Over the past 4+ years, we have lost track of how many matches we have played. One season rolls into the next and we put more miles on the cars.
One would think it would get monotonous and mundane.
But, the exact opposite is happening-each season is more exciting, each tournament more important.
On one of these sojourns, we are discussing strategies and tactics as we get closer to the venue.
I hear myself say, “You’re Sikh, you’re supposed to win.”
And she scrunches up her nose in a way that only she can.
“You know Sikhs are very good at everything they do, especially Hockey.” (Or did I say “Did you know….”)
A sort of protest from me.
Another blank stare-somewhat impatient this time, that says let’s move on, you’re boring me now.
Maybe a little bit of silence is better.
Can’t push kids nowadays.
Have to treat them with respect (as kids we grew up with absolutely no respect!).
My thoughts go back to when I was in 4th grade.
Its 1977. I am in a boarding-school.
It is January or maybe February in Ajmer.
Chilly but manageable.
We have our morning PT (Physical Training) which starts at 6.30. After 45 minutes of exercise the grand finale was always a free for all race. The width of the soccer field and back.
The winner got bragging rights. And those bragging rights were every bit worth it.
Worth running all out. Worth getting a knee scraped and an elbow bruised.
Start at on side of the soccer field, run as fast as you can, touch the opposite sideline turn around, and rush back to the start line where the teacher calls out the finishers names.
We fly, all 120 or so of us.
I run every bit as fast as I can, barely able to keep my breath. We’re about 5-7 clumped together.
Touch the line, about turn and rush back.
I am a little ahead of the clump and finish first among them.
Something seems out of place.
From the corner of my eye I see a student a bit further away.
Teacher calls out “Ajay-1st”.
No other names are called.
Either you’re 1st or nameless.
Some discussion among us as to how Ajay was able to win.
Conclusion – it was a fluke.
Except-the same thing happens the next day. And the next day. And the next.
Every time the teacher calls “Ajay-1st.”.
So much so that it becomes a discussion topic even in the Teachers Room.
On the way to lunch a few weeks later, one of the teachers jokingly says, “How come you’re not winning. Sikhs are supposed to win.”
Not sure what to make of it.
Is he being sarcastic or encouraging?
He continues, “You know Milkha Singh was the best runner in the world. And he’s Sikh. Ajitpal Singh is the Hockey Captain of the Indian team. And Indian Hockey is one of the best in the world. Balbir Singh took India to 3 Golds in the Olympics, and he’s Sikh too. Sikhs are some of the best sports people at the world level.”
Wow. Didn’t know that.
Maybe I can go to the library and read about them (there was no internet then or mobile phones).
That night it took me a while to go to sleep.
My thoughts go back to sports and Sikhs as I lay trying to sleep.
“Clang-clang-clang”. The morning bell goes off.
We change and get to the field. The exercise is no different than any other day except that I am not feeling up to it. I stayed up well past my usual time, well after midnight I think (we wore no watches, everything was by the bell).
Feeling a little nauseous I do the exercises.
There is no way out. PT is mandatory and only a broken bone would let you to skip it.
There’s no mercy in a boys hostel. Maybe a little from fellow students but not from seniors and definitely not from the teachers.
After the exercise its time for the grand finale.
I’m still thinking about Balbir Singh, Ajitpal Singh and Miklha Singh as we line up for the race.
They are Sikh. And they won.
I’m Sikh. Can I win?
But what if I lose?
Does it really matter-being Sikh?
Doubt settles back in and the nausea doesn’t help.
A little extra nervously I line up with the rest.
We’re off. I fly like the wind.
Dare not look left or right.
Don’t want to waste even a millisecond.
I’m in the clump.
Can’t see Ajay but I know he’s there.
We approach the opposite line.
Touch. Turn. Race back.
Push your knees higher.
Keep those arms moving.
We’re coming up to the end.
My legs are getting weaker.
Can I keep the pace?
And in a heartbeat we’re through the line.
When I look the whole clump is through as is Ajay a little further to the side.
I’m dejected. I guess it’s a no go.
Nice stories about Sikhs, but that was them and I am here.
But who won.
Did Ajay’s name get called?
Seems like eternity.
Finally the teacher calls out the winner.
And I hear my name.
Wait, did he really call my name out.
Before I even have a moment to think my friends gather around me and we’re all cheering.
I won. Finally!
Maybe there is something to being Sikh and….
“Papa, you missed the parking spot.”
We’re back to the present.
I am back in New Jersey (or was it Pennsylvania where most of our tournaments are).
We park and walk in to meet the rest of the team.
She meets up with her friends-chattering and excited about the game.
I meet some of the other parents.
I can’t help but think to myself-one of these days my young Kaur is going to realize the power of being a Sikh.
And that day US Field Hockey better watch out!
Mandhir Singh serves on SikhRI’s Board of Directors. He works in the financial services industry and lives in New Jersey with his family.