The death of Balbir Singh Senior does not mark the end of an era. The era in question had long disappeared in a vortex of fevered imagination and half-remembered truths. The man himself had seen it disappear. He had tried to alert others to the fact more than forty years ago but, like Cassandra, he had gone unheeded. That is why his death is a great loss: we never understood what we had.
If the average Indian remembers Singh today - if we remember him at all in the midst of the pandemic - it will be as a talismanic goal-scorer from the time when newly independent India won the hockey gold in three consecutive Olympic Games. The historically minded will savour the neat symmetry of it all, for the sequence mirrored the Olympic exploits of the hockey teams from British India in the inter-war years when the ur-Indian centre-forward, Dhyan Chand, reigned supreme.
Close followers of the game will also recall Singh’s role in the background of India’s triumph in the 1975 Hockey World Cup, the last tournament before international hockey replaced grass with artificial playing surface. Talk of the pre-Astroturf era may prompt the mischievous to make jokes about how India had been the one-eyed king in the land of the blind. After Partition, the other eye went to Pakistan who did not do too badly either, they will add. The confused may express surprise that Balbir Singh died twice when in fact it was his younger namesake who passed away in February.
All these different points of view will miss the essential import of Singh’s long and storied life and what it tells us about hockey in India and about India itself.Tag : sports