Colonel Jaswal happened to be a diehard sports fanatic. He had made it very clear to all of us that sports were one of his primary focus areas, and had passed specific orders to the battalion that the volleyball team must focus on improving their game as losing was out of the question and would not be accepted. Thereafter, all playing members of the volleyball team were excused from their fatigue duties, and the only task that they were expected to do was to play volleyball. They were also provided with a special nutritious diet. The Commanding Officer wanted a progress report of volleyball training almost every day, and so, Havildar Chattar, who was the senior-most playing member and was the in-charge of the team, was tasked with briefing our Commanding Officer on the progress of the team. Chattar was a senior Havildar in the Battalion and was soon going to be promoted to a Naib Subedar.

Therefore, apart from the obvious responsibility of the performance of the team, the personal stakes for Chattar were also extremely high. For the team, this meant that he would go the extra mile, and the gruelling schedule of the playing members ensured that the team was shaping up well. While the team was practising well, to gain a better understanding of the nuances of the competition, Chattar was interacting regularly with the team members of the neighbouring battalion since they had spent a considerable amount of time in Patiala. He was surprised to see the other teams being headed by young officers who were regularly practicing with their team. On further enquiry, Chattar was alarmed to find out that it was compulsory to have an officer as part of the playing six in the team.

This rule was not in vogue in our previous station, and therefore, came as a shock since none of our officers were good at volleyball and could in no way qualify to be part of the battalion team. The new rule struck us all like a lightning bolt and created a crisis, considering the fact that only a few days were left for the tournament to commence. Colonel Jaswal immediately called for a conference in his office, which was attended by the Second-in-Command, the Subedar Major (the senior-most junior Commissioned Officer) and Chattar.

Eventually, I was called in by the commanding officer and informed that I was the lucky officer who had been selected to lead the battalion Volleyball team, and he instructed me to join the team forthwith. Colonel Jaswal was pretty well known for his short temper, and therefore, I preferred to keep quiet. However, I aired my reservations to the Second-in-Command once we were finished with the conference. I explained to Major Arora that in all my life I had never played this particular game, and it would be unfair on my part to be the cause of defeat for the battalion. Major Arora did what he was known for, and simply smiled! The very next morning, reluctantly, I reported to the battalion volleyball court, only to find the Commanding Officer already present at the ground. He told me he was aware of my reservations, but also said that he had seen me play basketball, and since I was good at that sport, along with the advantage of my good height, it would not be difficult for me to pick up volleyball in this short period. I tried to explain to him that I had never been inside a volleyball court, let alone played the game, and it would be extremely difficult for me to play as an effective member of the team. To this, I only received a cold stare, followed by, “My word is final and no logic on this planet can supersede that.”

With this, the Commanding Officer simply walked off, leaving me stranded with the battalion volleyball team. So, for the first time in my life, I entered a volleyball court and held a volleyball, which felt very strange at first as I realised that it was a lot smaller when compared to a basketball! My practice session began from that very moment and continued every day for at least six hours a day! Very soon, my life turned miserable, as once inside the court, no one treated me as special. Rather, Chattar was particularly harsh and would never lose an opportunity to remind me that I was the weakest link in the entire chain and would most likely be the cause of the battalion’s loss.

Chattar would ridicule me in front of the entire team and would spare no opportunity to humiliate me; and on every such occasion, I felt like walking up to Colonel Jaswal and requesting him once again to earmark another officer. But knowing our Commanding Officer’s temperament, I abandoned such notions and would simply continue with my practice. On most days, while Chattar and the rest of the team members would be giving me a disapproving stare, I would often want to scream and tell them that they had been volleyball players all their lives and had been practising for the last six months, in particular. How could they equate themselves with me? Yet, I had no option but to lump the humiliation quietly. The gruelling practice sessions continued, and yet, somehow, despite the best of my intentions and efforts, I was never in sync with the rhythm of the rest of the players.

