In the warm southern California summer of 1932, a group of young and colourfully-dressed athletes caught the attention of the residents of the Olympic host city. Angeleños, as the residents of Los Angeles were called at that time, had been expecting to see exotic looking foreigners, but even so, it would have been hard for many of them to not take a second look at turbaned Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus from faraway India.
Accounts from diaries from the 1930s suggest that one 20-year-old with his trademark moustache and turban caught the attention of both athletes and fans. This hockey player from Shergarh, in what was then the Montgomery district of western Punjab, was one of the rising stars of the Indian hockey team: Sayed Mohammed Jaffar Shah (SM Jaffar), who played the left-out (forward) position.
Like his teammates, who undertook the 42-day journey by ship from Colombo to California, SM Jaffar could have easily been distracted by the attractions that Hollywood offered, but his focus on the hockey was unwavering. “This charming athlete from India, this sheikh from the deserts of Montgomery, this man who carried with him something of an atmosphere of vast extensive plains and cornfields and open air wherever he went, attracted many admirers,” writer Syed Ahmed Shah, better known as Patras Bokhari, wrote in an essay in the 1930s. “But this stranger with a manly moustache had the modesty of a village virgin that was both fascinating and forbidding.” SM Jaffar was Bokhari’s student at the Government College in Lahore.
Jaffar had a reputation of being a disciplinarian to the core. He even eschewed coffee, as his only attempt at drinking the beverage resulted in the loss of an entire night of sleep. “Myriads were the temptations in the way of a young man so far away from his mother and his father and his friends and dear ones at home,” Jaffar was quoted as saying by Bokhari. The hockey player, who was a hawking and hunting enthusiast and a regular patron of Amritsar’s hawk sellers, chose to spend his free time in Los Angeles visiting the zoo and the city’s lion farm.
It was a foregone conclusion that the Indian team, which won the gold medal in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, would crush the only two opponents – the Unites States and Japan. Like the ongoing Tokyo Olympics, which have lost their sheen because of the global pandemic, the Los Angeles games had reduced participation on account of the Great Depression. Only 37 nations participated in the 1932 Olympics, compared to 46 in Amsterdam four years earlier. The Indian team, divided by groupism between Anglo-Indians and others (the captaincy went to Lal Shah Bokhari), beat the United States 24-1 and Japan 11-1 to win the gold.
“I have had the privilege of seeing many cuttings from American newspapers and I can say without the least fear of contradiction that no other player was more popular, more skilful and more highly praised than Jaffar, with perhaps the solitary exception of Dhyan Chand,” Syed Zulfiqar Ali Shah, who was Jaffar’s teacher at Lahore’s Aitchison College, wrote in 1937. Shah, who would later become the principal of the prestigious Lahore institution, added, “…and what was true at Los Angeles, was equally true at the time of the Olympic Games in Berlin.”
Road To Berlin
After returning to Lahore, Jaffar immersed himself in his studies. He completed his degree and was appointed Extra Assistant Commissioner of Lahore and even took the Indian Police Competitive Examination. His hockey career also continued to flourish. By 1936, he was the captain of the Punjab hockey team at the inter-provincial hockey tournament in Calcutta. The tournament, won by host Bengal, was used as a selection criterion for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In a country which had several strong hockey sides such as Bengal, Bombay, Bhopal and Manavdar, just two players from Punjab were selected – Jaffar and Gurcharan Singh. Despite a request from the hockey authorities, the Indian Army initially refused to grant superstar Ali Iqtidar Shah Dara leave to play for the national side.
When it was time to select the captain of the Indian team, there were three candidates: Dhyan Chand, Jaffar and Manavdar’s MN Masood. “The IHF [Indian Hockey Federation] met at Delhi sometime in April to select the captain and officials of the tour,” Dhyan Chand wrote in his 1952 autobiography. “For the office of the captain, three names were put up – Jaffar, MN Masood and myself. Jaffar subsequently withdrew in my favour.”
It is widely accepted that the 1936 Indian team was the greatest to ever take the field in the history of the sport. Two-time defending champions, they were the favourites to win the gold, but the German side was a formidable opponent.
Panic seized the Indian team when they lost a warm-up game to the Germans by a score of 4 to 1. Dhyan Chand and Jaffar requested the army to release Dara for the tournament, and the legend was flown in to Germany a day before the semi-final. Till that point, India had little trouble in the tournament, easily defeating Japan, Hungary and the United States. The champions then crushed France 10-0 in the semis.
The final between India and Germany was witnessed by 40,000 spectators, most of them cheering for the home side. India had some supporters in the stand too, including members of the Baroda and Bhopal royal families as well as some Indians who lived on the continent. The clinical performance of the Indian team, which won 8-1, threw the theory of Aryan Supremacy to the bottom of the Spree River that runs through the centre of Berlin. In a match where Dhyan Chand scored three goals, Dara added two and Jaffar contributed to the tally with a solitary goal. India could have easily scored more, but Dhyan Chand decided to give the “rough” Germans a “lesson in ball control” and the Indian team toyed with their opponents, moving the ball around endlessly.
“During the tour, he was a very great asset to the team, both on and off the field, and was highly praised by the German press,” Syed Zulfiqar Ali Shah wrote about Jaffar. “…He was Dhyan Chand’s right hand man and extremely useful in maintaining the morale of the team.”
The Olympic gold in hockey would stay in the subcontinent until 1972, with India winning gold in 1948, 1952, 1956 and 1964 and Pakistan doing so in 1960 and 1968.
A Tragic End
Unlike Olympic legends, Dhyan Chand and Ali Dara, SM Jaffar, who was at the peak of his athletic abilities in the mid-1930s, would not live to see the departure of the British from the subcontinent.
On the morning of March 21, 1937, Jaffar, an avid hunting enthusiast, went on a duck shoot with his friends on the banks of the Ravi River, near Lahore. The Olympian waded into the river to retrieve a duck that his dog was unable to get. Unknown to the party, the duck fell near a whirlpool in waist-deep water. Jaffar was sucked in, and his boots got caught in the reeds in the water. Despite being a skilled swimmer, he could not set himself free. The two-time Olympic gold medallist drowned in front of his friends in the Ravi. He was 25.
“It is too painful for me to recall here the incident of his most tragic death, which has deprived us of a brilliant ‘Old Boy’ of whom we were all unreservedly proud; no institution will mourn the death of Jaffar more than Aitchison College, of whose products he was the finest example,” Syed Zulfiqar Ali Shah wrote.
SM Jaffar is remembered as an all-time hockey great in Pakistan. As a tribute to his contribution to hockey, Aitchison College constructed a hockey pavilion in 1939. The Ali Institute of Education in Lahore organises an annual hockey tournament in his name. In India, however, his name is known only among the diehard hockey fans of a much older and dying generation. Perhaps a celebration of the legacy of such common heroes of the subcontinent would act as a catalyst for better relations between the South Asian countries?
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.