I was told last year that when you start writing obituaries instead of features, you know you are getting old. Covid-19 has thrown that logic out of the window. Last year this virus was impersonal; close enough to scare you, but with enough distance to let you avoid grief. This year, the narrative has shifted. No more banging pots and pans, this year we are united in banging our heads against the wall. The virus has come closer now. We mishandled the first wave and, as is usually the case in India, the poor paid the price. This year, it is personal. We are losing more than we know, and quicker than we can come to terms with.
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Indian hockey lost two gold medallists on Saturday. The duo, MK Kaushik and Ravinder Pal Singh, were teammates at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, part of the last Indian team to bring home gold from the sport. At the time their achievement, though lauded, was not accorded too much respect. History — and being starved of Olympic success — has been kinder. The duo were born five years apart (Kaushik the senior) and ended up playing together for just that one glorious fortnight in Moscow. Their paths diverged massively after, right up until a virus, and death, brought them together again.
Kaushik was born and brought up in Delhi, a city known more for its hockey tournaments than players. One of 10 siblings, he picked up the game in the neighbourhood, went on to play for his school, then Kirorimal College before being picked for the Universities team in 1974 for the Nehru Memorial Cup. It was his performance in that tournament (forgotten and non-existent today) that shaped a career that may have been lost completely in the wilderness. Tata Oil Mills recruited him straight out of the tournament, posting him, the Delhi boy, at the forefront of hockey in Bombay. By the time the Moscow Games came around, MK Kaushik was well established in Indian hockey.
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Ravinder Pal Singh was born in Lucknow, a city considered at the time as a bastion of Indian hockey. He lived a short walk from the KD Singh Babu Stadium and, before taking an early retirement, worked at the State Bank of India across the way from the stadium. Singh lost his mother when he was a child and was brought up almost entirely by his siblings and his father, a strict man who preferred his son play sport than study in closed rooms. He was enrolled in the SAI Sports hostel early and was known as a hard working, battling midfielder who would control games through sheer force of will. His inclusion in the Olympic squad came as a surprise to many (he was capped for the first time when India played at the Spartakiad in Moscow, right before the Games), but he was hand-picked by the veteran captain V Baskaran who’s opinions on matters to do with the game were rarely questioned.
MK Kaushik went on to reshape Indian hockey in more ways than one. Not satisfied with just being an Olympic gold medallist, he turned coach. Where other men disappeared silently into obscurity Kaushik refused to. In the decade of India’s greatest hockey crisis — perhaps at its peak — Kaushik was in charge of the women’s team at the 2006 Asian Games. It is necessary to highlight how tough this job was. Women’s sport, despite Karnam Malleswari’s bronze at the Sydney Games, was severely underfunded (a fact that endures), neglected to the point of being an afterthought and rarely saw success. In the women’s game, less was always enough. Kaushik has already coached the men’s team to an Asian gold and never considered the women's job a step down. He took on all challenges without complaint and coached his team to a medal in 2006 anyway. In a country not known for celebrating sport on celluloid, Kaushik also went on to advise a mainstream Bollywood blockbuster with no less than Shah Rukh Khan playing the coach’s role. He was actually involved in developing the script for the film and the title track now plays at every hockey event in the country, even if its lessons are largely ignored.
In sharp contrast to Kaushik, Ravinder Pal Singh retired from the game early and silently. A chronic spine injury forced him to quit and, after a brief stint with coaching, he disappeared completely. A recluse, he rarely appeared at events and spent much of his time by himself or in the company of a few close friends. He never married and had no children. His one great love was football. He would spend hours watching any and every game he could on the TV. He dabbled with coaching at the grassroots and did it without expectation of reward. He did it, because there was no reward. There were no complaints about how anonymous his life had become either. He loved it, thrived in it, and the company of friends he would meet everyday for evening tea.
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Ravinder Pal Singh passed away on the morning of May 8. Few knew he was sick, admitted in a hospital and in critical condition. His demise was a shock to most in the hockey fraternity, not just because of his stature, but also because very few actually remembered the man, and those that did, were in too much grief to actually talk about it. The captain of the 1980 team V Baskaran was among a select few whose calls Ravinder Pal would answer at any time of day. Baskaran wasn’t just captain but mentor, father figure and friend. “It is tough to accept his loss. Ravinder Pal was a complete player. But more than that he was always willing to learn,” Baskaran says, describing the man he played alongside in midfield at the Olympics. “He was a very good listener. We spoke little as the years went by, but whenever I called he would listen more than speak. I don’t know what else to say… it is just terrible.” Perhaps evidence of how completely Ravinder Pal Singh disappeared from public life is that the pictures most publications, and also the office of the sports minister Kiren Rijiju, used to mark his death were stolen off this website, shot by our colleague Roanna Rahman for a profile a year ago.
A few hours later, even as the tributes were slowly trickling in, Kaushik was also gone. With him the sense of loss — for the game in the country — was deeper. He was a man who had influenced many careers. From Dhanraj Pillay to Rani Rampal, the tributes poured in. He had touched many lives, polished many gems and, despite shying away from the spotlight, forever carved for himself a place in Indian hockey folklore.
Lesser men would complain about their circumstances. Having been left adrift in anonymity, or handed the reins of underfunded teams. Not them. The duo took divergent paths to arrive at the same place. One where satisfaction wasn’t in achievement, or in the past. It was in the present and everything it entailed.
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