About 55 kilometres from Chandigarh, in the general direction of Amritsar, lies the tiny village of Phoolpur Grewal. It seems to have been forgotten by whoever blessed the prosperous farmlands of Punjab that lie on either side.
So it’s no surprise then that this rural community of 500 is also home to the family of a man long forgotten by India, so much so that his name doesn’t even evoke the faintest flicker of memory in most.
Teja Singh was 26 years old and India a vibrant, newly independent nation when he ran to a silver medal in the 400m hurdles at the inaugural Asian Games in March 1951 in New Delhi.
It was a time for fresh beginnings, a time for young India to prove her worth and people like Teja Singh got the country off to a blazing start. India celebrated but forgot the hurdler, and his family.
Apparently bitter, cynical, Teja, who got a job with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), died in 1978 in an on-duty accident. One of his two sons was given a job in the ITBP on compensatory grounds.
For years, Kuldeep Kaur, Teja Singh’s wife, daughter-in-law Manjeet and his two grandchildren made a meagre living by living off the Rs 2500 ITBP pension, selling milk from the two buffaloes they owned and tilling the lone acre of land they had.
Kuldeep died four years ago, her husband’s feat an indifferent, indistinct memory but for Manjeet, there’s not even that.
“Neither I nor my children have any idea about Teja Singh’s achievement or anything you’re asking about,” she says, somewhat bewildered.
All they know is that once upon a time, Teja Singh “used to run”. They have forgotten where his medal lies, or even whether they sold it to have a meal.
All they have to mark his association with sport are two certificates from 1951 and ‘52 national championships and three cups, dumped in one corner of their shanty. For them, all that matters is how to plan on making ends meet.
“If Teja Singh was such a great athlete, then why did the government not come forward to support his wife, who went through hell,” asks Manjeet.
The government’s pension policy for Olympic, Asian and Commonwealth Games medallists is restricted to players themselves.
Unlike in cricket, there is no provision to extend that pension to their wives after their death.
We have no answer to Manjeet’s question.
So we move away from Phoolpur Grewal and silently drive to Burjwala, 10 kilometres away, another village of 500, to meet with another Asian medallist and another story.
Sarwan Singh, now a sprightly 80, was, in fact, inspired to run by Teja’s feat and went on to take a rare athletics gold for India in the 110m hurdles at the 1954 Asiad.
“Teja Singh was a great source of inspiration for us, he was my mentor,” says Sarwan, who drove a taxi for over 20 years after his retirement from the Army in 1970.
“I had no choice after being retired as a subedar at the age of 40. My medal counted for nothing, no one would give me a job, my pension wasn’t enough and I had a family to support,” says Sarwan.
“I took a bank loan and bought a taxi, and after driving for 22 years along the Ambala highway, I made enough to give up and come back to my village.”
Unlike Teja, who died forgotten, Sarwan started getting a government pension in recognition of his gold medal a few years ago. It was a little bit but thankfully, it wasn’t too late.