When I was asked to write a piece on what it was like meeting Balbir Singh Sr, the first thing that I realised was just how little I remembered the peripherals of the visit. I barely remember what time I visited him, just that it was the morning and that I waited a while at a nearby park before I rang the bell outside the gate of his home.
I can't tell you much about his house. It's in sector 21 of Chandigarh, a genteel but not ostentatious part of town. For an athlete of his caliber, there were few sporting mementos. Certainly nothing that would mark him out as one of the most beloved sporting icons of the country. None of his Olympic gold medals were at his home. The most prominently placed trophy was a tiny cup that he would tell me later was the first one he won as a teenager.
I hadn't expected it to be like this. I'd decided to meet him in early August 2017 to discuss his role in the hockey team that won the gold medal at the 1948 Olympics. It's among the greatest achievements in Indian sport and Balbir sir was a huge part of it. But even as I made my way to Chandigarh, I'd wondered to myself just what I would make of the meeting.
The ageing process can be a cruel thing. Balbir was 93 back then, and I wasn't sure just how much I could press him and how much detail he would be able to recall of his achievements from nearly 70 years ago. Perhaps cynically, I felt I'd probably have to include observations of his home, the family - dutiful daughter Sushbir and doting grandson Kabir - to make for the story.
I ended up never mentioning anything apart from the words of the great man. My concerns for the state of his mind and body dissipated within the first minute of meeting him as he grasped my hand with an unexpectedly firm handshake. We spoke for several hours and never did our talk meander. Not once did he repeat himself, even though he took a break a couple of times for a cup of lemon tea. He recalled details of friendships, anecdotes from the 1948 Olympics as if they had happened the previous month.
Speaking to Balbir, was being introduced into a bygone era, a time when independent India had just been birthed. It was a time when the country was taking its first few steps even as it recovered from the horrors of partition. Balbir had lived through all of it. He had seen the bloodshed first hand and he had nearly perished himself, his forehead grazed by a bullet fired by a jumpy subordinate policeman. His love for the flag and country was unquestionable and one that was based on lived experience. When he compared the three gold medals India had won to the one the team had won in 1948, his eyes sparkled as he mentioned how the latter was the first won under the tricolor. When he spoke of flying as the tricolor ascended on the Olympic flagpole, you couldn't help but feel a lump in your own throat.
Yet, Balbir's patriotism wasn't a narrow kind. He had suffered personal loss in the partition. His wife's family lost all their property. Ye he spoke of friends who had crossed the border and were now suddenly the enemy. He spoke with pride of the final team of a united Punjab and how on winning the national title in April 1947, they received a grand reception in Lahore with only the slightest inkling of what was to come just a few months ahead. "It is so strange to believe now. We are friends one day and all of a sudden we become enemies"
Even 70 years later, Balbir could still remember all his team-mates and their exploits. His daughter would pull out an iPad with the final team of undivided India, easily the greatest hockey team of that generation and Balbir would point at each player and name their exact playing position.
""That's the right half Kalat... This one is Mehmood, Keshav Dutt.. Woodcock, Walter Dsouza... that one is Aziz who played for Pakistan -- he also played left in with me in Khalsa College. Raja Shekhar the second goalkeeper... Jamshed, the centre-forward from Delhi, Gentle... ," he rattles off the names. "Bahut tagdi team thi yeh (It was a very strong team). We played all over India and beat the 'B' team most of the time. We might even have won the Olympics."
It's a refreshing change from interviewing modern athletes, who speak of winning for India and talk of nationalism, but you suspect those platitudes are self serving. Balbir has none of that venality. For a man of his stature, he made next to nothing off his feats.
To speak to Balbir is to know of a time when India had suffered terribly, had few friends and less money but when people pulled together for a cause that was far bigger than any of them. And the stakes at the 1948 Olympics could not have been any higher. Balbir spoke of how JRD Tata arranged for them to become the first national team to fly to a sporting event, just so that they had time to train.
When Balbir was dropped after scoring six goals in the opening game, he didn't protest in order to maintain team unity but the country's high commissioner to the United Kingdom stepped in to make things right. And when Balbir recalls how the country's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru told him India needed him to win yet another gold medal, you realise just how much pressure would have been on these young men's shoulders. It's one thing to read about it. To hear Balbir talk about it, I don't think any other sporting moment comes close in significance or any achievement close to it in magnitude.
All these years later, you'd expect Balbir to have changed, at least a little. Too often, the country he loved has let him down. He was advised bluntly to remove his turban while in Delhi in 1984 to avoid being targetted in the anti Sikh riots. He even donated the 1948 Olympic blazer to charities for victims rendered homeless after the violence. Priceless memorabilia that he donated to the Indian government for a proposed museum has shockingly been misplaced and presumed lost for ever.
Yet, through it all, Balbir had nothing but adoration for his motherland. I'd been quietly taking pictures of him while he was glancing through his old archives. He was dressed properly enough in a checked shirt and grey dress pants. But following the interview when I ask him for an official photograph he insists I wait until he is suitably dressed.
"Wait let me put on my India blazer!" he says. It's only after he wears it that he combs down his rich white beard, puffs his chest out with pride and gets his picture taken.