Ok so now we all know that India plays a game called Hockey. Also that it is the kind of sport that would make ‘superfit’ players like Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina – not to say the other cricketers- throw up in the first five minutes because of the sheer speed. At my office, you would almost believe hockey is our national passion. Inside the train, some college chaps were talking about how India could have played better against Australia. Of course they also added that with India beating Pakistan four-nil, our tournament is over and we have emerged victorious.
I really believe that India will never regain its hockey glory ever again. I hope I am wrong. Let me begin by telling you a small story. Nothing very dramatic.
In a large and reputed school in Jamshedpur, every Saturday groups of students assembled in a well-appointed classroom to take part in what was called ‘the School Quiz Club’.
The routine was that the moderator- a stern and strict teacher by the name Jimmy Munro- would make teams and then play quizmaster.
Jamshedpur had a fairly robust school quizzing scene and so doing well as a team at the Quiz Club meant that you got the chance to represent your school in these events and be the toast of school if you won. The ultimate of course was the Bournvita School Quiz hosted by Derek o Brien and telecast across the country. Incidentally two students from this school- Little Flower School- went on to win the Bournvita School Quiz.
Coming back to the story. As the competition on that Saturday morning started getting close, sir Munro threw in a question. Name the first Indian woman to get an Arjuna Award.
The faces of every participant in that class lit up. Now this was easy. Pat came the answer- PT Usha.
Surprise. Surprise. Wrong answer. It was my turn next. I offered this very long guess and said Shiny Abraham-Wilson. Nope as well.
Someone made a better try and threw in Diana Eduljee. Negative again.
Mr Munro took this long pause, looked at all of us. Smiled. Then dropped his heavy voice for a bit and said, “Do you all have any clue about a lady called Steffi D’Souza?”
The faces were blank. Mr Munro threw in another clue. “Steffi Sequeira?”
The class let out the kind of sigh that could have been heard a mile away. ‘Don’t tell me’, ‘come on’ ‘oh gosh’ rented the dull air in that spacious classroom.
“Ya my friends, we in this country have no idea about anything of our own”, Mr Munro said in a tone that betrayed a bit of arrogance over his white skin and Australian ancestry. Later I realised it was not arrogance, just plain hurt.
Because Mrs Sequeira for years now was our physical training teacher at Little Flower School. Clad in her trademark shirts and knee-length skirt, it was not difficult to guess that she must have done a fair bit of sports in her time.
Some physical problems had made her put on weight but the strength of a sportswoman came to the fore every time she gave us a tight one on our thighs if we made a mistake. Like what cricket commentators would say- when she hit, it stayed hit.
Across the city, young students- me included several times- called her ‘handi’ because of the massive weight that she had put on. She disliked it, sometimes got angry but the students always managed to run away before she could catch hold of any one of them.
She tried starting a hockey league in the city, ran around for it. Forget the league, Little Flower School hockey team itself never got off the ground. Some of the students felt their wrists paining, some threw up and some had the ball cracking into their shins with enough force to put them out of all work for one whole week.
We called hockey a stupid sport. Cricket is the real deal, man, we told each other.
One rainy day, when it was not possible for us to practice our physical training routine outside, we all sat in the school pavilion. Mrs Sequeira- married and having moved from native Pune to Jamshedpur- brought out a hockey stick and a shining white ball from the sports room.
Then she kept the ball on the ground and slowly started caressing the ball with the hockey stick. It was not a performance for any one of us. It was not to show who she was or what she was capable of. It was just trying to snatch a part of the world that for her had gone past.
The caress got quicker, her muscled forearms developing a grid of veins as the seconds ticked by. It must have been less that a minute later when every student sitting cross-legged in that pavilion realised that even their perfect eyesight at that age could not see anything better than the stick shivering into a brown blur and the ball looking like a whirling mass of soft white cotton.
I don’t remember if I saw any tears in her eyes that moment. But some of us had moist eyes that day. A sports legend having to bring out her skill before a set of unworthy students to tell them that in the world she once inhabited, they respected her for her skills is a very sad sight.
Steffi D’ Souza was the first woman to get an Arjuna award. And the only woman who has represented India and probably the only instance in the world of any athlete who has participated in athletics and hockey at Olympics. She captained Indian women’s hockey team for a long time and is still considered the greatest woman hockey player this nation has ever seen. She was called Flying Rani for the massive surge of speed she could generate with the ball and for her sprints.
She passed away in 1998. Hockey died in Jamshedpur and the adjoining Jharkhand towns- the cradle of Indian hockey- almost two decades before that. Ma’am, if you are looking at us from there above, please forgive us. We are sorry.