Mudar Patherya went into his attic last week to chase history for me. You might know him, the cricket writer from the 1980s, who drove like a drunk even if he never drank, was often awakened at insensible hours to be asked about some vague dismissal in some ungodly year which he rattled off like some sleepy savant, and the next day wrote prose that was fluent, stylish, literate and full of terrific anecdotes. Then he became an equity research analyst, the traitor.
We worked in Sportsworld together, which your dad might remember, a weekly magazine, average age of writer in 1986 about 24, a typewriter-pounding, hard-self-critiquing, sports-playing, book-reading, slightly-narcissistic bunch and, well, it was a bit like what you're reading right now, ESPN.in, except this website, 32 years later, is a fine, thorough, well-written representation of where Indian sport has come.
ESPN.in is thankfully not all male -- two of my favourite writers are the venerable (she's going to hate that word) Sharda Ugra and the rapidly emerging Susan Ninan --- and this matters. Every step matters. Back then I subsisted on Bhogle and Memon (how old are those guys?), Gary Smith and Rick Reilly in Sports Illustrated and when Simon Barnes brought his ponytail to lunch at the Chinese place just outside the Ananda Bazar Patrika gate, we were beside ourselves. A Times man! Sad bastards we were.
"In a nation that doesn't always offer its inhabitants the space for sport, India's athletes have somehow found room to play"
Now most of my favourite bylines are Indian, from Sambit Bal to Supriya Nair to Prajwal Hegde to Aditya Iyer (and still Bhogle with new hair and Memon with white hair), so much flair and insight, not to mention history lessons from Clayton Murzello and long reads on Special Olympics skaters and sharp commentary, and you can't really have writers without sport and that's what India has now. True sport and fine witnesses, like Ninan, who journeys through Odisha and writes over 5000 words on women's rugby. Imagine that. The closest I came to that sport in my time was learning about the All Blacks from a Calcutta rugby legend, a thickset, big-smiling guy with missing front teeth whose sister I was dating.
Out of interest, I asked Patherya, who usually doesn't follow orders well, to dive into his attic and find the first 10 covers of Sportsworld, which started in 1978 (I joined eight years later) and this is the list of cover photos he sent me: Bishen Bedi (cricket), Zaheer Abbas (cricket), Gautam Sarkar (football), Imran Khan (cricket), Alvin Kallicharan (cricket), Mushtaq Mohammad (cricket), Vijay Amritraj (tennis), Alvin Greenidge (cricket), Bob Willis (cricket), Kapil Dev (cricket).
The good news about the covers: Sportsworld had no parochial bone. There was an Englishman, two West Indians and three Pakistanis: pull shots, fortunately, were once more fun than idle patriotism. The bad news: not a single woman on those covers and eight of them on cricket. A photographic sign of dreary times. Of course, cricket still dominates the Indian conversation, even outside its shores, and Lord, please, spare me from expats whose endless agitation over the batting order of a Twenty20 team can ruin a fine Glen. If Sportsworld were alive, cricket might still hog the cover but with a twist: it might, occasionally, feature Mithali Raj.
In Sportsworld we never felt neglected for we had our own folk heroes, from Calcutta itself: swimmer Bula Choudhury, who trained in a pond, and Mihir Sen, who conquered the seas; Shyam Thapa who, we will argue, produced the first authentic bicycle kick since Pele; a polite, funny chess genius called not Anand but Dibyendu Barua; Jaideep Mukerjea, who got to the Wimbledon fourth round on four occasions and was one of many from South Club who'd swear their grass was better some years than SW 19 and they weren't even smoking it; and the charming bodybuilder, Manohar Aich, not even five foot tall, who came to our office and performed like a flexing evangelist.
We passed Mohun Bagan and East Bengal on to you and lived in a town -- there is no less boastful way to say this -- where we shook the talented hands of more Olympic gold medallists than you ever will. I lived in the same building at one time as Gurbux Singh (1964, hockey gold), schooled with Brandon Claudius whose dad, Leslie, had three hockey golds (1948, '52, '56) and was introduced by my dad at a club swimming pool to a craggy-faced man who had two (Keshav Datt, hockey, 1948, '52). Yes, the stories...
