A few minutes into a conversation with Deepak Kumar, you feel it's a sage at the other end, perhaps sitting thousands of kilometers away at the foot of an ice-capped mountain. There's no spill of excitement in his voice over the Asian Games silver medal in rifle shooting he has just won or talk of ambitious conquests ahead. He is just calm, startlingly calm, often lapsing into Sanskrit shlokas and generously quoting from the Vedas and Upanishads.
Growing up in Jagatpur in North Delhi, a neighborhood notorious for its street brawls, Deepak's father sent him away when he was barely nine to a Gurukul in Poundha, Dehradun to keep him away from trouble. He spent the next ten years of his life studying the Hindu scriptures, leading an austere life stripped of ambition and desire. This was before shooting happened. In between, he even dabbled in archery and appeared in the nationals for Uttarakhand.
On Monday, in a final where he wasn't even in the running for a top-three finish until a brilliant 10.9 in the 18th shot, Deepak, 29, won India's second medal in shooting. With a total score of 247.7, he finished with silver, second to defending champion Haoran Yang of China who shot a Games record of 249.1.
In fact, it was fellow Indian and Air Force colleague Ravi Kumar who was in the reckoning for a medal until the third elimination in the final. Ravi and Deepak were in third and fifth positions with 164.7 and 164.3 points respectively then, but in the sixth series that followed, a poor 9.2 had Ravi dropping to fourth position and falling away after the following round of elimination.
Deepak recounts it all, with detachment, almost like the medals and the result belong to someone else. "I was just trying to use my mind and muscles at a minimum. I just told myself go for the precise shot and try nothing extra," he tells ESPN.
"I've come up with a way to stay focused at all times during a competition. The focus is threefold, whether my rifle is steady on the target, how much of the target area is sharp and clearly visible and how smoothly I can release a shot. I constantly keep asking myself how well I'm doing in these three areas. If the first one (steadiness) isn't there, the other two (sharpness, smoothness) also won't follow."
This is Deepak's first medal at a major tournament. Earlier this year, he finished fourth and fifth at the Guadalajara World Cup and Commonwealth Games respectively. He never grew impatient. Much of Deepak's calmness is harnessed from a decade of doing the simplest of things over and over again.
"At the Gurukul we had to study four chapters on just one concept. Once you do that, you learn patience. In shooting too repetition, chasing the perfect shot through repeated attempts, is crucial. "
His entry into the sport was almost accidental. "Jaspal Rana's (former World No. 1 pistol shooter) academy was a couple kilometers away from our Gurukul in Poundha. One day Jaspal's father came up to Guruji and urged him send some of us to the academy for shooting classes free of charge. He felt we would do well in the sport since we practiced meditation, which was a much-needed virtue," Deepak says.
Around a dozen kids, including him, began training at the academy and noticing their interest, the Gurukul even set up a range in their backyard. "I used to train at the Gurukul till dawn sometimes, they even got me an imported German rifle. The target was set up on the compound wall and every time I shot, it shook a bit."
Deepak's Gurukul activities also included traveling door-to-door in villages in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, with other students, seeking alms and food grains.
"You have to do all sorts of menial jobs when you're living in the Gurukul. It's a way to teach you that no work is beneath you. Even today, in the final, I wasn't anxious about the result. There was no fear of failing one more time. Jab aap gutter saaf karke iss mukaam tak pahunchte ho, phir haar jeet kuch nahi rehta (Once you've cleaned gutters and reached this stage, then winning and losing mean nothing)."