Suitcases are funny places. You can neatly fold memories and stack them away for all time, the ageing ­ the remembering and the for getting ­ all happens within the confines of the hard, moulded plastic case. There’s an old one in a home in Chandigarh; maybe it’s a fading black or a dusty grey, […]

Suitcases are funny places. You can neatly fold memories and stack them away for all time, the ageing ­ the remembering and the for getting ­ all happens within the confines of the hard, moulded plastic case. There’s an old one in a home in Chandigarh; maybe it’s a fading black or a dusty grey, the colour adding to the old-ness of the whole thing. This one contains photographs, with their own stories. There are hundreds of them ­ yellowing, edges frayed, the black fading into the white and all of it turning into grey. Everything smells of age, yet they remain fresh. Because not far is the human mind, its many recesses and its unimaginably expandable memory, fuelled by almonds, Chyawanprash and driven by pure will.

Balbir Singh Dosanjh, simply Balbir Senior, belongs to this one suitcase, and Senior, belongs to this one suitcase, and possesses one such mind. Together, they are time-travellers. The ticket-checker, his sprightly daughter Sushbir, gently ensures both don’t wander away too far.

As a triple Olympic gold winner in hockey (1948, 1952 and 1956), independent India’s first flag-bearer at the Olympics, an astonishing goal-count and today at 93 India’s oldest living Olympian, Balbir Sr’s should have been a fascinating, celebrated life. Instead, he lives un-feted, seemingly content in his surprisingly brisk afternoon walks in the neighbourhood park.

For the uninitiated, Balbir Sr is the unheralded equal to Dhyanchand, a most worthy inheritor of the mantle during hockey’s golden era. But while the Major is still spoken of in near-mythical tones in hockey and nation-building terms ­partly because of his exploits at Berlin 1936 at the height of Hitler’s Nazism and largely due to the British imperialist perpetuation of the legend ­ it is staggering to believe such a huge slice of India’s Olympic history (and perhaps, the entire Games itself) lives forgotten in some sleepy corner of a city known mainly by its impersonal sector numbers.

Maybe it’s just the timing, Dhyanchand’s legend was fuelled by the British, Balbir’s languishes in immediate post-Independence apathy. Having existed in the cusp of Independence and the tumultuous birth of a nation, it tells us a lot about our own disregard, as a people, towards a legend in our midst.

Yet, his stories are many , wondrous and eye-popping. It is said that Balbir Sr’s unorthodox upright posture when he entered the striking circle with ball glued to his stick, flummoxed many a rival goalkeeper because it gave no clue to which side of the goal he would place it. That’s how he ended being top goal-scorer in successive Olympics. Today, those hands, old and feeble, skim over each photograph as if there’s some secret code to the stories they hold.

His own personal favourite is how as a promising 20-year-old he was handcuffed by Punjab Police authorities in Delhi’s Lady Hardinge grounds and marched off to Lahore, so that he wouldn’t join any other institution and play hockey for them. He chuckles his hoarse, whispery laugh: “My father and uncles were revolutionaries, the police was loyal to the British. How could have I joined them? So I fled to Delhi, but they `arrested’ me.“

Balbir Sr’s journey crucially also coincided with the travails of Partition. There is a poignant tale of how triumphant undivided Punjab ­ which formed the bulk of India’s international hockey teams back then landed at Lahore Station from the 1947 National championships in Bombay, only to be told that the country indeed was splitting and that they would no longer be playing as one.

“The order was to go home, collect your family and belongings and find a way to safety, only be careful that the one you trusted would not turn you in to either the Hindu or the Muslim mobs. I remember being late to reach Model Town where we lived. Many of us who parted that day at Lahore Station, ran into each other only at the next Olympics,“ he remembers, pausing to add, “The only difference was many of them were playing for Pakistan now. It was a strange feeling to see you old teammates suddenly as opponents.“

For a player who scored goals by the dozens for independent India at the London, Helsinki and Melbourne Olympics, it is surreal that when he lists his favourite players, they are his Punjab teammates who were to become Pakistanis. “Mohd Azam tha, ek Masood tha, phir Maqbool aur Mehmood, phir woh Pakistan key ho gaye. Then there was Ali Iqtidar Shah (Dara) who was captured and tried as part of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. He played for India in 1936 and then later captained Pakistan in 1948.“

There is a special corner for Shah Rukh, a fellow striker and old friend who together scored goals at will, but too left for Pakistan, played hockey and even represented them in cycling in 1956. “He and his brother Khurram. They hailed from the Afghan royal family. Some years ago, he came visiting. We just held hands and sat, remembering our old days…“

As you spend time with him and his family , you realise there is an Old Man and the Sea idea to Balbir Sr, but with a nice twist. Clearly there’s little left for the gentleman to prove. But how do you resolve this conflict where long-drawn post-retirement contentment is at odds with rapidly vanishing recall, but there still exists an anxiety to preserve legacy. Thus, he is egged on, coaxed by family in an earnest homespun kind of way to find himself time and again, to re-introduce some sort of relevance. He is, after all, among India’s top five Olympians, alongside Dhyanchand, Leslie Claudius, Abhinav Bindra and Sushil Kumar, but hardly counted at all. It must be terrifying, being forgotten or just the feeling of having lapsed in time, and that was the reason why Hemmingway’s Santiago went after the giant marlin in the first place. It was to fight off the idea of obscurity, and that’s the same anxiety Balbir Sr’s family is confronting.

Daughter Sushbir ­with her son Kabeer ­is making efforts to resurrect her famous father, reawaken a nation that has passed him by and introduce him to a new generation. There is a plan to establish a foundation in his name to harness talent in Punjab, among other endeavours which haven’t been appropriated yet by corporate muscle. But Balbir Sr is okay with it. Typical of any elder, he good-naturedly gives in to the changed demands of an adoring family determined not to let his legacy go to seed in these legacy-spurning times. He says in his raspy, old-man’s voice, wizened face smiling, that he’s happy with his lot today . He may be 93 and mostly forgotten but he is still alert to understand that his suitcase of memories doesn’t have to become his baggage too.

Jul 31 2016 : The Times of India (Mumbai)