It happened just for a single second. In Rio in April, just for this fragment of time, he was his old self. His old, high-strung, nothing's-good-enough, pushing-himself, perfection-demanding, obsession-embracing, brilliant self.
He'd shot 626.2 in the air rifle in a World Cup test event, which is 10.4 per shot, which in the previous scoring system would roughly translate to 598/600, which is by any measure a pretty, decent score.
Well, for most people. But since when was Abhinav Bindra, in his old self, most people?
And so when Gaby Buhlmann, one of his coaches, walks by, and he's standing there with that very Bindra look which is all inconsolable fury, and she asks him about the scoresheet that he's holding, he says this:
"It's toilet paper."
If you wanted an introduction to driven and be acquainted with desire, then you had to meet Bindra's old self. Under his skin, desperation crawled. He'd examine every pellet of hundreds under a magnifying glass in case one had a flaw. Because he couldn't afford a flaw. Because he was in pursuit of only the flawless. He'd unlock his range at 3am, in his underwear, because a brilliant idea had struck him, and don't raise that eyebrow. How else does perfection come?
His old self had coaches who tuned his focus and tightened his technique and grew him up, but no one needed to kindle his flame. When he told me, years ago, about the time he shot 600/600 six times in practice and wasn't happy, even I, who'd read enough on eccentricity and sport, thought, "Dear God, who is this?"
But that old self, it's mostly gone, it's broken apart. Only slivers of it remain, only remnants left behind of a younger man, only pieces which show up now and then for a second.
Because in the next second he corrects himself.
"It's not toilet paper."
His score is not crap, he reminds himself. It's impressive. It's a score "to be respected". To "be grateful for". His old, hard self took him to Olympic gold in 2008 but no athlete, no human, can stay the same. His old self was too hard to maintain and so he keeps reinventing himself, challenging himself, invigorating himself, discovering himself. He doesn't just experiment with shooting, he's turned himself into a shooting experiment.
He has kept trying to reshape himself, to be less anxious, less negative, less hard on himself. Till here he is, at the cusp of his fifth Games, a Games which has tested him, ruined him, fuelled him, made him and now to this Games he says goodbye. He's like a bullet that has travelled too far. He's not going back.
"I have less shots left."
And no more Olympics.
Bindra and I have history. Actually a book, his book, titled A Shot at History. The writing of it made us, him 33 now, me 53, friends. We text now and then. We talk politics. I tell him he needs to be less boring if he wants to get married. He laughs. He's switchblade sharp and too wise for his age. He was the right sportsperson to do a book with -- and any journalist who reads this will grin like hell -- because he was always on time. The business of athletes, who are creatures of exquisite timing on the field, is to be late for everything off the field --- as if to be on time reflects an unnecessary enthusiasm for an interview. It's not that no one told Bindra this, it's merely that he's his own unflinching man.
Between 2009 and 2011, we meet 4-5 times in Delhi, once in Chandigarh, twice in Singapore. Sometimes for eight hours a day. If I write him an email -- 322 in 2010 alone -- he'll reply within 24 hours, whatever time zone he's in. If I call and he doesn't pick him, he'll call back after practice. When I'm in Delhi, I ask, "What time do you want to start tomorrow?"
At 9am, he's there. No bleary-eyed, phone-to-ear, I'll-be-with-you-shortly look. Instead he's scrubbed, dressed, shoes polished, pants with creases as sharp as the parting in his hair. Coffee? Breakfast? He wears muted colours and also an almost unfashionable, self-deprecating, respectful politeness.
He's a shooter, a stationary and hushed hero and so you don't expect an aura, but he's an Olympic champion, a world champion, he's great, he's somebody, yet he carries it all calmly -- unpretentiously but gravely. He's not the guy for the stupid question. Don't ask him, Oh, how many shots are there in shooting? Just don't. He won't be rude, he simply won't be interested in you because you haven't respected him by doing your homework. He takes shooting seriously, so take him seriously.
His phone is off. No sister, friend, sponsor interrupts. He'll talk as long as I want to talk. An air-conditioner hums and my pen scratches. This is incredibly hard for him for he's not a man of words. In another life he could have been a caver, or a deep sea diver, for he lives in silence, a loner, whose grand journeys are into the unknown depths of his own self.
He's incredibly shy, he's private, yet he's parting curtains because he'd agreed to that beforehand. Agreed that we were not going to make money with this book. We get it, it's a shooting book. And we don't help either with sales because he's too awkward to tweet about it and I am not on Twitter. But we don't care about that. Also he has no private life, no Bollywood girlfriend, no model on his arm, not found frequently on Page 3. He doesn't even have a fast car and a frothing father, he's just terrifyingly normal, he's the un-Agassi. But we don't care about that either. We only care about writing a raw, honest, gritty investigation into his single-minded, desperate, eccentric, devoted pursuit of his greatest sporting self. Not a how-to-win book but a how-he-won book.
