Saturday's festival of Navroz came with its own gift for Merzban Patel. On Saturday evening, the selection committee for the national sports awards 2019 recommended the 69-year-old for the Dronacharya award for lifetime achievement. Patel wasn't aware that he was to be honoured, though.
It wasn't as if he was at home, celebrating the Parsi new year with his family. As usual, he was at the Mumbai Hockey Association ground in Churchgate, watching over 30 youngsters running drills, formations, and dribbling with hockey sticks. "The celebration of his festival will be at the hockey ground. For 365 days, come rain or sunshine he will be there," says former India skipper Viren Rasquinha.
Over the last four decades, the shuffling figure of Patel has been synonymous with Mumbai hockey. No one there knows him as Patel though. "He's always been Bawa," says former Indian goalkeeper Adrian D'Souza.
The man they call Bawa is a small, slightly stooping, grey-haired man, dressed in a shirt that's a little too big for him and track pants with a hanky tucked into one pocket, with a high-pitched voice that's always just a few words away from hurling a string of invectives.
"Bawa isn't what you expect a hockey coach to look like. When I used think of a hockey coach I thought of a tough looking guy. If you saw him, you wouldn't think that this guy was such a fine coach," says D'Souza. Few have had as much success as Patel.
"Nearly every player from Mumbai has come through Bawa's stable," says Rasquinha. The stable, here, is the Bombay Republicans Club. Patel has been inseparably linked with the club's oversized contribution to Indian hockey. Some 30 India internationals have trained here and six -- Gavin Ferreira (1996), Jude Menezes (2000), Viren Rasquinha (2004), Adrian D'Souza (2004) and Devindar Walmiki (2016) - played in the Olympics. Another, Suraj Karkera, is currently with the Indian team at the Tokyo Test event.
It's a record Patel, who has never played even at the club level himself, is proud of. "I did all this without a ground or facilities or any help from the authorities. I might have only been a gully hockey player. But the fact is I have produced 30 internationals and six Olympians. Baaki sab khadde me ja girre (everything else can go and fall into a ditch)" says Patel.
He considers himself a fan first, influenced by the fame of local player Munir Khan, who he watched growing up in the Railway colony in Byculla. He did various other jobs but was always finding ways to get out of work and watch the game he loved. Then he got into coaching full-time. With no formal training or expertise, Patel's success is all the more remarkable.
"I've never seen him with a hockey stick, but he knew how to coach," says D'Souza. "Bawa has a way of speaking. If you aren't familiar with his style, you would think none of this makes any sense. He wouldn't tell you technical details about a 3-v-1 drill, but he would be picturing the same moves in a match situation," he says.
Patel's true gift, though, was in talent spotting. "He'll be able to say just by watching someone run, whether he has potential or not," says D'Souza. Rasquinha remembers when Patel picked him to play in a senior tournament when he was just 14 years old. "Everyone said he was mad, playing a kid with these senior players. But he insisted because he saw some talent in me," he says.
Patel himself says his coaching methodology is simple. "My secret was that I yelled at the players and gave gaalis (curse words). I even used a hockey stick. But they always respected me. No one will say anything bad about me," he says.
Devinder Walmiki was one of the recipients of this tough love policy. "He was really strict and we used to be scared of him. One day I decided to bunk practise and stay at home. Bawa found out and dragged me out of the house. He swore at me in front of everyone and took me to practice. My parents didn't even try to stop him. And he kept saying 'I want to make this boy a hockey player'," says Walmiki.
"Hockey is his everything. It's his wife and family." Devinder Walmiki on Merzban Patel
Patel's tongue-lashings were only matched by his generosity. The Republicans never charged money for coaching. Indeed, Patel would pay for players food and kit. "I'm from a very poor family and I still remember how Bawa would buy me shoes and vitamin supplements. Whenever he got any money, he would give the boys ten or twenty rupees each. That was something that no one did for us. He never asked for anything in return. Bawa would eat just a vada pao and a tea the whole day but he made sure we always ate something after a training session," says Walmiki.
It wasn't just the talented players who were supported. "Bawa ensured that even if a player had very little talent, he made something of himself. There are so many players who got jobs because of that," says Walmiki. While he helped scores to better their lives through hockey, there was little by way of financial reward that Patel seemed to get back from the sport. When he was eventually told that he had been recommended for the Dronacharya award, Patel wondered what he would wear. "I don't have a coat to wear. I don't even have my teeth anymore. Perhaps I should have got that fixed in the past," he jokes. But that's something he doesn't mind.
"Hockey is his everything. It's his wife and family. He'll be wearing a torn pair of shoes and I will buy him a new pair and have to force him to wear the new ones," says Walmiki. "His dedication to hockey is absolute. They just don't make people like him anymore," says Rasquinha.
"He sleeps for just a few hours. He'll be out of his home early in the morning and get back only very late in the day. And in the day he will be travelling by local train from the Mumbai Hockey Academy to the schools in Bandra where he also coaches. His energy even at his age is incredible," says D'Souza.
Patel plans to keep going as he always has. "I'll slow down in a few years. Maybe when I am 75," he says.
This isn't to say that age hasn't taken a toll on Patel. He's undergone operations for a hernia and also an unsuccessful surgery to treat glaucoma. But despite doctor's advice to stay at home and rest, he would almost invariably be found back on the hockey field. "After his glaucoma surgery, he was told to stay at home for a month but he was out in a week. He told me I'll find talent with one eye if I have to," says Walmiki.
Patel isn't bothered that he is pushing his body too hard. "If anything happens to me, it should be on the field. that's how I want it," he says.