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Player's Speak

When we planted the Indian flag in the heart of Pakistan | By Abhijit Bhattacharya

From feeling at-home in Pakistan to getting thrashed by their senior volleyball team in 1997 - a former Indian volleyball captain recalls their moment of vengeance.

India volleyball team pakistan islamabad abhijit bhattacharya

The jubilant Indian volleyball team in Islamabad, Pakistan (Source: Abhijit Bhattacharya)


Abhijit Bhattacharya

Updated: 9 March 2022 11:17 AM GMT

There cannot be bigger relief in a foreign country, than spotting a mug inside the toilet…! And that's precisely what made me feel at-home, way back in 1997 when I first landed in this country, which otherwise was supposed to be our by-default enemy number one - (you know it) Pakistan.

For reason best known to the Volleyball Federation of India, it was decided to send the Junior Indian Volleyball team (instead of the senior team) to participate in a seven-match volleyball test series with the Pakistan senior team in Islamabad and Lahore.
Since there was no direct flight from Delhi to Islamabad, we took a connecting flight via Lahore. It was at the Lahore airport washroom where I experienced my first
moment - hello mug! It was followed by a grand welcome at Islamabad which made us believe, for a brief while, that we were no less than Sunil Gavaskar or Kapil Dev. The excitement doubled when a convoy of four jeeps escorted our bus to The Best Western Hotel in Islamabad.
When the taste of loss overpowered the Karachi chicken
The delicious yellow dal fry, butter naan and butter chicken at the dinner buffet made me increasingly feel more at-home. The next morning at the practice session in Muhammad Ali Jinnah Indoor stadium, the team was pumped with confidence. We prepared a strategy to beat the Pakistan team in the evening. But, all our excitement and confidence was punctured within 24 hours of landing in this neighbour's country.
The mighty senior team of Pakistan beat us in 3 direct sets, in front of their home crowd. We were humiliated, dejected and felt like running away from the stadium. That day at the dinner table, even the Karachi chicken curry could not tease our appetites - the loss was heavy to digest.
In three days, Pakistan led 3-0 in the seven-match test series. I had never read Urdu in my life, but in those three days, I could make out what those captions were all about in the sports pages of the local newspapers!

Feeling at-home in Pakistan

The Faisal Masjid, Islamabad (Source: Rehan Jamil/ResearchGate)

There was a rest day before playing the last match in Islamabad. So, to make us feel better, our coach G E Sridharan, took out for sightseeing. Islamabad was a new city, established in the '60s. Looking at the government buildings, Faisal Mosque, neat and clean surroundings, no traffic jam, we envied. How come a Pakistani city was so beautiful?

Only, when we were taken to Rawalpindi, which is on the outskirts of Islamabad, we felt at-home again. Crowded, congested and full of the bustling middle-class population like us - why, this was a ditto image of our own country!

During our five-day stay in Islamabad, I became close to the bus conductor. He was around 14 years old. We both used to share stories from our villages. Listening to his stories, I felt life in both countries is almost the same. I named him Sukhvir, as his face resembles my friend Raghuvir's brother, Sukhvir Singh. Sukhvir was our lone silent supporter in the foreign land.

A surprising jeans talaash

Fortunately, we managed to win the last match and went to Lahore on a winning note to play the remaining three matches. At Lahore, our humiliation continued and finally, we felt relieved when the series ended 5-2 in favour of Pakistan. After the matches were over, we were taken to the famous Anarkali market, one of the most famous markets of undivided India. We spotted a photograph of Nehru Ji at one of the famous sweet shops. Mr Nehru visited Anarkali Market during the Lahore Session of the Indian National Congress in 1929.
After tasting the famous triple layer ice cream of Anarkali Market, my friend Kapil (now an Arjuna Awardee and a namesake of Kapil Dev) and I dodged the security guards and went to one of the narrow gullies in search of low-cost jeans.
With little cash in hand, we started bargaining. Since, they spoke Urdu which is quite similar to our Hindi, but slightly different in accent, the shopkeepers initially thought that we were from Peshawar. But, after a while, they became convinced that we were neither from Peshawar nor Karachi but from a completely different place.
They desperately wanted to know if we were from Kabul or any other place. I explained to them that if we disclose our home town, they would never offer us a discount. Hearing our conversation few more nearby bystanders, arrived. Finally, I had no other option but to tell them that we were from India.

