The Indo-Pakistani hockey invincibles who went their separate ways when their nation was born
Government College in Lahore had five hockey players at the 1948 London Olympics – two from newly born Pakistan, three representing newly divided India. Classmates until a few months ago; they had parted with heavy hearts and scars that would never heal.
Among the countless victims of the sudden geographic demarcation of 1947 was the Punjab combined team fraternity dominated by Lahore, the national hockey champions of undivided India. The new markings on the old map had divided the tight-knit hockey team along communal lines. After the partition, almost overnight, the solidly fortified 5-3-2 had holes in the positions occupied by Hindus and Sikhs. They would disperse, take care of their lives, grow old and eventually lose contact with their Muslim friends.
Till Bani, the 59-year-old daughter of two-time Olympic gold medalist Nandy Singh, thought to capture on camera the heartwarming story of the firm friendships on the athletic fields that had survived turbulent times and the growing gap. between two bitter nations.
Title Taangh – Punjabi nostalgia, the documentary premiered at the ongoing Trivandrum Film Festival and features black and white clips of young men in baggy shorts snaking through defenders, quickly warning the world of l the subcontinent’s intention to own field hockey at the Olympics.
The priceless archive footage is artfully integrated between interviews with these haunting, now frail and weak wizards, some in wheelchairs, shedding tears as they talk about the days they won medals and lost friends.
The documentary began to take shape in November 2013 and Bani traveled to Lahore in February 2014. Her father died the same year. âI started editing 2 years later and it ended in September,â she says.
Save the father’s inheritance
What had started as a one-girl amateur effort to save the hockey stories of her two-time Olympic gold medalist dad for posterity was to turn into an ambitious project.
âI missed knowing my dad as a champion. By the time I grew up, his playing days were over. I guess my parents’ memories are important because they underpin mine. Every time I asked him about his hockey years, he would tell me to go meet my friends, âshe says. After a stroke, Nandy Singh lost his speech and was partially paralyzed, but Bani’s motivation would not be deterred. She would reach out to her father’s friends.
The documentary sees her travel to Calcutta to meet her father’s companion at university in Lahore, Keshav Datt. He played in the center of the Indian team which beat England in London in 1948 to win gold and, as the narrative indicates, had the future Queen of Great Britain hold on to the national anthem of independent India.
It was during one of these interactions that Datt would share a nugget from his last days in Lahore that would make Bani restless to cross the border.
The journey to his roots, in search of sons who connect with his father’s youth, dominates the second half of this lovingly put together tribute to India’s early sporting heroes. It is the mutual desire of the two Punjabs, on either side of the border, to climb the fence and revisit the land of their ancestors that gives the documentary its name.
But, just in case, Bani hadn’t opted for Taangh, a title with seriousness, it could well have been satisfied with “In search of Shahrukh in Lahore”. It would have been appropriate. Shahrukh who?
The story goes that Keshav was part of the Punjab combined team that traveled for the national championships. It was early 1947, Lahore was on fire. Keshav’s family couldn’t take it anymore. They would join the mass migration headed for Delhi. The plan was for Keshav not to return to Lahore after the Nationals. âThey told me to get off at a few stations before Lahore and join the family in India. But with several Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus on the team, I thought I would sound like a coward to separate myself from the team before Lahore, âhe says.
But upon reaching his empty house, Keshav would feel like an unwanted stranger in his own Lahore. He feared the armed crowds that roamed the streets at night in search of Hindus and Sikhs. Enter Shahzada Shahrukh, his close friend from college and teammate from Punjab. The irresistible-looking Confident Defender would calm Keshav’s raw nerves and put him to sleep.
In a chilling tale, Keshav relives the trauma. He relates how, the next morning, Shahrukh smuggled him to the station in a car, got him tickets and even put a note for his friend’s safe trip.
It was a time of uncomfortable farewells and horror stories of trains with blood stains. Childhood buddies would curse fate and the circumstances imposed on them.
Be part of two Olympic teams
In a new twist, the two would travel to their national teams for the Olympics. The Pakistani vice-captain was Shahrukh and the Indian center-half Keshav. Separating at Lahore station, reuniting London in a matter of months was beyond their wildest dreams. Away from home in London, they were having coffee, talking for hours about their college days and the hockey games they played for Punjab.
But it wasn’t their good old Government College campus. Times had changed, there was an air of mistrust among the old neighbors. The managers of both teams would ask the two friends to keep their distance. They did and over time they would move further away.
Almost seven decades later, Bani made it his mission to locate the dear friend of his father and uncle Keshav in Lahore. The pursuit was not easy. A Pakistani visa was difficult to obtain and Shahrukh was nowhere to be found. Among the many setbacks she talks about in the documentary is one about a heartbreaking message Bani received from her contact in Pakistan. Shahrukh had passed away, an email informed her one morning. She was broken, she thought her labor of love had been abandoned. Without Shahrukh, the story was incomplete.
Much to her relief, it turned out to be fake news. âLater, I received a letter saying that he was surely in Lahore but that there was no address,â Bani says.
After several attempts, Bani would obtain the Pakistani visa. She would fly over the border her father had been forced to cross with mere memories of their lost home. His ancestral home of origin, the land of his ancestors will welcome him with love. Lahore Government College would pay tribute to him. Little did they know that three of theirs, now in India, had won two Olympic gold medals. They were sending souvenirs for his father. Bani would be the guest of honor at an impromptu hockey game. She would also get Shahrukh’s address.
The moment of the documentary is when Shahrukh is led into the living room of his home to meet the unexpected guest from India. Bani introduces himself and hands framed photos of his father and Keshav to the charming handsome man in a wheelchair. Shahrukh checks to see if he can keep the executives. Bani nods yes. The old man plants endless kisses on the photos of his former comrades.
Bani had planned to connect the three on a video call, neither agreed. âThey said our memories were better,â she said. Shahrukh tells Bani not to tell his father that he was in a wheelchair. “Meri haalat dekh ke tera Abbu roeaga, “he said. He knew his friends well. The final setting of the documentary at Bani’s Abbou with tears in my eyes as he looked at the photos of his old friend from Lahore.
The documentary was also a kind of recomposition, a search for his roots and the history of the origins of his family. “I tried but I am unable to write down anything about the ‘Watan‘my family lost. It was this gap in their stories that drew me to Lahore. I wanted to understand what made them who they were and the answers were to be found in the country they came from.
âThe irony is that their Watan cannot be documented in the history books, âshe says. “The Watan is not land that can be captured within political borders. It lives on in the memories and stories our parents tell us and this film is my way of passing their stories on to the next generation.
In the seven years it took to make the documentary, all three friends passed away. But the story of Nandy and her pals Keshav and Shahrukh continues, reminding the world of the strength of the seemingly fragile Indo-Pakistani hyphen that refuses to end despite wars and failed dialogue.