The India-Pakistan sports rivalry is the stuff of legends. However, despite the traditionally strained political relations between the two neighbours, the people of both nations share a lot of traits in common, including warmth and hospitality towards travellers. A member of India’s volleyball team discovered the same for himself on two sports trips to Pakistan.
There cannot be bigger relief in a foreign country than spotting a mug inside the toilet! That’s precisely what made me feel at home, way back in 1997, when I first landed in this country, which otherwise was supposed to be our by-default enemy number one.
For reasons best known to the Volleyball Federation of India, it was decided to send the Junior Indian Volleyball team (instead of the senior team) to participate in a seven-match volleyball test series with the Pakistan Senior team in Islamabad and Lahore. I was fortunate to be a member of the Junior squad.
Since there was no direct flight from Delhi to Islamabad, we took a connecting flight from Lahore. It was at a Lahore airport washroom that I experienced my first feel-at-home moment. It was followed by a grand welcome at Islamabad, which made us believe, for a while, that we were no less than Sunil Gavaskar or Kapil Dev.
The excitement doubled when a convoy of four jeeps escorted our bus to The Best Western Hotel in Islamabad.
The delicious yellow dal fry, butter naan, and butter chicken at the dinner buffet made me feel more at home. Next morning, at the practice session in Muhammad Ali Jinnah Indoor Stadium, the team was pumped with confidence. We prepared a strategy to beat the Pakistan team in the evening.
But, all our excitement and confidence was punctured within 24 hours of landing in this neighbouring country. The mighty Senior team of Pakistan beat us in three direct sets, in front of their home crowd. We were humiliated, dejected, and felt like running away from the stadium. That day, at the dinner table, even the Karachi chicken curry could not arouse our appetite
In three days, Pakistan led 3-0 in the seven-match test series. I had never read Urdu in my life, but in those three days, I could make out what those captions were all about in the sports pages of the local newspapers. There was a rest day before playing the last match in Islamabad.
So, to make us feel better, our coach G E Sridharan took us out for sightseeing.
Islamabad was a new city, established in the 60s. Looking at the government buildings, Faisal Mosque, the neat and clean surroundings, and absence of traffic jams, we were so envious. How could a Pakistani city be so beautiful? Rawalpindi, which is on the outskirts of Islamabad, was crowded and congested, full of middle-class population like us.
During our five days at Islamabad, I became close to the bus conductor/helper. He was around 14 years old. We both used to share stories from our villages. Listening to his stories, I felt life in both the countries was almost the same. I named him Sukhvir, as his face resembled my friend Raghuvir’s brother, Sukhvir Singh. Sukhvir was our lone silent supporter in the foreign land.
Fortunately, we managed to win the last match, and went to Lahore on a winning note to play the remaining three matches. At Lahore, our humiliation continued, and finally we felt relieved when the series ended 5-2 in favour of Pakistan. After the matches were over, we were taken to the famous Anarkali market, one of the most famous markets of undivided India. We spotted a photograph of Nehru in one of the famous sweet shops.
Nehru had visited Anarkali Market during the Lahore Session of the Indian National Congress in 1929.
After tasting the famous triple-layer ice-cream of Anarkali Market, my friend Kapil (now an Arjuna Awardee) and I dodged the security guards and went to one of the narrow gullies in search of low-cost jeans. With little cash in hand, we started bargaining.
Since they spoke Urdu, which is quite similar to our Hindi, but slightly different in accent, the shopkeepers initially thought that we were from Peshawar. But after a while, they became convinced that we were neither from Peshawar or Karachi, but from a completely different place. They desperately wanted to know if we were from Kabul or any other place. I explained to them that if we disclosed our hometown, they would never offer us discounts. Hearing our conversation, a few more nearby bystanders gathered. Finally, I had no other option but to tell them that we were from India.
The atmosphere completely changed upon discovering that we were from India. More people gathered around the jeans shop. We were offered chai, ice cream, samosa, cholay bhaturay, and so much more. “Bhai jan, aap Hindustan se aaye ho, aap humaray mehman ho, humko aapki seva karnay ka mauka dijiye,” (Brother, you have come from Hindustan. You are our guests. Give us a chance to host you) they requested.
The shopkeepers were quite enthusiastic to know more about India and its people. Once again, I felt like I was home. Soon, I realized they knew more about India then I did as an 18-year-old boy. We became instant celebrities. As the word spread and the crowd grew larger, the security guards arrived and escorted us away.
Quickly, I tried to pay for the jeans, but Iqbal bhai, the shop keeper, was in no mood to take the money. Somehow, I kept the money on the table and left with my first-ever pair of jeans. I had never worn jeans in my life till then.
The next day, we left Pakistan after facing humiliating defeat, but carrying loads of beautiful memories with us.
The humiliating defeat was to be avenged, however. So, seven years later, we once again arrived at Islamabad for the South Asian Games in 2004. General Musharraf was the Chief Guest at the opening ceremony. It was a mega event, as per Pakistan standards. After the Kargil War, it was for the first time a multi-nation sports event had been hosted by Pakistan.
Next day, after the practice session was over, I heard a familiar voice calling my name. It was our old friend Sukhvir. We hugged each other. Later, he came to our hotel to meet us. He brought biscuits, chocolates, and “bottle”. In Pakistan, cold drinks are referred to as “bottle”. The security guard refused him entry, but with our personal intervention, he was allowed inside the hotel.
Over a cold drink, we discussed our life. Then he told me of his desire to see the Taj Mahal and visit Ajmer Sharif once in his lifetime. He told me that he liked everything about India, except for three people. When I asked him who the three people were, he named a senior Indian politician, who became popular through Rath Yatras, and a popular veteran right-wing leader from Maharashtra.
When I asked him who the third person was, he shied away from naming him. Only after repeated questions, he finally said it was Sunny Deol — “Kyun ki Sunny Deol Pakistanio ko bahut kut ta hai.” (Because Sunny Deol beats up Pakistanis a lot.”) We could not stop ourselves from rolling on the floor laughing.
At the Games, we beat Sri Lanka in the semi-final to meet Pakistan in the finals. It was the same Pakistan team, the same Muhammad Ali Jinnah Stadium, and the same crowd where we faced humiliation seven years ago. The only difference was, we had seven years more of experience, and an old score to settle. At the finals, the stadium was over-packed.
I remember our only supporters were the Indian Badminton team of Jwala Gutta, Aparna Popat, Oli Deka, Krishna Deka, Vidya, and Chetan Anand cheering for us from one corner of the stadium.
The game stretched to the deciding set. It was a super-tense moment, with India leading 15-14. The crowd was so loud that we were unable to listen to each other. Finally, a return cross-court spike from Y. Subba Rao silenced the entire stadium. It took us some time to realize that we had won the Gold Medal, beating Pakistan, in Pakistan.
The team held each other’s arms in a circle, and send a silent thank you message to our Gods in India. There was immense joy in taking the victory lap across the stadium, with Subba Rao, the captain of the Indian team and an ONGCian, leading from the front, holding the Indian flag. We would never forgot those 52 seconds of our life when the Tricolour was hoisted, and we all sang the National Anthem at the heart of Islamabad.
Find out more about ONGC’s sporting history and the sportspersons it supports on its website.