Chak de India

The Hockey World League matches currently underway in India have taken me back to my high school days.

In High School at Nangal, our PT (Physical Training) and Punjabi language teacher was “Giani ji” (literal translation – one who “knows”, a scholar well-versed in Sikh religious scriptures and the Granth Sahib.)  I cannot recall his full name, but am fairly certain he had assumed, not earned his title!  He was a hard taskmaster on and off the hockey field.

I had a very close Bengali friend Biman, who was a great sportsperson excelling at hockey, soccer and badminton.  Giani ji could not stomach a “non-Punjabi” surpassing his local Punjabi “sher de puttar” (lion cubs.)  I recall an afternoon when we were provided brand new hockey sticks and other equipment.  Waiting for the practice to commence, Biman and I were standing near the goal post.  I tended the goal and was fumbling with the straps of my new pads (leg guards) while Biman was aimlessly tossing his hockey stick up in the air and catching it deftly.  He missed once and the new hockey stick fell to the ground.  As he bent to pick it up, Giani ji materialized out of thin air and delivered a smart slap to the back of Biman’s head, sending him sprawling!  Our coach let loose a torrent of choicest Punjabi epithets that can politely be translated as, “[BLEEP] Why are you busy tossing your mother up in the air, instead of showing her the respect that she deserves, ungrateful [BLEEP]?  Is your father going to pay for the stick if its [BLEEP] backside gets damaged?”  He ordered Biman to run two laps around the field and then join the game.  In spite of this, Biman performed exceptionally well that day.  Beaming, Giani ji then proudly seated Biman on his bicycle and we all rode to the “halwai’s” (sweet maker’s) shop in the local market where my friend was treated to an extra glass of milk with “jalebi” (not unlike the funnel cake, it is an Indian sweet made of deep fried flour shaped like a pretzel, soaked in sugar syrup.)  In the Punjab, it was a common belief that sportsmen perform better if they drink “asli duddh” and consume “asli gheeo” (pure milk and clarified butter, respectively.)  So, while all of us lesser mortals received our “ration” of milk after practice, the anointed player(s) of the day usually benefited from additional dispensation.  Another ego boost was derived from traveling with the team for outstation matches!

Once, our team of eleven hockey players and four reserves travelled to Ropar (now Rupnagar, around 70 kms from Nangal) for the District inter-school annual hockey tournament.  We reached there late in the wintery afternoon and were housed in a large dormitory-style room without beds, in the local “dharamshala” (rest house for pilgrims).  After dumping our gear, we washed outside, using a hand-pump to draw ground water.  Then we walked over to the local “dhaba” (roadside eating place frequented by truckers) for dinner.  We sat outside, freezing under the starlit sky on “charpais” (wood framed beds with the sleeping surface made up of hemp rope tightly interwoven in a crisscrossed diamond pattern between the frame.)  A single hissing, butane gas lamp placed on the long wooden trestle table provided light and some welcome heat.  A young energetic lad possibly ten years old scrambled around, serving us piping-hot dal (lentils), indeterminate vegetables and rotis in brass “thalis” (platters.)  Giani ji sat some distance away by himself, enjoying a “couple of pegs to ward off his cold.”  We could not help noticing that he was also enjoying grilled chicken!

We finished our frugal meal and stumbled back to our lodging for the night.  We had carried our own blankets (one for spreading on the floor and another over us) and rolled up our towel to use as a pillow.  The smell of unwashed feet from one end of the room easily overpowered the otherwise pervasive moldy odor.  Giani ji had instructed a big, burly lad who played full back on our team to organize a bed.  A charpai had been commandeered for his use and our inebriated coach happily dozed off on it.  Some of the lads had decided to play a prank and moistened the hemp rope of the charpai before bringing it into the room.  Gradually through the night his bed started to squeak louder every time Giani ji turned.  Suddenly in the middle of the night he stumbled out of his charpai shouting, “I had asked for a bed and the [BLEEP] have brought me a harmonium to sleep on!”  [Note: a harmonium is a pump organ for musical accompaniment.]

I remember we won the first few matches of the tournament, but were ousted at the semi-final stage.  It was just as well, because very few of us could stomach either the food or the sleeping arrangements!

Those were the days when political correctness had not yet taken over our lives and we could handle anything that was thrown at us.  In this context, it would be appropriate to include one of my favorite tracks from the hockey-theme Bollywood movie Chak De India [Lift it, India.]

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