And yet, occasionally, I wish I was 25 for while India is not yet a sporting power, its footprint is more interesting and international, its range of stories wider, its confidence more becoming, its ambition arriving from a bigger tribe, not restricted by gender, or by urban borders or by the fact that their fathers are street vendors and mothers are vegetable sellers. There is a greater democracy to India's talent.
I wrote about this subject a few years ago, but even since then, the growth is evident. The first change is depth, for now India can send out a posse of wrestlers, a mob of shuttlers (two in the top 12 in both, the men's and women's rankings), a gaggle of golfers (six in the top 30 on the current Asian Tour standings), and with this heft within a sport, presumably, comes expectation, inspiration, parents being convinced, academies starting, sponsors possibly raising a half-interested eyebrow. These days, the media is intrigued when junior shooters return home, while back in the 1990s -- I was at India Today magazine then --- a young shooter wanted to meet me and I told him, with shameful conceit, to come to my office. He did. His name was Abhinav Bindra.
The second aspect is breadth and IND is not just a familiar call sign in many sports, it's a growing declaration. Even weeks ago, an Indian golfer, 21, unseasoned, led after three rounds at the World Golf Championships in Mexico and it was a surprise, and delightful, but it was not entirely unthinkable and perhaps that's the distance Indian sport has leaped.
I see this new measure of sporting India from a distance. I see it in a track-and-field athlete on a scholarship to a U.S. university (PT Usha, why didn't you go?), in my Twitter feed full of Snehal Pradhan talking women's cricket, in not knowing whether to giggle or applaud when friends message that they're watching the Patna Pirates play kabaddi, in Ugra going to the north-east to write epic pieces on local football that people want to read.
Yet for all that, when ESPN's Debayan Sen sends me the nominees for the ESPN Awards, even I'm slightly stunned for the standout performers, including able and differently-abled athletes, come from 15 different sports --- golf, badminton, football, chess, hockey, tennis, billiards, boxing, wrestling, weightlifting, archery, kabaddi, shooting, motorsport, athletics -- of which, six involve both genders.
This new breadth is a sign of a culture spreading; it is enthusiasm, it is awareness and ambition, it is varied talents finding their own specific fit and it is proof to kids that every body type can belong somewhere. One boy's pitch is another's girl's piste. And so, a farmer's son scared of water rows to Rio, the very same city where an Agartala aerialist comes fourth in the gymnastics vault. In a nation that doesn't always offer its inhabitants the space for sport, they have somehow found room to play.
"I wish I was 25 for while India is not yet a sporting power, its footprint is more interesting and international, its range of stories wider, its confidence more becoming, its ambition arriving from a bigger tribe.."
For anyone who truly enjoys sport this should be a joyous moment, for this width of talent brings with it the discovery of new art forms. If nothing else, we own new vocabularies. If we can even pronounce "luge" properly it's because of Shiva Keshavan, but then athletes teach us all the time. In Singapore, canoeists have educated me about pain and speed skaters about balancing at high speed while leaning on ice. Each piece of knowledge informs the viewing experience, it energises discussions, it breeds a wider respect. If you think table-tennis players have good hand-eye coordination, then go watch fencing.
But even as athletes break ground, Indian spectators -- from the anecdotal evidence I hear -- are not keeping pace. Tweeting praise is easy, sitting in the stands in interested support of non-cricketing athletes is quite another matter. Great sporting cultures are not identified by major-Games medal counts but by routine weekends when tributaries of people, shirt colour often identifying their clan, stream through a city in search of the hush, roar, adrenaline and art of sport. But it will happen in India one day because athletes will make it happen. They will demand that people come and watch because that's what talent does. It becomes irresistible.
(Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra's book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.)