By Arré Bench Aug. 07, 2021
Hockey isn’t for anyone, but it is for everyone willing to brave through the physical risks of the game as much as the structural obstacles of life, which makes it the sport that best embodies the country’s soul.
Back in 2003, as part of the annual NCC (National Cadet Corps) meet I spent a week in Moga, Punjab playing sporting competitions against local kids. For hockey, a couple of local teams showed up with a mix of both boys and girls. An all-boys school, we were fairly dismissive of the idea and may have even felt amused at the prospect of playing girls. They battered us. I have, since, never doubted India’s ability to produce talent but only its capacity to nurture it. The history of Hockey, etched between the dreamy heights of world domination and the forgetful depths of decay and decadence echoes the India story. These unfamiliar new peaks of accomplishment, despite the women’s team missing out on a bronze, aren’t just a redemptive sporting story, but also, may well usher in the redemption for India’s conflicted soul.
The history of Hockey, etched between the dreamy heights of world domination and the forgetful depths of decay and decadence echoes the India story.
Hockey, it is safe to say, isn’t for the weak hearted. The notional value of courage is built into the sport itself. You can’t possibly pick up a stick and enter a game if you haven’t contemplated the idea of both risk and injury. You could lose teeth, an eye or break bones. Things most middle-class Indians are quietly yet assuredly averse to attempting. The rich don’t want any part of either.
Witnessing kids fracture shins and skulls, eventually became my reason for quitting the sport at an early age and going for something more sheltered and calculated – academia. Most Indian parents don’t want their sons and daughters playing a game as potentially hazardous. More importantly they wouldn’t want their kids to play a game so unrewarding in its tangential outcomes – money, fame. Victories are victories in every sport, but for some reason in this country, they seem bigger than the others. Cricket, for example, hardly competes against the world and is yet a national obsession.
Victories are victories in every sport, but for some reason in this country, they seem bigger than the others.
The dip in Indian hockey’s standards foretells the story of consumerism. With cricket’s rise in the 80s, the possibility to commercialise what is essentially a back-garden sport, screamed louder than the need to reinvest in India’s long tradition of hockey domination. We, the viewers, abandoned the pride of dominating the actual world in a sport, for the cynical consumption of one that has an ad-spot (between overs) built into the system.
It was like picking fishing out of a dry barrel of sand in the middle of the ocean for a globalised India. Cricket quickly became a lucrative business while hockey was relegated to a burden, content with being dragged along by the state’s resources. Had India not had its golden years to live up to, we might have at some point given up the idea all together. Poor and under-developed, India can’t at most times of the day, afford the luxury to dream, let alone pay for it.
While the men’s hockey team still has a history to look back to, the women’s team has only just started to write its own.
While the men’s hockey team still has a history to look back to, the women’s team has only just started to write its own. Unsurprisingly, it’s most personal and moving chapters have been written away from the field, through the struggles of poverty and pitiable circumstances. India’s women haven’t just played and won at hockey, they have fought and conquered insurmountable odds, unimaginable hardships. It’s weird how India likes to reward its poor and unprivileged, only when they defy the structural impositions of an oppressive system.
The inimical oddities of celebrating our women on the field and yet berating them in the street or under the roof of our homes shouldn’t be lost on us. Sporting moments, though memorable and iconic, are at the end of the day fleeting in their societal implications. Once the brouhaha is over, familiar patterns take over. Olympic medallists, people with an actual badge of accomplishment, are forced to return to the mercy of over-privileged bureaucrats with neither a muscle for sport nor the heart for its spirit.
The inimical oddities of celebrating our women on the field and yet berating them in the street or under the roof of our homes shouldn’t be lost on us.
Rarely does a sport’s syntax, its choreographic hurdles echo the frightening socio-economic disparities its dreamers have to overcome to earn their right to play, let alone win. Hockey’s frantic pace, its perpetual physical risks evokes the mental strength and destitution it takes to lead a dignified life in this country.
More than that, hockey’s grounded nature, its lack of glamour and team ethic ensures it’s a sport for athletes and team players and not individualists or corporate-carved golden boys. There is an inevitable sense of multi-culturalism to Indian squads – northern India’s strength, the north-east’s pace and the south’s skill translates to a poetic coming together of both, struggle and aspiration.
There was a hockey premier league long before the cricket one, but it, like the average Indian’s interest in bruising, physical sport, faded away.
None of this is to say that hockey doesn’t deserve its rewards and must continue to be reared like the orphaned child it had become for the last four decades. To be honest, brands have tried. There was a hockey premier league long before the cricket one, but it, like the average Indian’s interest in bruising, physical sport, faded away.
It is perhaps indicative of this country’s unforgiving hierarchies, its flawed sense of equity that most sportsmen pursuing a sport other than the lucrative punchbowl of cricket, are actually pursuing some sort of escape from the life they’ve been offered. From sordid, depressing existences that only the ferocious commitment to metallic medallions can seemingly rescue them from. It’s a narrative that will momentarily be romanticised but never translate into a solution. Give these players better infrastructure, motivation and lives you’ll not only see India find its footing in its national sport, but you may also find the nation in it, alongside a soul that has begun to heal.