ANONYMITYdoesn't sit too pretty on Sansarpur. Having been the centre of the hockey universe from the '30s through the '70s—India's golden era in the sport—the big little village in Punjab's Jalandhar district has inexplicably dropped off the face of the world map. It rankles. Though nothing can ever take away Sansarpur's fabled status in international hockey lore—the village is home to as many as 12 hockey Olympians, besides a host of international players who've represented three nations, India, Kenya and Canada—the last 20 years or so have been disappointingly effete.
Riding on wads of greenbacks, the village has conquered material want. But amid the affluence—huge bungalows, tarred roads, neatly cobbled bylanes, the general air of well-being—Sansarpur is a hamlet whose present isn't a patch on its glorious past. The price of neglect: the village hasn't thrown up a single hockey star of any consequence since Ajit Pal Singh, the brilliant centre-half who led India to its first and only World Cup triumph (Kuala Lumpur, 1975).
So when you speak to former Sansarpur Olympians about their glory days or broach the subject of the village's sharp decline as a force in world hockey, you detect a persistent tinge of sadness, hear bitter voices, are confronted by bouts of anger. Above all, you become acutely conscious of the tragedy of it all as a proud sporting tradition gasps for fresh air. Says the Jalandhar SSP, Balbir Singh, a gifted right-out who went to the Olympics in 1964 and 1968: "Today's players lack commitment and the confidence to take on the world. They're in a tearing hurry and are, therefore, getting nowhere."
Agrees Jagjit Singh, a pale shadow of the mercurial centre-half who played a stellar role in India's gold medal-winning show in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1966 Bangkok Asian Games: "Sansarpur is still the same old village at heart, but it has lost its appetite for hard work. There's still talent aplenty here, but the fire in the belly that drives young men to greatness is gone."
Fortunately, hope isn't. Neither is passion. The passion that catapulted four-time Olympian Sardar Udham Singh to dizzy heights as a wily, opportunistic attacker in the '50s and '60s. Sansarpur is indeed lucky it still has the 70-year-old to spearhead the village's effort to dribble its way out of the corner it finds itself in. As president of the Sansarpur Hockey Association and chief coach of the Karam Chand Thapar Hockey Academy, set up in 1996 with the help of the army and JCT Phagwara, he's aware of the enormity of the task at hand, but is determined to recapture Sansarpur's lost glory.
Neither the government nor the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) is willing to help, yet Udham Singh is going all out. "I expect positive results in 3-4 years," says the slightly built, soft-spoken gentleman whose exploits as a hockey player at four consecutive Olympics (1952 to 1964) and then as coach of the Indian team at the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games are stuff legends are made of. "Two of our boys (now no more with the academy) have played for the junior national team, one (Bhupinder Singh) has been hired by a top Calcutta club and several talented trainees are sure to hit big time in the coming years," adds Udham Singh even as he enumerates the problems that face Sansarpur: the general decline of hockey as a popular national pastime, the absence of a synthetic turf, the myopia of the IHF.
POINTING to a tall, strapping lad on the field, he says: "That boy is one of our most promising trainees. Watch him." One of the academy's assistant coaches, Lakhbir Singh, volunteers more information. "He's Gursharan Singh, a fullback. He possesses great dribbling skills; a stinging shot. He has a very bright future." But what about Sansarpur as a whole? Jagjit Singh blames growing affluence for the death of hockey here. "There's no family here that doesn't have at least one member living in the West. My son, too, is in England," he says. Several former Olympians—Darshan Singh and Gurjit Singh among them—have migrated to the West with families, while those that stayed on are grappling with a sudden blackout. "Hockey's no longer India's premier sport, it's been replaced by cricket and tennis. The prestige it enjoyed in our days is now non-existent," admits Udham Singh. Sansarpur is too well off for its young men to be genuinely committed to the game, feels Jagjit Singh. "Our comfort level is our undoing. People are no longer willing to work hard. So the focus has shifted to the tribal belt of Orissa and Bihar, where youngsters know proficiency in hockey can open doors, get them jobs."
