Lahore State College had five hockey players at the 1948 London Olympics – two from newborn Pakistan, and three representing freshly divided India. Classmates until a few months ago; they parted with heavy hearts and scars that will never heal.
Among the countless victims of the sudden geographical demarcation of 1947 was the fraternity of the combined Punjab team dominated by Lahore, the national champions of undivided hockey India. The new markers on the old map divided the crowded hockey team along common lines. After the barrier, almost overnight, the fortified 5-3-2 had holes in the positions occupied by Hindus and Sikhs. They would disperse, occupy their lives, grow old and eventually lose contact with their Muslim friends.
Till Bani, the 59-year-old daughter of double Olympic medalist Nandy Singh, thought the camera would capture a touching story of friendships gained on sports fields that survived turbulent times and a growing wedge between two bitter nations.
Titled Taangh – longing for Punjab, the documentary premiered at the ongoing Trivandrum Film Festival and features black-and-white clips of a young man in fluttering shorts slipping through defenders, giving an early warning to the world of the subcontinent’s intention to own field hockey at the Olympics .
Invaluable archival footage is artificially inserted between interviews of those enchanting wizards, now fragile and weak, some in wheelchairs, shedding tears as they talk about days of winning medals and losing friends.
The documentary began production in November 2013, and Bani left for Lahore in February 2014. Her father will die a healthy year. “I got dressed 2 years after that and it ended in September,” she says.
Recording my father’s legacy
What started as an amateur attempt by the daughter to preserve the hockey stories of her father, a two-time Olympic medalist for posterity, would turn into an ambitious project.
“I failed to know my father as a champion. Growing up, his playing days were over. I guess my parents ’memories are important because they support mine. “Every time I asked him about his hockey days, he would say go meet my friends,” she said. After the stroke, Nandy Singh lost his speech and was partially paralyzed, but Bani’s will was not restrained. She would reach out to her father’s friends.
The documentary shows her traveling to Calcutta to meet her father’s student friend from Lahore, Keshava Datta. He played center-half for the winning Indian team England in London in 1948 to win gold and, according to the story, force the future Queen of Britain to stand up to the national anthem of Independent India.
During one such interaction, Datt would share a nugget from his last days in Lahore that would make Bani restless to cross the border.
The path to her roots, the search for threads that connect with her father’s youth, dominates the other half of this lovingly composed tribute to India’s first sports heroes. It is the common longing of the two Punjabis, on both sides of the border, to cross the fence and revisit the land of their ancestors that gave the documentary its name.
But, in case Bani did not decide for that Taangh, a title with gravity, could be satisfied with “Searching for Shahrukh in Lahore”. It would be appropriate. Shahrukh who?
The story goes that Keshav was part of a combined Punjabi team that traveled for the national championship. It was early 1947, Lahore was burning. Keshav’s family couldn’t take it anymore. They would join the mass migration that started in Delhi. The plan was for Keshav not to return to Lahore after the national competition. “I was told to get off at a few stations before Lahore and join my family in India. But with a few Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus on the team, I thought I would appear as a coward to part with the team before Lahore, ”he says.
But when he got to his empty home, Keshav would feel like an unwanted outsider in his own Lahore. He was afraid of the armed mob that took to the streets at night looking for Hindus and Sikhs. Enter Shahzada Shahrukh, his close friend from college and teammate from Punjab. A reliable, ostentatious-looking defender would calm Keshav’s worn-out nerves and put him to sleep.
In a gruesome depiction, Keshav relives the trauma. He recounts that as early as the next morning, Shahrukh would smuggle him by car to the train station, get him tickets and even tell him about his friend’s safe journey.
These were times of embarrassing farewells and horrific stories of trains with bloodstains. Childhood friends would curse the fate and circumstances that were imposed on them.
Entered two Olympic teams
In a new turn, they would both be able to get into their national teams for the Olympics. The Deputy Captain of Pakistan was Shahrukh, and the Indian center-half Keshav of trust. As they parted at Lahore train station, the reunion in London in a few months was beyond their wildest dreams. Away from their home in London, they would grab a coffee, talk for hours about their college days and the hockey games they played for Punjab.
But this was not their old State College campus. Times have changed, there has been mistrust among the old neighbors. Managers of both teams would ask two friends to keep their distance. They are and will eventually move away.
Nearly seven decades later, Bani set out on her mission to locate her father and dear friend Keshava Uncle in Lahore. The chase was not easy. A Pakistani visa was difficult to obtain and Shahrukh could not be traced. Among the many failures he talks about in the documentary, there is one about the message that fell into his gut that Bani received from his contact in Pakistan. Shahrukh died, she emailed her one morning. She was broken, she thought her love effort was overwhelmed. Without Shahrukha the story was incomplete.
To her relief, it turned out to be fake news. “I later got an email that he was safe in Lahore, but there was no address,” Bani says.
After several attempts, Bani would get a Pakistani visa. She would cross the border that her father had been forced to cross with mere memories of their lost home. Her original ancestral home, the land of her ancestors would welcome her with love. Lahore State University would honor her. They were unaware that three of theirs, now in India, had won two Olympic golds. They would send memories for her father. Bani would be the main guest of the impromptu hockey game. He will also get Shahrukh’s address.
The moment of the documentary is when Shahrukha is taken to the living room of his home to meet an unexpected guest from India. Bani also introduces herself to a charming handsome man in a wheelchair handing out framed pictures of her father and Keshav. Shahrukh checks to see if he can keep the frames. Bani nodded. The old man puts endless kisses on the pictures of his old friends.
Bani planned to connect the three via video call, no one agrees. “They said our memories are better,” she says. Shahrukh tells Bani not to tell his father that he is confined to a wheelchair. “Meri haalat dekh ke tera Abbu roeaga“he says. He knew his friends well. The final shot of the documentary has Bani Abbu with tears in his eyes as he looks at pictures of his old friend from Lahore.
The documentary was also a kind of reunion, a search for her roots and a story about the origins of her family. ‘I’ve tried, but I’m not able to write anything about’watan‘my family lost. It was this emptiness in their stories that drew me to Lahore. I wanted to understand what made them what they are, and the answers lie in the country they come from.
“The irony is that it’s theirs watan it cannot be documented in history books, ”she says. “The watan it is not a country that can be trapped within political borders. He lives in the memories and stories our parents tell us, and this film is my way of passing on their stories to the next generation. ”
In the seven years that the documentary lasted, all three friends passed away. But the story of Nandy and his friends Keshav and Shahrukh lives on, reminding the world of the toughness of a seemingly fragile Indo-Pac dash that refuses to crack despite wars and failed dialogues.