© Wisden India

I have waited for so long this moment, and I really don’t have words: Bhengra, on meeting Sunil Gavaskar. © Wisden India

Gopal Bhengra isn’t a household name in India. Not even in Ranchi. Or, for that matter, not even in his village, Vyur Gurai, some 55 kilometres from the Jharkhand capital.

He should be, of course, having represented the Indian hockey team at the highest level with distinction, and played in the 1978 World Cup in Buenos Aires when the Indians narrowly failed to make it to the semifinal. But such is the disrespect and utter callousness with which we treat our sporting heroes of an era gone by from supposedly less glamorous sports, that Bhengra was left to fend for himself by breaking stones in a quarry, and living in a house made of mud, straw and wood in his native village.

This was till the late 1990s, when Bhengra used to receive a monthly pension of Rs 1475 after retiring from the Indian Army in 1979, and had to supplement that measly amount by doing a menial job – 100 crushed stones would fetch him Rs 50 – to keep his family going. He lived in relative anonymity, not knowing when, or whether, his life would change.

It did, thanks in the main to Sunil Gavaskar, whose initiative CHAMPS – an acronym for Caring, Helping, Assisting, Motivating, Promoting Sportspersons – Foundation took Bhengra under its wing and provided him with a monthly stipend.

For nearly 18 years now, Bhengra has been receiving a cheque for Rs 7500 every month. And Bhengra isn’t the only beneficiary of the CHAMPS Foundation’s desire to provide forgotten, ignored sportspersons forced to live a life of penury due to apathy from the officialdom. Over the years, CHAMPS has also provided monthly stipends to Premjit Lall, the tennis player, Sami Khatow and Krishna Gaikwad, the boxers, Salim Durrani, the cricketer, and A Palaniswamy, the volleyball player.

One of Bhengra’s fondest wishes over the years has been to meet up with Gavaskar, and that wish came true on a muggy Sunday afternoon as the cricketing genius and the hockey maestro caught up. There was deference from the somewhat rugged Bhengra, and there was respectful admiration from the supremely sophisticated Gavaskar.

“Honoured to have met a gold medallist, a champion player, a hockey World Cupper,” Gavaskar told Wisden India. And when it was pointed out to him that Bhengra shared a similar sentiment, he said, “What have I won for him to feel that way? It is entirely my privilege that he came all the way here so we could meet.”

The meeting at the JSCA International Stadium was organised by an official of the Jharkhand State Cricket Association. “I am just so delighted,” the shy and unassuming Bhengra was to whisper in Hindi. “I have waited for so long this moment, and I really don’t have words.”

 He didn’t need to say much; his expression and the mistiness in his eyes said it all.

Gavaskar was suitably embarrassed. “I am so happy that you are here. It is not every day that one gets to meet a real champion.”

Bhengra had come suitably armed with an embroidered shawl, which this part of the country is famous for; accepting the gift with humility, Gavaskar presented Bhengra with a gift of his own, a replica of an India Blue T-shirt that the hockey hero had slipped into by the time he came to bid Gavaskar goodbye after a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

“Honoured to have met a gold medallist, a champion player, a hockey World Cupper,” Gavaskar told Wisden India. And when it was pointed out to him that Bhengra shared a similar sentiment, he said, “What have I won for him to feel that way? It is entirely my privilege that he came all the way here so we could meet.”

Last week in Dubai, Gavaskar had a fan-boy moment when he ran into Prakash Padukone, the badminton giant who for long has been one of his heroes. This Sunday had a different vibe to it; it was more empathy and gratitude, mutual reverence and respect, as India’s most successful opener exchanged notes with a dribbler par supreme who will always lead his life in the shadows.