So he opens himself up, he peels his skin away. He talks about pain, crying, whining, defeat, perseverance, learning, courage, acting. He talks about officials who do nothing, about 10-day silent retreats to improve concentration, about climbing a pizza pole. He talks about how Olympic defeat sent him to therapy and how Olympic victory brought on a depression. He never cuts corners in shooting, he won't for this. He doesn't know how.
For a writer, this is a pleasure. Most of our lives we're herded in and out of interviews, offered canned answers, expected to dissect greatness in nine minutes. There are always questions left to ask, but here, with him, there are none. Here I have an Olympic champion to whom I can ask anything for however long. It's a two-year tutorial in sporting desire.
But I also, inadvertently, do him a minor favour because he concedes that all this talking liberates him. It softens his suspicion of the outside world, it peels away some of his insularity, and he even tells me some weeks ago that he's now more patient with journalists and understands our jobs better. "Of course, I've always been nice to them," he says. I think he's grinning as he talks. I roll my eyes.
When he had to make speeches at symposiums, he'd be edgy, practicing before the mirror for weeks, timing himself, but now he's less ruffled. "I don't agonize any more. I like doing conversation-styled events. I am brutally honest in them and try to be funny. People relate to honesty." In collaboration with GoSports Foundation, which supports emerging athletes, he's doing workshops with young shooters and even giving away rifles. Last year 10 of them, one to a Paralympian.
He's a man who has unfolded wings he never knew he had.
Shooting is a subtle, complex activity involving slow-motion movements and pellets that fly too fast to see. You can see the footballer feint, turn, accelerate but here there is an invisible beauty, the control of the heartbeat, the muscles, tiny and large, activating to ensure balance, the search for stability. Its pursuit is terrifying simple: Perfection. Press your pen to paper. It leaves a dot. That's roughly the bullseye in the 10m air rifle. Now hit it 60 times.
We are drawn, mostly, to sports which are popular, whose stars beckon us, whose history is rooted in our lands, whose movement fascinates us. Shooting does not qualify. It is not a rite of passage nor a spectacle. And yet to talk with Bindra, and watch him practice, is to be led within shooting, inside its skin, to appreciate the delicacy of its craft (the dilemma of when to trigger) and to fathom in a moving world the challenge of stillness. This is sport, too.
He taught me how coldly punitive shooting is when it comes to the human error. The cost of the tiny mistake is in fact inhuman. It's not enough for him to hit the .5mm bullseye because his score will be determined by how close he is to the centre of that .5mm bullseye.
He made me understand better the task of the athlete who competes only against himself. If you play directly against someone else (i.e. tennis), you need to perform only to a level high enough to beat that person. You can play at 80 per cent and win. You can be imperfect. In shooting, he competes against an entire cast of characters all at once, a 50-strong, high-class field whose skill he can't control or affect. He cannot play within himself. He cannot play just well enough. He cannot raise his game when it matters on a big shot because every shot is big. He has to give everything of himself to every single pellet fired.
He offered a nuanced explanation of the idea of control, for in shooting it involves a suffocation of emotion. No reaction to a 10, none to a 9, each score worn, swallowed, moved on from, perfection shrugged at, imperfection forgotten, no rage allowed, no vocal whine, no high five (with whom), no uppercut of the air. Everyone suffers and all in equal silence.
And Bindra is still suffering. He always suffers. He can't not suffer because it would mean he doesn't care. He's just suffering less. He's done what he had to which is to give shooting his entire being. He didn't lean on his 2008 Olympic gold, but he put aside one masterpiece and started on another canvas. And yet even as his journey isn't defined by this gold -- but by his patience, his learning, his constancy, his willingness to experiment, his medals elsewhere -- it gives his journey a particularly fine glint.
He, the young boy who loved the smell of gun oil, whose parents supported his dream and bore his boyish tantrums, whose solitary personality fit this lonely sport, is proud of where he's travelled as a shooter. But it's a quiet pride for he wears his uniqueness -- first Indian to win individual Olympic gold -- with a lightness. And because he has journeyed well, he comes to his last Games "very much at peace". In his last three Games he skipped the tiring Opening Ceremony to prepare himself, yet now he wants to walk out, as flag-bearer, with his vast sporting clan and feel a final sense of kinship. When you retire, you no longer belong. "Yes," he says, "I am emotional about this Games. I have a playfulness in my nature which I had at my first Olympics in 2000."
There's always a trace of melancholy to the end of athletic journeys. After all, in their 30s, the greatest talent that young people will ever own is forever lost. Yet Bindra, right now, is too busy to play the philosopher. In April, in Rio, just hours after landing he was taking pictures of the Olympic range and mailing them to his mother. By the time he returned, his range in Chandigarh had been turned into a Rio duplicate. Same height of target. Same background colour. Same lighting.
When he told me this, I grinned. I love the truth that he always wants to be a new and better and changed man. But this fastidiousness, this painstaking attention to minute detail, was one of the finest parts of his old self. And so even though this is his final Games and an emotional time, just remember, this is Abhinav Bindra. Indoor sniper. Perfection's pursuer. History's chaser. And so please, whatever you do, don't think he's on some sentimental expedition.
Well, maybe just for a single second.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.