“I love you.”
The voice seemed a distant echo. Bhaskar Ghosh had just won his fifth successive National heavyweight boxing championship. It was a piece of cake but coming three months before the Asian Games, a confidence booster. He could see his coach, frail and ageing, shuffling up to him and say: “I love you, my son. But you need to concentrate.”
Now, as he lay in bed, his painful muscles reminding him of the battering of the previous night, his heart agonising over not heeding the old man’s advise, Bhaskar knew he had made a huge mistake in letting his ego get the better of him. He had allowed vanity to over-ride logic and paid a huge price, the sixth National crown had eluded him.
Had he walked out of the arena a winner again the previous night, life would have taken a turn for the better but now it was canopied by clouds of uncertainty. All the world loves a winner and, suddenly, he had just been relegated to the ranks of the has-beens. The three calls that he had taken through the morning all bore bad news, crashing his world.
The film he was to feature in was scrapped: the producer was curt, even rude, in saying that nobody wanted to watch a loser. The maker of the vitamin supplement scrapped the advertising contract. His employer was polite but it didn’t soften the blow: He would have to move away from the coastal town and get to a remote posting.
“How I wish I had listened to the old man. Chiranjeev knew me so well and I should have respected his analysis after the Asian Games,” Bhaskar thought aloud, visualising his erstwhile coach. The Asian Games defeat at the hands of Bangladesh boxer was unexpected but Chiranjeev Mishra had been ruthless in his analysis.
Bhaskar Ghosh recalled how Chiranjeev had lapsed into a strange silence in the wake of his defeat in the title clash. Suddenly, he had aged faster and withdrew into a shell, not speaking with anyone as if he – and not his ward — had been beaten in the Asian Games final.
Chiranjeev broke his silence the day they met in familiar territory, the indoor facility at the seafront college which had been their home for seven years. It was a day on which the sea seemed strangely silent, the mild breeze not even making an impact on the ear, the waves lapping the beach gently, even apologetically.
“Never assume. A-S-S-U-M-E,” the coach said spelling the word. “It only makes an ass of you and me. You assumed that your opponent would give up after you had asserted your dominance. And you told yourself that he is from Bangladesh, that he would be a pushover. I had been repeatedly telling you that complacency has no place in sport.
“Focus, Bhakar, concentrate. Do you realise you had allowed your mind to drift? I bet you were thinking of the rewards that the Government would have given you. And that was when he moved in to land that punch that felled you. Let’s work on keeping your concentration in tact. It is all about keeping your mind in the present.
“The higher you go, the lonelier it gets and the harder you have to work,” the coach said, with the same passion that he had shown in the years
Bhaskar knew in his heart that the coach was right. He had no defence to offer.
For nine years, he had led the life of a mendicant, staying away from the distractions that society offered. He never saw them as sacrifices made as he pursued excellence, developing speed, strength and stamina. The two Asian Championship titles established him as the man to beat.
He recalled the long run each morning on the sands of the desolate beach well before the sun shook itself from its slumber, the hours in the gym before breakfast, quality rest and then the three hours of warming up and boxing each evening. Such a routine meant that he hit the sack early, always embracing sleep as soon as he lay down in bed.
Bhaskar also recalled how he had been led to drift away from the coach who had given up everything to be with him. It was his erstwhile rival and sparring partner, Mahesh Thakur, who had put the idea into his head.
“Chiranjeev should accept he let you down by not doing enough homework on the challenger. He should have seen that ploy coming. Instead of accepting his failure, he is telling you that your concentration let you down. A change of coach is what you need,” Mahesh said.
That was the ego-massage that Bhaskar was looking for. Little did he realise that good advise is what he needed to hear and not what he wanted to hear. He dumped Chiranjeev quickly, ejecting the old coach without a care not pausing to think of the consequences – either his own or that of his coach.
It came as no surprise that Chiranjeev was quickly driven to penury. He had never looked beyond Bhaskar for financial rewards and this left him with no insurance for the future. His own philosophy of living it by the day had cost him dear when his best trainee had deserted him, taking along the younger flock too, and he had no fallback option at all.
The bout of typhoid in the weeks that followed the split left him weak of the body and with no energy to do much but he hadn’t trained 16 champions in three decades without being mentally tough. He had chosen to spend all his money and energies on being a mentor. But now he would not get another chance, not after Bhaskar left him.
Chiranjeev was quickly consigned to the sub-conscious as Bhaskar upgraded Mahesh from sparring partner to coach and agent at the same time. They defined the sixth National championship as the goal and also set about searching for corporates so that their own bank balances would get healthier.
It all seemed to fall in place so well. Until the previous night.
Waiting in his corner for the referee to complete the formalities, Bhaskar knew he had made the same mistake. Again. He could see freeze frames from the Asian Games final flash in his mind. In just a trice, he realised that the challenger, someone he had dismissed as only a pretender to his throne, had been trained to look for this weakness.
Late in the fourth round, he started to think about the ad campaign that he would shoot in the coming weeks. The powerful left hook that hit his jaw woke him up.
“Focus, Bhaskar. Concentrate.”
The voice was familiar but where did that come from? It did bring him back to the fight. The fifth round started in the same vein but with a minute and a half left for the bout to end he started thinking of the film that go on the floors the following week. And, about how he would get to romance the gorgeous Manisha on screen.
Disaster followed. The right hook came like a ton of bricks on to his jaw. Sprawled on the floor, he could hear the referee count “One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-…” before he blanked out and didn’t hear “…eight-nine-ten!”
As his seconds led him away from the ring, he glanced over his shoulders to spot Chiranjeevi in the stands. It was not difficult to find the old man in the motely bunch that was cheering the new champion, Jaspreet Singh. The smile on his gentle, wrinkled face was unmistakable. The small eyes gleamed. And the ageing lips formed the words: “Good luck, my son. God bless you.”
Bhaskar, not just bleeding from the gash below his left eyebrow but also hurting as much from the agony of the humbling defeat at the hands of the rookie, stopped in his tracks. In that one instinctive moment, he was grateful that the coach had taught him life’s greatest lesson.
Yet, Bhaskar surprised himself by whispering “I hate you, I hate you.”