On some occasions, during our evening practice, the Tiger (the Commanding Officer is often referred to as “Tiger”) would come to oversee our practice, and at the end of it, after praising the efforts of the team, he would single me out and tell me specifically not to let the battalion down. It is hard to describe the tremendous anxiety I was suffering from at that time. The pressure was getting to me, and this brought down the standard of my game even further. I kept on trying my best, and within the first week, hurt all of my fingers. Very soon, my evening routine after the daily practice session would be to quietly sit down in my room and treat my injured fingers with ice; but I had no remedy for my ego, which was getting hurt the most.

The days flew past, and in no time, the tournament had already started. In the Division, a total of 20 teams were participating, and luckily, we were placed in a comparatively easier pool for our initial matches. Our boys were very proficient in their game, and soon we reached the finals of the tournament. This, in essence, meant that our team was amongst the best two teams in the entire Division. I had assumed that the “Tiger” would be thoroughly impressed with our efforts, but rather than being pleased, the Tiger’s hunger for victory enhanced manifold as soon as we made it to the finals. On the evening prior to our final match, the Tiger met the entire team with the aim to motivate us. I was not sure about the team, but stress levels only increased post his “pep” talk. On the day of the match, as both teams lined up in the central volleyball court, the atmosphere around us was electric, with the Divisional Commander, who was a two-star General, in attendance to witness the finals.

The referee lined up both the teams on the ground, and thereafter, took the permission of the General Officer to commence the match. As we started to play, every time the opponent team was to serve, Chattar would loudly instruct all players to cover me so that I did not get to touch the ball. I found this to be odd, and even humiliating, as this was something Chattar had never done in the previous matches. But that day being the all-important match, he probably did not wish to take any chances with my skills.

It continued to happen again and again as the match progressed, with the entire Division watching. It made me feel extremely small, as if I was simply to stand in the middle of the ground and not touch the ball. Under those circumstances, I imagined myself to be the laughingstock of the event. After it kept happening a couple more times, I could not take it anymore and I simply walked out of the ground while the match was still on.

Colonel Jaswal, along with the others from my battalion, shouted at me to get back into the court; but by then, my ego was bruised beyond repair, and I had taken a conscious call to walk out. Needless to say, our team lost the finals since they had to play with one less player. Tiger was extremely annoyed, and after the match, he admonished me in the strongest possible manner, using profanities to the best of his vocabulary, as I stood in pin-drop silence.

After this incident, I had requested for one month leave, and probably because of my visibly low morale, it was sanctioned. However, rather than going back to my hometown, I decided to spend the time in-station and utilies it to learn volleyball at the Netaji Subash Chander Institute of Sports in Patiala. At the institute, luckily for me, there was a volleyball coach who hailed from my region, and therefore, he took special interest in me. He spent all his time and energy into shaping me into a proper volleyball player. I had good height and the coach encouraged me to spike the ball into the opposite court with full force.

As I was picking up the game quite proficiently. In my spare time, I continued practicing at the institute even after my leave was over. I was now desperately waiting for next year’s volleyball tournament. Soon, it was time for the next volleyball championship, and the set up for the finals was exactly the same as the previous year, with one small deviation; this time, Havildar Chattar, rather than shouting for the players to cover me, was busy instructing them to make the ball for me so that I could spike it into the opponent’s court! With every successful spike, I could hear a loud cheer, and Chattar would publicly compliment me for the same. Suffice to say, our battalion won the championship, and I was awarded with the player of the tournament award. Perhaps bigger than the award for me was the emotional hug I received from the Tiger after the match which I very fondly remember till date! I also remember Tiger driving with me firmly seated in the front seat, and the moment we reached the Tiger’s den, he asked his wife to treat me with some coffee and cookies!

My intent of writing about this incident is simply to point out that most of us consider our ego to be a negative influence. However, I beg to differ, and I am of the opinion that a human being without their ego is pointless. Ego is your self-respect, your pride and your honour, and at no stage in life must one compromise these. If your ego gets hurt, don’t get perturbed; instead, rise and shine like never before. In fact, it is my sincere recommendation that, at times, “Do hurt your ego to progress in life!”

Excerpted with permission from Rejoice in Adversity, Triumph in War: A Military Memoir, Rajpal Punia, HarperCollins India.