From this particular point that I am at right now, this point in life- the one thing I can be entirely sure of saying is that I have no regrets so far. I look back on my journey, and it seems to be numerous incidents of struggle tied up and anchored with the one thing I love the most- badminton. But it has been worth it. Every second of it,
I grew up on the outskirts of Kolkata. However, the place I used to practice was right on the opposite side of the City of Joy from where I lived. Since the age of 8, this used to be my regular schedule- School- 9am-2pm, travelling to my academy for the next two hours, practice till 9 pm and begin the two-hour long journey back to reach home at almost midnight. It was tough, but that is what passion does to you. I did nothing out of the ordinary.
However, by the time I was 17, I realised that I needed to sacrifice some pretty essential things if I was to make my game a priority. For nine years before that, the legendary curator and coach of Bengal Badminton, the late Badal Bhattacharya, and Laltu Guha had trained me up to a certain level. While Badal da passed away last year, Laltu sir continues to hold up the banner of a rapidly fading badminton legacy in the city. Under them, I won the State Championships in my age category and, as is the norm, was promptly offered a government job at the Food Corporation of India.
I should mention here that my family was in dire financial need at this point in time. My elder brother, the sole provider for the family after we lost our father, had gone out of his way to finance my training thus far. My elder sister had spent valuable hours accompanying me back and forth to my training five days a week. I knew it all- the importance of the money and the stability this job would most certainly provide. But I turned down the job offer because I knew it would eventually take me away from the court and my game.
So, at 17, I decided to leave home. To run away. I had no money apart from some 500/- bucks that I used to buy my ticket away, no support- yet the Bombay Badminton scene called to me. Who was I to ignore it? I was lonely because it was a time when family members were moving away for some reason or the other. There was nothing left for me at home.
From Bombay…to Bangalore…to Denmark
Bombay can be overwhelming. Initially, I stayed at the home of my coach there in the city- completely dependant on him for my basic survival. Here I was, a runaway from Kolkata without a penny in my pocket. Thankfully, in three months I got my first scholarship which was also my first stable source of income. A stipend of INR 12,000/- each month courtesy the HPCL scholarship.
Several phases passed. My performance bettered. I proved to be fierce competition to all the top players in the National circuit back then. But as two years passed, the regionalist bias in favour of the local population of Maharashtra came up. Frankly, I had no backing or anyone, really who would be willing to vouch for me. I started getting sidelined, and I decided to step away. I moved to Bangalore- Tom John’s Academy. That’s when the professional and international dream seemed a little plausible. Tom John used to formerly coach the national team of Great Britain and his work with the shuttlers there is exemplary. By around 2014, I was good enough to beat Ajay Jayaram who also trained there. That’s another cherished phase. A few years later I even defeated Sai Praneeth in the Nationals.
But I was still restless. There had to be better places I could go to. I was the top player in the country back then. I decided to go to Malaysia and train for a month. The same story ensued again. People advised me against it. The ones supporting me in my game threatened to stop should I go forward with the Malaysia plan. But my stubborn, willful nature meant that once I had decided on something, I would get it done. I did go to Malaysia and a month later, circumstances put me in the European Club badminton scene. That’s how I ended up in Denmark. Ikast Badminton Club stands out from this phase.
The thing about this club was that there were never nearly enough players who could be my training partners. They were all juniors and few. I remember going to play in Portugal once during my stint there. I won the tournament all right, but the thought of returning to Ikast was just unbearable. I was that depressed with the scenario there.
Has a place ever called out to you despite there being nothing special about it?
It did to me. Returning from Portugal, I had to land at Copenhagen and continue to Ikast by road for the next four hours. But, oh, the thought of going back there. I remember there was a Burger King at the airport there. It just seemed friendly and welcoming and full of positive energy. I ended up spending two days at the airport- just eating from Burger King, chatting with a friendly airport staff member, sleeping on a bench with my luggage. It was the happiest I had been in Europe- just a break from the monotony that Ikast had brought into my life.
A year later, once my stint with Ikast ended, I decided to never again go to Denmark in my life. But well, man proposes and life disposes of it. I will say this for Ikast though. I did manage to play a lot of international tournaments during my time there, and my ranking improved. A year later, I was signed on by Greve Badminton Club in Copenhagen because, thankfully, I had managed to catch some right eyes. So, see- the struggle, the depression, ultimately it was worth it. I still am associated with Greve. Still in Denmark. The only difference this time is that I’m happy.
When you finally live a dream…
As a kid, I used to have legitimate dreams about playing against Lin Dan. I had a massive poster of him beside my bed, and those dreams often ended in mixed results. Sometimes I beat him, most often he beat me. The rare times I did beat him, though, I remember waking up thinking that I would never celebrate if ever it happened to me for real.
So when I faced my idol at the SaarLorLux tournament, I did not look at him even once before the match started. I could not afford to be star struck. This was an important game. This was the time that I could prove myself. I did hold my own against him. I felt that he probably underestimated me a little. By the time I beat him, all I could do was put my head down; no celebrations. I just walked up to the net and told him “Thank you”. A thank you for inspiring the love of the game in me, a thank you for ensuring that I loved something enough to give up everything else for it.
It was clear he really wanted to win because an Olympic qualification was dependant on his form. I did not speak to him beyond this. He left for home the next day. And I was left in awe at what just transpired.
The only way to get through life is to turn your weaknesses into your strengths.
I learnt it throughout my roller coaster journey in 25 years. A little secret each one of us has trouble believing is that we are often strong enough to go through whatever life throws at us. Each of us is forged in adversity- different kinds of difficulties but they’re always there. If you’re lucky, you’ll find your passion and you will stick to it.
I was an outsider my entire life. But it never bothered me because now, everything I have today, I can proudly say that all of it is to my credit. Just mine. I’ve seen the badminton scene inside out, and now, when I have my Academy in Kolkata, I know precisely the change I want to see.
It has not been a bed of roses. But we’ll get there.
Even now, I make do without a personal trainer and a meagre sponsor that allows me to play only four tournaments per year. I average around 17 tourneys a year; I pay for the rest myself.
My Academy now has an Indonesian Coach to train the kids, good shuttles and even a national level gymnast who comes in on weekends to perfect stretching exercises among my students. The situation is better, so much so that I now have children coming to West Bengal to learn Badminton- something unthinkable because, in all my living memory, Bengal has never been associated with good coaching for a particular sport. There are children from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan and, believe it or not, even Denmark! How the tables turn. Two of my students also qualified to play the Nationals this year after training for six months.
The happiness you get when you finally achieve something you’ve spent your life pursuing cannot be described. I began by saying that I have no regrets. I don’t. I have needs though, which would help me sustain myself as a player. A trainer, an investment- things that would go a long way in helping me. I won Silver at Dubai International and I played the final with a back strain.
But there’s the “outsider” tag again which probably prevents things from working out well. Outsider, journeyman- I have heard them all. It’s never broken my spirit. It never shall.
In a nutshell, however, life is good. I’ve done exactly what I have always wanted to do. Sometimes, it’s okay to take that plunge even though it is almost always scary to do so. Difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations.
Things can always be better but, like me, at least you will not look back at life one day and ask yourself, “What if”?
I, Subhankar Dey, the outsider, know the answers to all my ‘what ifs.’