King of Hockey

Sanjana Roy Choudhury

Avtar Singh Sohal Tari The Greatest Sikh Sportsman Away from India

Tari’s Hero: Major Dhyan Chand

Major Dhyan Chand is the ultimate hockey hero of Tari. It was thanks to him that Tari fell in love with the game. ‘I still remember the time when the Indian team came to Kenya in 1948 under the captainship of the great Dhyan Chand. Those were exciting times. The team boasted of several stalwarts like Leslie Claudius, Keshav Dutt, Walter D’Souza, Lawrie Fernandes, Ranganathan Francis, Gerry Glacken, Akhtar Hussain, Patrick Jansen, Amir Kumar, Kishan Lal, Leo Pinto, Jaswant Singh Rajput, Latif-ur-Rehman, and Balbir Singh. After watching the magician Dhyan Chand in a match, something changed in me. His dribbling and dodging were just something else. It was thanks to him that I developed a josh (madness) for the game. When he would play it was as if the ball was perpetually stuck to the stick. It was sheer magic! I can very confidently say that Major Dhyan Chand changed my life. In any case, we Indians in Kenya and East Africa used to adore him. Later I also had the opportunity to meet him. His son, Ashok Kumar, is a dear friend,’ says Tari.

How It All Began

Says Tari: ‘Besides my hero, Dhyan Chand, my father also encouraged me to play hockey. Those days there was little else to do. No distractions at all like today. Parents would accompany their children to the stadium and that would instill a great sense of discipline in us. We would be ready for practice at sharp five-thirty in the morning. Our evenings too were spent with coaches and the seniors of the game. So, in a sense, it was only hockey all seven days of the week. As we were under colonial rule at that time, browns and blacks were not admitted into “only whites” schools. However, come tournament time and we would be clashing with them!’

Heroes Galore!

Tari considers Balbir Singh Sr. as one of the greatest players of the game of hockey. ‘As a triple Olympic gold winner (1948, 1952 and 1956) I truly believe he was matchless.’ Balbir Singh Sr. is a most worthy inheritor of the mantle of ‘matchless’ during hockey’s golden era. But while the Major is still spoken of in near-mythical tones in hockey, partly because of his exploits at Berlin 1936 at the height of Hitler’s Nazism and largely due to the British imperialist perpetuation of the legend, it is staggering to believe that Balbir Singh is now near forgotten.

Sikhs in Kenya

One cannot discuss hockey and the rail network of Kenya without discussing the role played by Sikhs. Tari says that it was people from India, especially Sikhs that introduced hockey there. Mahan Singh Sandhu was elected president of the Kenya Hockey Union in 1957, and it goes without saying he was the life and soul of Kenyan hockey.

The backbone of the Kenyan national team has been the Sikh Union Club Nairobi. The Club that started as Khalsa Union in 1920 and became Sikh Union in 1926 fielded the majority of players in the national team and won most of the domestic trophies in the 1950s right up to 1978. It is a record that this side did not lose even one cup for seven consecutive years in the 1960s. Sikhs have represented Kenya at the Olympics, World Cups, East African Championships and Africa Cup of Nations. Says Tari, ‘We Sikhs cannot think of life without hockey. And hockey apart, mostly Sikh workers built the rail network of Kenya and neighboring Uganda.’

The 1972 Munich Olympics

This true Olympian to this day gets a tremor in his voice whilst recalling the gory terror attack that took place close to him at the 1972 Munich Olympics. His eyes fill with tears while recounting those moments when eleven Israeli athletes were killed in the attack. ‘It was a nightmare. I still remember shortly after the crisis began, the terrorists demanded the release of 234 prisoners jailed in Israel and the German-held founders of the Red Army Faction. And forty-four later, on 3 August 2016, two days prior to the start of the 2016 Summer Olympics, the International Olympic Committee officially honored the eleven Israeli sportsmen for the first time. It is a matter of great satisfaction that posts the Munich games, there has never been a repeat of such a terrible happening.’

Tari, a True Sikh

Tari is a deeply religious man. When in India, he visited Patna Saheb, Reetha Saheb, Hazur Saheb and other gurdwaras. He also went to his ancestral village Virk in Phagwara. Going to Reetha Saheb in Uttarakhand is an article of faith for him. He was accompanied by his wife Ripudaman Kaur and other friends from Kenya and performed sewa. Says Tari, ‘When I am in my village or Reetha Saheb I get a sense of being in the lap of Guru Nanak Devji. My wife, who is from Patiala, and I spend a lot of time visiting gurdwaras.’ At Reetha Saheb, he sponsored the building of thirty-five rooms for pilgrims.

Sanjana Roy Choudhury