Ever since the Bombay Talkies blockbuster Jeevan Naiya hit the screen in 1934, the name Ashok Kumar meant only one person in the sub-continent. One of the first megastars of Indian cinema, he remained at the top of the game for nearly 40 years.
On March 15, 1975, an inside striker, who, too, was named Ashok Kumar by his parents, overnight turned a national hero when he struck the match-winner against Pakistan in the World Cup final in Kuala Lumpur. As the team returned to India with the World Cup (for the only time to date), there were tumultuous celebrations.
“The distance from the Jhansi railway station to my ancestral home is not more than a couple of kilometres. It took me more than four hours to reach home after I got down from the train,” said Ashok Kumar, pushing 70, with a laugh. “Fans went completely crazy.”
Indian sport’s first family?
But, a brush with name and fame was not exactly a new experience for Ashok Kumar. He had come from a family, which already had five Olympic gold medals in the cupboard. Three belonged to his father, Dhyan Chand, arguably the greatest hockey player in history. The other two were bagged by his uncle Roop Singh.
Ashok, too, added a few medals to the collection. A bronze, a silver and the winners’ medal – all from the first three editions of the World Cups he played. He won a bronze in 1972 Olympics, and three silver medals in Asian Games. In the 70s, Ashok was arguably the world’s finest inside striker, a star by his own right, who did not have to refer to his father every time to make people take notice of him.
There are several examples of father and son duo shining for the country in Indian sport. Starting from Lala Amarnath-Mohinder Amarnath, Vijay Manjrekar-Sanjay Manjrekar, Vinoo Mankad-Ashok Mankad, Yograj Singh-Yuvraj Singh, Vece Paes-Leander Paes – there are many other such instances where two generation of sportspersons, who have done the country proud in sporting arena.
Few, however, can match the family of Dhyan Chand. Several from the family have played hockey with distinction and have donned the national colours sometime or the other. To say the Jhansi based family is like the first family of Indian sport won’t be an exaggeration though Ashok is reluctant to be dragged into this debate.
“Is it for me to say it? Won’t it sound like beating my own drum? It is for the people to judge and I will leave it to them. All I can say is that my entire family played hockey with lots of passion and people appreciated their skills.
“Let’s not start with cliché of discussing about my father’s class and ability as a hockey player. But remember, it was Dhyan Chand, who made people around the world realise the standard of Indian hockey during the 1926 tour of New Zealand. That was a huge thing for a nation, which was yet to gain independence. He was later joined by his brother Roop Singh in 1932 and 1936 Olympics. I was the third member of the family to play the Olympics,” he added.
The family’s hockey repertoire, however, speaks for itself.
“My uncles and brothers have all played hockey at some stage or the other, mostly at the national level. Roop Singh’s son Bhagat Singh played for India in exhibition matches. My elder brother Raj Kumar was a brilliant player, who captained Mohun Bagan and Bengal and played for India in tour matches. My other brothers Umesh Kumar, Davinder Singh were quality players. My niece Neha Singh represented the national team,” said Ashok.
Yet, none of the second generation players learned their game from Dhyan Chand. In fact, he didn’t even encourage them to pursue the sport. He, perhaps, would have liked them to concentrate in academics.
“You just asked me something about the first family of sport in India. Well, I don’t know what does it exactly mean. All I know that by 1936, my father had three gold medals in his home in Jhansi. But the same house didn’t have an electricity connection till 1963. He retired from the Army in 1956, but worked as a coach in various government positions for many years.
“Of course, he was sought after because of his knowledge and fame. But the reason he kept on working was that he needed a steady income to support a large family. There was definitely a time when he wanted to rest, but he had no option then,” said Ashok.
For the love of the game
There was no dramatic change in the lifestyle of the so-called first family even after Ashok Kumar returned home with the World Cup medal.
“I was employed with Indian Airlines. I used to take up flight purser’s duty regularly because it used to fetch me some extra allowance. My salary was ordinary. When I bought a flat in Delhi, I was burdened with too many loans. We were financially never too sound, but in terms of medals, few in India would be able to match our family,” he said with pride.
Indian hockey, Ashok feels, has often been ruined by politics. “It happened always, starting from the days when my father and uncle played the game. It was no different when I played. When I look back at 1972 Olympics, I still wonder why Surjit Singh, Balbir Singh or Inam-ur-Rehman did not make the squad. Had they been there, we would have never lost to Pakistan, I can say it confidently.”
Perhaps Dhyan Chand realised the futility of the process long before his son did. In 1975, when Ashok returned home from Kuala Lumpur, his father was unusually quiet amidst revelries all around.
“When I reached home, he was standing at the courtyard of our house with other family members. I stopped and touched his feet. He put his hand on my head for a few seconds but didn’t say a word. Then he slowly walked back into the house. Being a reserved man, that was probably the best way to express his appreciation. Believe me, it was one of the best moments of my sporting career. Because I knew he did not want us to play the game,” said Ashok.
He then, paused to add: “Babuji was aware how the system worked. Olympics were not held in 1940 and 1944. That would have added two more gold medals to his kitty. But still he knew it was impossible to change the system. And now, I also know it. That’s what leaves me frustrated at times. Because, first family or not, hockey will remain our family’s first love. Forever. Always.”