Sports in India are a microcosm of life and death. Or so it seems two days after the nation's cricket team has beaten Pakistan in a 1996 World Cup quarterfinal. "This morning's Hindi papers say a student in Pakistan shot his television after the match," says Nitin Kohli, 25, while driving through the city of Jalandhar. "Then he shot himself." The victory puts India in a semifinal in Calcutta against Sri Lanka, a game India will forfeit in mid-match when the home fans, upset that their side is trailing, set fire to the stadium. Indian suicides will duly follow.
Jalandhar is on the Grand Trunk Road, the millennia-old trade route that Rudyard Kipling called the "river of life." But the real river of life in sports-crazed India is a road called the Basti Nau, an extraordinary milelong thoroughfare flanked on both sides exclusively by sporting-goods stores, dozens and dozens of them spilling soccer balls and cricket bats and boxing gloves into the chaotic, donkey-cart-choked roadway.
Just off the Basti Nau, Kohli's family manufactures field hockey sticks. Field hockey is India's national sport, and this city of 50,000 is home to 127 stick manufacturers. Jalandhar is located in the northern part of the state of Punjab, the heart of hockey in India.
Kohli, who's showing a visiting reporter around, drives out of the city and eventually pulls up at his destination, the neighboring village of Sansarpur. Dusk and dust fall on a dirt hockey pitch. In the last 64 years this village of 3,000 has sent 25 field hockey players to the Summer Games, which must be a per capita Olympic record. Kohli and the reporter are greeted by a slight, turbaned 68-year-old who played in four Olympics from 1952 to 1964. Udham Singh is a national hero. He is happy to recount his hamlet's history.
"The British army brought hockey here at the turn of the century, during the Raj," he says in the practiced tones of a tour-bus driver. "The village's first Olympian was Colonel Gurmit Singh, in 1932."
Even though India had won the gold medal in field hockey at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, the late Colonel Singh nearly missed the '32 Games because the hockey team had no money for the trip to Los Angeles. An influential Indian journalist was dispatched to visit Mohandas K. Gandhi. The newspaperman implored the great spiritual leader to appeal to the public for funds for the hockey squad. Replied the Mahatma: "What is hockey?"
Soon all of India would know. Between 1928 and 1964, the country won seven of the eight men's Olympic-gold medals in field hockey. It has won eight in all, the last coming in 1980.
The sport lay fallow in India throughout the terrorism-plagued 1980s, when radical Sikh separatists in Punjab carried out sectarian violence, acts that culminated in the 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. The man credited with getting rid of terrorism in troubled Punjab—a largely Sikh state in predominantly Hindu India and abutting Muslim Pakistan—is K.P.S. Gill, who was the state's daunting chief of police from 1988 until last year. It is a measure of field hockey's importance that Gill now heads the sport's national federation.
Gill's position also reflects the traditional link in Punjab between field hockey and law enforcement. Many prominent Punjabi policemen are former hockey stars who joined the force after playing for Punjab Police, a club team sponsored by the department. Punjab Police is perhaps the best of India's 3,700 field hockey teams, which are funded by companies and governmental bodies.
The new chief of police in Punjab is Surinder Singh Sodhi, who was the second-leading scorer in the '80 Olympics. Sodhi, 39, is a giant man with the strength and, like all Sikhs, the hair of Samson. Affixed to the garden gate of his home is a brass plate inscribed with the Olympic rings and the words OLYMPIA NEST, Sod his name for his two-story brick residence, which houses some 2,000 medals, magazine covers and other mementos of his career. Among these is a framed photograph of Sodhi with Indira Gandhi. "Win," says Sodhi, his flowing hair tucked beneath a mustard-colored turban, "and of course you will get the glory."