India hockey team
India defeated Germany 5-4 in the bronze medal play-offs at the Tokyo Olympics Image Credit: PTI

‘Sansarpur’ was no ordinary village. Growing up, there were stories — almost legendary ones of its famous residents who lived on the outskirts of Jalandhar, my hometown.

One fine day — but it never really is one day, is it ... except in the fairy tales, it all disappeared — the pride, the romance, the glory. The stories became a murmur and eventually died. Just as the soul of Sansarpur.

Hockey is to Punjab what butter chicken is to the pretenders, an obsession. Sansarpur, a dusty strip of land alone sent 14 hockey players to the Olympics, making the Indian team the most successful one ever. That record of 8 gold medals still holds and yet, until a few days ago we were still living on a prayer — 41 years of it in fact, for folklores may fade, their scent lingers.

Better times will come, they said especially to the people of Punjab as the hockey medals dried up, leaving the very identity of its people parched. Instead, came militancy — a decade and a half of darkness, where the only sport was to come out standing on the other side. The hockey maidans with their uneven grass fell silent, the people fell silent. You had to first survive to tell a tale, even of a dominant past.

Terrorism in the state was still wrapping its tentacles when in June 1983, a young man from the city of Chandigarh roared in his rustic Punjabi accent that ‘kapil da jawab nahi,’ and showed he meant business. Kapil’s Dev’s devils went where no Indian man had gone before, running with the cricket World Cup and the heart of a country.

A pandora’s box of fame, cash and branding

It was the start of a new match — commercialisation of sports and from toothpaste to chocolate and aerated drinks, the flamboyant and cash rich cricketers over the next decades sold us more than their game.

But cricket’s success lengthened the shadows between the former hockey idols and the new champions. The game opened a pandora’s box of fame, cash and branding and watching from the outside, hockey, once considered the country’s national game became displaced.

Change they say is the only constant but who could bell the cat with Indian sports officials? The last hockey Olympic gold came in 1980, but in that competition, there were not even enough teams to have a knockout stage. In the meantime, the Dutch, Australians and Germans clocked the hours on the physically testing AstroTurf, those still loyal to the sport back home unsuccessfully tried to keep pace with their wooden sticks.

In Punjab meanwhile, militancy left its scars. The people of the state were exhausted and listless — it was almost an existential crisis. Even their famed spirit could not keep away an overwhelming sense of ennui. The green fields outside my train window lost their sheen, hockey and the green revolution had one thing in common — they were now firmly in the past.

What came was no brain drain, just an escape to Canada as unemployment soared. Aeroplane statues perched on the roof of houses in the hinterland proclaimed loudly that a family member was now abroad. But if you looked deeply, you realised it was as much about livelihood as it was about saving their sons from ‘chitta’ — as heroin is locally called. Bollywood did finally get it right with Udta Punjab, but memes were for those watching from afar.

Proximity to the Golden Crescent

As a border state in close, proximity to the Golden Crescent, Punjab is an easy transit point for drugs and with agriculture land shrinking and not backed by requisite industrialisation, jobless youth turned to drugs. The state of Haryana, carved out of Punjab meanwhile became the real deal, especially when it came to sports. Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra is also from Haryana.

Misery loves company and in rural Punjab a drug addict in every family of a village no longer raised any eyebrows. Maqboolpura, barely kilometres from the holy town of Amritsar showed how deep the rot was, becoming infamous as the village of drug widows and orphans. For families struggling to exist, hockey could no longer be a part of the plan. Parents who couldn’t bear to see the addiction and the pain began to wish for the death of their own children.

It strikes me every time I visit home how trees in the city — famous for its sports industry don’t just give shelter, instead on their trunks are numbers for de-addiction centres. Neither are the pharmacies sprouting at every few metres, what they seem. A 2017 study said more than 860,000 young men in the state between the ages of 15-35 took some form of drugs.

In 2018, there were 60 deaths due to drugs in just one month in the state, those numbers have only increased. Politician-drug nexus reminds every Punjabi that when there is a will, there will be a way.

Which is why when ten boys from Punjab — stood on that podium in Tokyo, they didn’t just win a medal. For a state that lost its way as much as its inherent ethos — no Punjabi can tell you what came first, these boys have shown their people that most potent emotion — hope with a liberal dash of a dream.

Even though instead of Sansarpur, it was the team captain’s neighbouring village of Mithapur this time, bring out the dhols, hockey has finally come home. Only this time, the people of Punjab need it just as much as hockey needs them.