The atmosphere completely changed upon discovering that we were from Hindustan. More people gathered around the jeans shop. We were offered chai, ice cream, samosa, chole bhature and much more.
"Bhaijan, aap Hindustan se aaye ho, aap humare mehman ho, humko aapka seva karne ka mauka dijiye" they requested, to our utmost mirth.
The shopkeepers were quite enthusiastic to know more about Hindustan and their people. Once again I felt at-home. Soon, I realized they know more things about India than I knew as an 18-year-old-boy about my country. We became instant celebrities.
As the word spread, the crowd grew larger, the security guards arrived and escorted us away. Quickly, I tried to pay for the jeans but Iqbal Bhai, the shopkeeper was in no mood to take the money. Somehow I kept the money on the table and left with my first ever pair of jeans. I had never worn jeans in my life, till then.
The next day we left Pakistan after facing a humiliating defeat but carried loads of beautiful memories with us.

A grudge against the 'dhai kilo ki haath'

The humiliating defeat was to be avenged. So, 7 years later we once again arrived at Islamabad for the South Asian Games in 2004. General Musharraf was the chief guest at the opening ceremony. It was a mega event as per Pakistan standards. After the Kargil War, it was for the first time a multi-nation sports event was hosted by Pakistan.

The next, day after the practice session was over, I heard a familiar voice calling my name from behind. It was our old friend Sukhvir. We hugged each other. Later, he came to our hotel to meet us. He brought biscuits, chocolates and a bottle. In Pakistan bottle is referred to as cold drinks. The security guard refused him entry but with our personal intervention, he was allowed inside the hotel.
Over a cold drink, we discussed our life. Then he told me of his desire to see the Taj Mahal and visit Ajmer Sharif once in his lifetime. He told me that he liked everything about India except for three people. When I asked him who those three people are he named a senior Indian politician, who became popular through Rath Yatra's and a popular veteran right-wing leader from Maharashtra.
When I asked him who the third person was, he shied away from naming. Only after my repeated perusal, did he finally say it was Sunny Deol, "Kyu ki, Sunny Deol Pakistani' o ko bahut kutdha hai".
We could not stop ourselves and rolled out on the floor laughing!

The tricolour moment in the heart of Pakistan

A newspaper cutting with the report of India's victory (Source: Abhijit Bhattacharya)

At the Games, we beat Sri Lanka in the semi-final to meet Pakistan in the finals. It was the same Pakistan team, the same Muhammad Ali Jinnah Stadium and the same crowd where we faced humiliation seven years ago. The only difference was, we were seven years experienced with an old score to settle. At the finals, the stadium was overpacked. I remember our only supporters were the Indian Badminton team of Jwala Gutta, Aparna Popat, Oli Deka, Krishna Deka, Vidya and Chetan Anand cheering for us from one corner of the stadium.

Y Subba Rao (Source: A Sanesh)

The game stretched to the deciding set. It was a super tensed moment, at India leading 15-14. The crowd was so loud that we were unable to listen to each other. Finally, a return cross-court spike from Y Subba Rao silenced the entire stadium. It took us some time to realize that we won the gold medal beating Pakistan in Pakistan.

The team held each other's arms in a circle and sent a silent Thank you message to our God's. The joy was in taking the victory lap across the stadium, with Subba Rao, the captain of the Indian team and an ONGC'ian leading from the front, holding the Indian flag. We would never forget those 52 seconds in our life when the tricolour was hoisted and we all sang the National Anthem at the heart of Islamabad.
The author is a former captain of the Indian Volleyball team and the Founder of the Brahmaputra Volleyball League and Mentor of Kolkata Thunderbolts at the Prime Volleyball League and works for ONGC.
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