12 March, 2008, 1 am: After an agonising flight from Santiago via Sao Paulo and Johannesburg, an exhausted Indian hockey team lands at the Mumbai airport and is immediately faced with clicking cameras and blinding flashlights. Microphones shoved close to their mouths, the players are asked to sing to the tunes of the reporters. Some of them even have the audacity to ask the players to smile for the camera. One of the players asks me, “Do you think these people would have come in such numbers had we qualified for the Olympics”?
Mumbai domestic airport, 2 am: The players troop in but there is not an empty chair on view. Sleepy, legs wavering, the players crowd around their baggage. A player comments, “Let us go to the toilet and sit on the commode!” I approach a “supervisor” of Jet Airways and request him for a place for them to relax till their flight departs at 7 am. I point to the players and tell him that they need rest as they have been without proper food and sleep for two days. The reply is curt, “Sorry, we are helpless, if they cannot find a vacant chair, they have to find some other way out.”
In walks a foreigner and the supervisor’s eyes light up. He checks him in and asks a pretty lady colleague to escort him to the VIP lounge. I protest. The supervisor has an explanation. “He is a business-class ticket holder, a VIP”. A few currency notes can buy a VIP status but a national player is a pariah in his own country!
3 am: Quite a few players have return tickets to Mumbai- Bangalore. At the time of booking, they were told that on return, they could re-route the tickets from Mumbai to their respective places. The players approach the Jet Airways counter. The response is straight. “No rerouting is possible”. Dejected, they check in for Bangalore.
Flashback: Balmier & Lawrie, the travel agents, got the privilege of sending the national hockey team to Santiago. They booked the Bangalore-Mumbai-Johannesburg-Sao Paulo-Santiago route — four flights, four countries, two domestic airports and three international airports and 44 hours of journey. The team reached the venue just two days before their first Olympic qualifying match. Lufthansa flies from Bangalore to Santiago through Frankfurt with only one change of aircraft at Frankfurt. Probably, the travel agents found it more profitable to send them through a strenuous route and in a less comfortable airline!
There is a silver lining to any cloud. Our team found an angel in our Ambassador to Chile, Mrs Sushmita Thomas.
She along with her staff and other Indians were at the ground to cheer for our players, proudly waving the Tricolour and beating drums. When we lost the final, though disappointed, she asked them to bury the defeat and look ahead for positive gains. She also went out of her way to ensure that one Indian meal was cooked every day by the families of her staff and sent to the players’ hotel.
It’s strange that we Indians have to travel abroad to experience patriotism.
The writer was the doctor of the Indian hockey team during the Olympic qualifiers in Santiago. The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org