The Sansarpur academy, which is trying to swing the pendulum back, revolves around a ground donated by the army. The board that announces the academy's location towers over everything else in the vicinity. All else about the place is steadfastly modest. The two full-size grounds are dusty; the four smaller arenas used for six-a-side games no different. JCT contributes some Rs 2.5 lakh a year for the upkeep of the complex and for providing the 30-odd regular trainees with the right diet—eggs, bananas, half-a-litre of milk daily. Just about everything else is taken care of by the former Olympians who still live in Sansarpur: Udham Singh himself, Col Balbir Singh, currently the coach of the Indian women's team, Jagjit Singh, Tarsem Singh—a '68 Olympic squad member who's building Jalandhar's first amusement park—and the village's second Balbir Singh, a Punjab police officer since '87. Others, too, pitch in. For instance, the Sansarpur Hockey Association office at the academy, whose walls and shelves are chock-a-block with framed photographs and memorabilia bearing testimony to Sansarpur's glorious sporting heritage, was funded by Ajit Singh, a former Services centre-half who now lives in relative obscurity in a Jalandhar hotel.
Udham Singh has constructed a well-equipped gym at the cost of Rs 6 lakh. "Many of the boys lack physical fitness," he says. "Unless you're tough, you can't be a good player." He should know: starting out at the highest level of the game in his teens (he was selected for the 1948 London Olympics squad but had to drop out because of indisposition) he went on to become the oldest player to represent India at the Olympics—he was 36 during the 1964 Tokyo Games.
HOCKEY came to Sansarpur in pre-Independence India through the army. The first Sansarpur villager at the Olympics was Col Gurmit Singh (Los Angeles, 1932). Two decades later, Udham Singh went to the Helsinki Games. Says Jagjit Singh, who quit international hockey at 24 because of a bone injury: "World War II was a big damper. There were no Games in 1940 and 1944; many promising Sansarpur players lost out on the opportunity to display their skills on the world stage."
It was as if to make up for lost time that Udham Singh and other celebrated Sansar-puris who joined the Indian team subsequently—Gurdev Singh, Gurjit Singh, Jagjit Singh, Darshan Singh, Balbir Singh (Punjab), Balbir Singh (Services), Tarsem Singh and finally Ajit Pal Singh, all from the Kullar sub-caste and living within a 50-yard radius—turned on their magic. Sansarpur reached its pinnacle when as many as seven Kullars, including two brothers who turned out for Kenya, Jagjit Singh and Hardev Singh, took the field in the '68 Mexico Olympics. Another Sansarpuri, Hardial Singh, not only played international games for Kenya but is now president of that country's hockey association. Mohinder Pal Singh, also from Sansarpur, has played for Canada. "There's no parallel anywhere in the world: a village of 2,000 people producing so many top-class players," says Popinder Singh, Col Balbir Singh's brother and a physical education lecturer at Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia. He's currently writing a thesis on the rise and fall of hockey in Sansarpur.
Can Sansarpur recapture the clout it once had in world hockey? Says Tarsem Singh: "The academy has had an impact. Between 4 and 7 in the evening, you won't find a single Sansarpur kid at home. They're all at the ground." Apart from the 30 trainees who form the core of the academy's activities, it attracts 150 children in the mornings; nearly 300 in the evenings. JCT has appointed two young coaches to assist Udham Singh.
Sansarpur's eclipse, not surprisingly, coincided with the decline of India's hockey fortunes. The '80s were the worst. The army ground that players used was dug up and replaced by a canal. "For 13 to 14 years, Sansarpur didn't have a hockey field. With the feeder village shut off, Indian hockey was bound to suffer," says Tarsem Singh.
But when Lt Gen H.B. Kala (now posted in Chandi Mandir) took over as commanding officer in Jalandhar in '92, the tide turned. He asked his officers to show him Sansarpur's famed hockey field. It didn't exist. "Now I know why Indian hockey has nosedived," the shocked general told some of the former Olympians and immediately ordered the ground be restored to Sansarpur. Work on the canal was stopped, a new hockey field carved out and the Sansarpur Hockey Association roped into the process of weaning the village youth back to the game that gave the village its global profile.
On the comeback trail, Sansarpur now awaits an astro-turf surface at the academy. The ground is no longer under the army, so it can't invest; the hockey association does not have the funds. "We need at least Rs 1 crore for the astro-turf," says Udham Singh. In a village where a huge slice of hockey history still lives and breathes, it's a small price to pay for saving the game's future.