In a narrow alley in Narkeldanga in East Kolkata, Jayanta Pushilal wipes the sweat from his forehead and prepares to return another smash.
His two-storied house is quite nondescript. It should be difficult to find, but everyone in the locality knows him. Mention “Pushilal” and “table tennis” and they’ll point you towards it. As you enter the alley, you know which one it is. There’s a relentless tapping sound coming from it, punctuated by an occasional, angry “Na!”.
The other houses around all have open roofs. But he’s converted his roof into a covered area with one table tennis table. This is where Pushilal currently is, intent at perfecting the backhand of 17-year-old Sayan Chatterjee.
He has been doing it for years. Pushilal is currently 58. He has trained some of Indian table tennis’ finest – Mouma Das, Arup Basak, Ambika Radhika Suresh. They have won innumerable championships, represented India at top tournaments, won medals. But apart from a glint of pride, Pushilal says it has never been about awards or recognition for him.
Where does he get his inspiration from? He gestures to the locality he grew up in. Narkeldanga is located between glamorous Salt Lake and historic North Kolkata. It’s a traditionally middle-class area. And this is where he gets his impetus.
For the many, not the few
“The area I stay in inspires me. How will lower middle-class people play? Young girls come to me and say ‘Sir, I pay Rs 75,000 for coaching’. But what will people who don’t have that much financial strength do? Will they not train? What about the talents hidden over there? Ami tader. (I am for them)”, he says.
To back that up, he takes a nominal amount as coaching fees in Kolkata. When he goes to coach players in Mumbai and elsewhere, he takes Rs 5,000 per day.
“I could have taken up a position with the state government. Become a table tennis coach in some state university. A comfortable government job, an easy life. But then, I wouldn’t be satisfied. This is my passion.”
The 58-year-old was studying engineering but got involved in table tennis from school and college. He played at the district level as well but it was coaching which he turned to which gave him his greatest satisfaction. According to Supriya Pushilal, his wife, it was not playing the sport, but coaching it which brought direction to his life.
‘First return, then smash’
Pushilal is relentless with his wards. He takes them on, one by one, asking them to practice their smash as he calmly slots it back. The coaching style he employs is not too complicated: “First, return, then smash”. What it essentially means is that any paddler must have a strong defensive game first. Because, according to him, once you can return every shot, then you can choose when to smash.
It’s not all technique though. Pushilal also dishes out some pearls of wisdom when he gets a chance.
For instance, during a rare moment of rest, his son, Hirakjyoti Pushilal, a table tennis player in his own right, came to him and complained about losing an easy match. “Jeta match chilo…dur here gelam (It was a match to be won...,” he complains while looking towards his father, probably expecting sympathy.
“Then why did you lose it?” replied his father, arching an eye-brow.
And then he burst forth, “If it was such an easy game, why didn’t you win it? Don’t come and say this. Either you win or you lose. There are no such things as jeeta hua match tha.”
Joy in the smaller things
Despite training some of the best table tennis players in the country, Pushilal has never been given the Dronacharya award. In 2015, the West Bengal state government awarded him the Krira Guru award for which he says he is immensely thankful. Not getting an award from the Central government does not faze him – “There is too much running around involved”.
The smaller things make him happier: “I go to a bank…the manager says ‘please sit, I’ll do it’. Or the fact that I have managed to train players and hence their families are surviving, due to this sport. That makes me happy”.
One particular aspect about his coaching which stands out is his feisty nature. The players he trains aren’t only improving their skill-sets, they are subtly being made mentally stronger. Pushilal goads them, taunts them, keeps pushing them. As his son says, “If you train with him, you will be nothing but the best…and he will make you believe that”.
There is not much stopping with Pushilal. As his students smash ball after ball back to him at ferocious speeds, he calmly slots them back, to ensure their rhythm is not interrupted. But there’s an ego rush at play here as well which he tries to explain.
“One thing which keeps playing in my head is ‘How can I miss to these two-bit players?’ Of course, I don’t say that but it plays in my head. And you need that kind of ego to keep playing,” he explains.
The 58-year-old hasn’t restricted himself to Bengal. Apart from being a former national coach, he holds regular camps in Kerala where he trains budding paddlers. He has worked with the table tennis associations in Maldives and Kazakhstan. And over the last four to five years, Pushilal has been travelling to California where he is associated with the Indian Community Centre which runs a table tennis academy. Over there, he worked with a Lily Zhang, a US national champion who played in the 2012 Olympics.
Content in the shadows
The difference, he says, lies in the small things. Centrally air-conditioned academies so that players don’t get tired. Tournament balls used for practice. Around 200 balls to practice with, compared to the 100 he has now. Qualified video analysts who record and shoot.
But, back here, he continues to inspire his students. “Ekta kotha sohoj kore bujhie dae. Bar bar bolte hoye (He makes you understand a concept very easily. He doesn’t have to repeat it),” says Chatterjee about his coach.
And even in the middle of a tournament, he can pull off a trick or two. His son, Hirakjyoti, grins as he remembers, “I normally never get my father to a tournament as I get emotional. But this time, he was there and sitting in the stands. From over there, he just gave me indications on how to play....and managed to guide me to a win”.
When players do well, they immediately receive accolades. Their present coaches bask in the glory. But what about those who were there right at the beginning, those who put these champions on the path to glory? They get lost in the shadows. And some, like Pushilal, prefer living in those shadows, preparing the world for the next big thing.