About the author: Abhijit Bhattacharya is the first sportsman from Assam and Northeast India to represent and captain the Indian men volleyball team. He has represented India in esteemed sporting events like the Asian games. He currently works with ONGC CSR.
There cannot be bigger relief in a foreign country, than spotting a mug inside the toilet…! And that’s precisely, what made me feel at home, way back in 1997 when I first landed in this country, which otherwise was supposed to be our by-default enemy number one.
For reason best known to Volleyball Federation of India, it was decided to send the Junior Indian Volleyball team (instead of the senior team) to participate in a seven match volleyball test series with Pakistan senior team in Islamabad and Lahore. I was fortunate to be a member of the junior squad.
Since, there was no direct flight from Delhi to Islamabad, we took a connecting flight from Lahore. It was at Lahore airport wash room, where I experienced my first feel at home moment finding a green mug inside the toilet instead of tissue papers. It was followed by a grand welcome at Islamabad which made us to believe, for a while, that we were no less than Sunil Gavaskar or Kapil Dev. The excitement doubled when convoy of four jeeps escorted our bus to The Best Western Hotel in Islamabad.
The delicious yellow dal fry, butter naan and butter chicken at the dinner buffet made me feel more at home. Next morning at the practice session in Muhammad Ali Jinnah Indoor stadium, the team was pumped with confidence. We prepared strategy to beat the Pakistan team in the evening. But, all our excitement and confidence was punctured within 24 hours of landing in this neighbour’s country. The mighty senior team of Pakistan beat us in 3 direct sets, in-front of their home crowed. We were humiliated, dejected and felt like running away from the stadium. That night at the dinner table, even the Karachi chicken curry could not arose our appetite.
In three days, Pakistan leads 3-0 in the seven match test series. I had never read Urdu in my life, but in those three days, I could make out what those caption were all about, in the sports pages of the local newspapers. There was a rest day before playing the last match in Islamabad. So, to make us feel better, our coach G E Sridharan, took out for sightseeing. Islamabad was a new city, established in the 60’s. Looking at the government buildings, Faisal Mosque, neat and clean surroundings, no traffic jam, we envied, how come a Pakistani city be so beautiful? Only, when we were taken to Rawalpindi, which is on the outskirt of Islamabad, we felt like at home. Crowded, congested with full of middle class population like us.
During our five days stay at Islamabad, I became close with the bus conductor/helper who was responsible for taking us to the stadium. He was around 14 years old. We both used to share stories from our villages. Listening to his stories, I felt life in both the countries are almost same. I named him Sukhvir, as his face resembles my friend Raghuvir’s brother, Sukhvir Singh. Sukhvir was our lone silent supporter in the foreign land.
Fortunately, we managed to win the last match and went to Lahore on a winning note to play the remaining three matches. At Lahore our humiliation continued and finally we felt relieved when the series ended 5-2 in favour of Pakistan. After the matches were over, we were taken to famous Anarkali market, one of the most famous market of undivided India. We spotted a photograph of Nehru ji, in one of the famous sweet shop. Mr Nehru, visited Anarkali Market during the Lahore Session of Indian National Congress in 1929.
After tasting the famous triple layer ice-cream of Anarkali Market, I and my friend Kapil (now an Arjuna Awardee) dodged the security guards and went to one of the narrow gullies in search of low cost jeans. With little cash in hand we started bargaining. Since, they spoke Urdu which is quite similar to our Hindi, but slightly different in accent, the shopkeepers initially thought that we were from Peshawar. But, after a while they became convinced that we were neither from Peshawar or Karachi but from a completely different place. They desperately wanted to know if we were from Kabul or any other place. I explained to them that if we disclose our home town, they would never offer us discount. Hearing our conversation few more nearby by-standers, arrived. Finally, I had no other option but to tell them that we were from India.
The atmosphere completely changed upon discovering that we were from Hindustan. More people gathered around the jeans shop. We were offered chai, ice cream, samosa, cholay bhaturay and many more. “Bhai jan, app Hindustan say aiye ho, app humaray mehman ho, humko appka seva karnay ka mako dejia” they requested. The shopkeepers were quite enthusiastic to know more about Hindustan and their people. Once again I felt like at home. Soon, I realized they know more thing about India, then I knew as an 18 years old boy. We became instant celebrity. As the words spreads and crowd grew larger, the security guards arrived and escorted us away. Quickly, I tried to pay for the jeans but Iqal bhai, the shop keeper was in no mood to take the money. Somehow I kept the money on the table and left with my first ever pair of jeans. I had never worn a jeans in my life, till then. Next day we left Pakistan after facing a humiliating defeat but carried loads of beautiful memories with us
The humiliating defeat was to be avenged. So, 7 years later we once again arrived at Islamabad for the South Asian Games in 2014. General Musharraf was the chief guest at the opening ceremony. It was a mega event as per Pakistan standards. After the Kargil War it was for the first time multi-nation sports event was hosted by Pakistan.
Next, day after the practice session was over, I heard a familiar voice calling my name from behind. It was our old friend Sukhbir. We hugged each other. Later, he came to our hotel to meet us. He bought biscuit, chocolate and bottle. In Pakistan bottle is referred to as cold drinks. The security guard refused him entry but with our personal intervention he was allowed inside the hotel. Over a cold drink, we discussed our life. Then he told me of his desire to see the Taj Mahal and visit Ajmer Sharif once in his lifetime. He told me that he like everything about India except for three person. When I asked him who the three person are? he named a senior Indian politician, who became popular through Rath Yatra’s and a popular veteran right wing leader from Maharashtra. When I asked him who the third person was. He shy away from naming. Only after my repeated perusal, he finally said it was Sunny Deol, “kue ki, Sunny Deol Pakistani’ o ko bahut kut ta hai”. We could not stop ourselves and rolled out on the floor laughing.
At the Games we beat Sri Lank in the semi-final to meet Pakistan in the finals’. It was the same Pakistan team, the same Muhammad Ali Jinnah Stadium and the same crowed where we faced humiliation seven years ago. The only difference was, we were seven years experienced with an old score to settle. At the finals, the stadium was over packed. I remember our only supporters were the Indian Badminton team of Jwala Gutta, Aparna popat, Oli Deka, Krishna Deka, Vidya and Chetan Anand cheering for us from one corner of the stadium.
The game stretched to the deciding set. It was super tensed moment, at India leading 15-14. The crowd was so loud that we were unable to listen to each other. Finally, a return cross court spike from Y Subba Rao silenced the entire stadium. It took us some time to realize that we won the Gold Medal beating Pakistan in Pakistan. The team hold each other arms in a circle and send a silent Thank you msg to our Gods in India. The joy was in taking the victory lap across the stadium, with Subba Rao, the captain of the Indian team and an ONGCian leading from the front, holding the Indian flag. We would never forgot those 52 seconds in our life when the Tricolour was hoisted and we all sang the National Anthem at the heart of Islamabad.
As we left the stadium, the spectators gave us a standing ovation, we reciprocate by folding our hand conveying our thanks with a Namastey. This country gave us loads of beautiful memories, which we shall continue to cherish for ever.
See below for an newspaper article: