelled in the next two Olympics too – he was the flagbearer of the Indian contingent at both those Games, and his haul of five goals in 1952 final remains a record for most individual goals in an Olympic final – but it was the triumph in London that he cherished most.

"When they played our national anthem in London and our tiranga went up, I felt as if I was rising with the flag," he said. Later, he went on to coach the men's hockey team that won the World Cup in 1975. That remains the last time India won a world title, and his long-standing wish to witness India winning one more Olympic medal in his lifetime remained unfulfilled.

My last notable conversation with him was over two years back, again in his living room. As I wrapped up the chat (they were always chats, not interviews), I casually asked him about his favourite trophy – a largely frivolous query that sportspersons are adept at answering. He pointed towards his overflowing trophy cabinet and guided me to a tiny metal trophy that was too ubiquitous to convey any legacy. "This one, son."

As I held it delicately, trying to study what made it so special, Balbir said, "I won it for my school, Dayanand Memorial School, in Moga. My first.” Something tugged at me deep within as I left his place speechless.

Journalism teaches you to be dispassionate. You are naturally affected by deaths but are tutored over time to build an invisible wall of acquired apathy between you and your 'subject'. Balbir Singh Senior easily transcended that interviewee-interviewer divide. In a world where unabashed howling qualifies as confidence, Balbir taught us that quiet confidence resides in quiet simplicity; that letting go is as much an art as holding on and there is time and place for both; that it is possible to love your nation without hating others'; that vivaciousness and wit are age-proof and that men like him, who slept with a hockey stick by their bedside and never thought it important to advertise their passion, are rare gems who must be remembered for the way they enriched the times they lived in. He will be missed.

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