India's Olympic bronze medallists, wrestler Sushil Kumar and boxer Vijender Singh, returned home to a euphoric reception from thousands of wildly cheering fans at the Indira Gandhi International airport in the wee hours of Tuesday.
The red-carpet might not have been laid out for the heroes but hinterland India from where the two young men hail came out in hordes carrying musical instruments to create the effect of an ensemble. There was a cacophony of drums to match the fireworks.
The convoy of cars was unending. The sound of drums was deafening as flowers rained on the new deities of Indian sport. Above all was the love and affection showered by the village folk.
It was a welcome that Indian cricketers would envy. It looked as if the entire Bapraula village of Najafgarh in West Delhi was there to receive their famous son Sushil. Not to be outdone, busloads of Vijender's fans from Bhiwani district of north Indian state of Haryana joined the streams of people engulfing the airport terminal. Add to that the Sushil's fellow-wrestlers from Chattarsal stadium and a large number of Delhi Akharas (wrestling clubs) and it was a crowd whose joy knew no bounds.
Village elders were carried up to the terminal, the womenfolk who seldom leave their homes appeared lost as they came to the airport for the first time and children were star struck seeing the two who have become their instant role models.
Some came to see their two childhood friends, who were unrecognisable in their new-found status this night. Some others came to see their next-door neighbours who have suddenly caught the imagination of a billion people. Then there were those who came to thank the brave men for giving their nondescript villages a face and name.
They all came by whatever mode of transport they could hitch on to. From Bhiwani the trains were full and the motor vehicles crammed. They all came to have a glimpse of the stars and if possible to pat them on their backs.
Everyone at the airport knew Sushil, Vijender, Jitender and Akhil. They all found a connection, claiming them to be either their relatives or friends. These boys have done us proud. Nobody had heard of Bapraula before. We are thankful to Sushil that he gave a medal to country. We always knew that he had the potential. In fact, we were sure he would win gold," said Surender Solanki, his cousin who had come in a flower-bedecked open-air jeep to take Sushil and his mentor Sat Pal at the head of a motorcade to the village.
If Abhinav Bindra's gold medal win was a watershed in Indian sport, the rural India went a step further to show the nation how to treat its heroes.
Sushil's mother Kamla Kumari came with food and flowers.
"I want to welcome him first. The entire family has come. The women in our households seldom stir out, but tonight they are all here. The village was all keyed up, preparing for this unforgettable day," she said.
For a middle-aged farmer from Bhiwani, the whole thing was like an inspirational folk story to be told and retold to the grandchildren.
The crowd started gathering hours before the arrival of the flight. As news filtered in that the Beijing Airways flight has landed, the excitement in the crowd ran high and the security men had a tough time controlling them.
Sushil and Vijender came out and the fans rushed to carry them on the shoulders. Soon the surging crowds overran the security barricade. People strained their necks to see the two champions, photopgraphers climbed over each other for a perfect click and reporters tried to get as close as possible for a byte. There was pandemonium as the security went haywire, clueless about how to control the crowd. Mercifully, nothing untoward happened as even the police seemed to enjoy the occasion.
Vijender was escorted out by politician and Indian Amateur Boxing Federation President Abhay Singh Chautala's posse of security guards. Sushil had no such luck and he was brought back to the main entrance. It was utter chaos as the police had a scrap with the lens men. Sushil was finally left for his village after half an hour when sanity was restored.
"I cannot explain how happy I am to see so many people turning up to receive me. This reception is motivational enough for me to work with renewed vigour to win gold next time," said Sushil.
Officials of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), including its president Suresh Kalmadi, secretary-general Randhir Singh also came by the same flight and, for a change, they had to take the backseat as the focus was on the heroes.
Sports Minister MS Gill and officials of his ministry, Sports Authority of India and the IOA were there greet the members of the Indian contingent.