Mihir Ghosh, the coach who battles prejudices to set in motion Naihati's table tennis revolution
Mihir, who had started his coaching career with 15 students and barely one table in 1982, now has 70 trainees and 12 tables at his academy. He aims to produce the next Sutirtha and Ayhika from Naihati.
Naihati, West Bengal: 'Rest in reason; move in passion,' said poet Kahlil Gibran.
For 41 years, Mihir Ghosh has been earnestly following this mantra to pursue his passion for developing and rearing a table tennis culture in a small but famous town called Naihati in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal.
Situated some 44 kilometers from Kolkata, Mihir entered the land of Rishi Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who wrote Vande Mataram, by accident in 1982. But over the years, he has purposefully developed an ever-lasting culture for table tennis.
Cut to 2023, Mihir is busy imparting training to budding players in a swanky facility on the Madral Road, built amid lush green environs, in the quest for his next stars.
Over the last four decades, the seed Mihir engrained has successfully grown into a fully blossomed tree. Naihati, the town on the banks of the Hooghly once famous for its historic connection with Bankim Chandra, has emerged as a boisterous hub for table tennis. Several state and national level players have emerged - the earliest player of repute was Amit Mukherjee, a cadet national champion. Now the town is back in the limelight due to the steady rise of the Mukherjees - Sutirtha and Ayhika, two of Mihir's most notable trainees.
Finding the table
Sutirtha and Ayhika learned the ropes of the game from Mihir as youngsters. The Naihati pair has burst into the top 20 in the world rankings in 2023 following their impressive run in the WTT Contender series.
Mihir's two trainees are now well in contention for a medal at the Asian Games.
But let alone a medal, there was a time when finding a place for training was a struggle. That struggle ended when a local institution - Naihati Athletic Club - approached the Bengal Table Tennis Association, looking for a coach.
"In 1982, when I was playing, we did not have a place for practice in North 24 Parganas. My coach, late Saroj Ghosh, told me that Naihati's Athletic Club has a facility and asked me and Tapan Dey to train children for four days in a month," the 63-year-old coach told The Bridge.
"The reason why I came to Naihati was because of the interest of the Athletic Club, and they have a table, and also because I belong to North 24 Parganas."
"I trained there for a month. But after that, they could not give us the remuneration," he said. But that did not stop Mihir, as he made his regional sentiment a priority.
"We did not leave Naihati. We continued with our practice. We had set a target to bring our district to the top grade. When we began, our district had nothing. In Bengal table tennis, it was among the worst performing districts."
"From 1986, we started getting good results. In 1988-89, one of our trainees, Amit Mukherjee, started playing well. In 1990, he became the national champion in the cadet category. He gradually became the best player in our state. Around the same time, I also became a full-time coach," stated Mihir.
'Begged on the road, slept at the station'
Mihir is a tenacious human being. Struggle has been his enduring companion. But he did not let that sneak into his mind. He dedicated himself to Naihati to make it a well-oiled pivot of the sport.
"Initially, we had one board. Later, we had bought two and then three. But for that, we had to beg on the road and sleep at the station. We used to train till late evening, so going back to my home in Baguihati was not feasible. We did not have a single penny in our pocket. From where would I arrange the bus fare? So, it was better to sleep at the station," said Mihir.
"Sometimes, we used to stay at students' houses as well, but it is not possible to stay there every night. We used to eat at their houses only," asserted Mihir, who has a family dedicated to table tennis. His wife Alpana Ghosh and their sons Arjun and Arinjit were also paddlers themselves.
"In the morning, we used to go to Ganges and take a bath and then would go to the club to train," he added.
Building the academy
Mihir left the Athletic Club in 1995 after things did not work out among the stakeholders. He would train his pupils at the Naihati Youth Association Club before establishing his academy.
"To build this academy, I spent more than Rs 1 crore. I had received Rs 77 lakh after my retirement in 2020. I had invested Rs 15,000 in the senior citizen scheme and spent the rest on this academy. And parents contributed Rs 10-12 lakh collectively," said Mihir.
Mihir, who had started his coaching career with 15 students and barely one table in 1982, now has 70 trainees, 12 tables, a lot of balls, and enthusiastic parents waiting in the corner of his academy to see the progress of their children.
But spending money alone was not enough to change the culture.
"Did Rome become a city in one day? It did not, right!" exclaimed Mihir.
"To build this academy, I had to sacrifice a lot and work hard. As you can see, there are 50 photographs (of his former wards) at the academy. All of them are employed. They were all my students. I have planted the seed for table tennis' growth in Naihati," Mihir boasted.
Amit, his first star student, also trains children at the Bijoynagar Table Tennis Academy in Naihati.
Battling prejudices and changing perceptions
More than the talent he unearthed, Mihir is proud of the fact that he has successfully changed the perception of the locality about girls playing table tennis.
"When I used to travel with my boys and girls together to tournaments, offensive comments were hurled at me. I had often been termed as a dirty person for encouraging girls to play the sport," recalled Mihir.
"But these comments never troubled me, my focus was only on producing players. When after many obstacles a batch of players came up and two of them got jobs, people started appreciating us. Everyone started thinking that playing table tennis is a way of getting a job," he explained. And that completely changed the perception.
Ayhika, employed at the Reserve Bank of India, said, "He is a hard-working coach. We have learned the definition of hard work from Mihir Kaku (uncle). He would spend the whole day and put a lot of effort into training the children. That we are playing at the highest level was possible because of his dedication."
Sutirtha of South Eastern Railways echoed Ayhika, "He has immense contribution to our careers and lives. Without his guidance, I would have never reached this level."
Since then, Mihir has become the point person for the parents.
"Here, the students mainly come to secure their life, to get a job, because people here are not rich," revealed Mihir.
"If you play table tennis, there is one guarantee. Those who are playing at the top level will not face any hardships in terms of livelihood. I have many students who did not get a job, but they will not die of hunger because coaching is a big profession today. All the English medium schools employ sports teachers. Here in Bengal, a coach earns Rs 20,000, but if you move to Mumbai, you will earn 70-80 thousand per month," said the coach.
Parents, too, do not hesitate to invest in the game now.
"All students pay Rs 1000 for multiball each year. And each student is charged Rs 2000 each month. We pay the coaches - there are six coaches - from this collection and save the remaining amount in the academy's bank account.
With the new facility - known as Mihir Ghosh Table Tennis Academy - coming into being in 2021, Mihir, a sexagenarian, finds new enthusiasm to carry on. He still makes the arduous two-hour journey daily, changing totos, trains, and auto-rickshaws multiple times to reach his Naihati academy.
Mihir runs the academy with a clear vision. "Those who became big names in Indian table tennis, I do not want them to train here. Their presence will consume my time. I want to produce the next Sutirtha and Ayhika of Naihati."