Manpreet Singh was too small to understand the intricacies. But he remembers waking up in the middle of the night after a knock on the door, his mother and two brothers gingerly opening it, and watching his father standing outside, expressionless and impassive.
Dad worked as a carpenter in Dubai,” Manpreet says. “I don’t know what had happened but one night, without any notice, he came back wearing the rugged, dusty clothes he’d worn to work.”
Life, as he knew it, had taken a tragic twist. His father, the family’s sole breadwinner, slipped into depression. “But we didn’t have money to take him to a good doctor. It was tough to see him in that condition. It hurt a lot,” Manpreet says.
As the youngest of three brothers, he was somewhat shielded from the struggles that followed. But that night instilled a sense of responsibility in him. “You think about events in life that shape you as a person,” Manpreet says. “For me, that was the moment.”
His voice quivers and those mischievous eyes turn moist. A couple of minutes later, a glowing smile returns on his face. “Everybody has sacrificed something to reach this far, not just me. So, it’s okay,” Manpreet says, typical of the man who wears his successes, failures and struggles lightly.
Unlike the captains of the Indian cricket and football teams, his popularity still hasn’t transcended his sport. A ViratKohli or a Sunil Chhetri are followed by millions, chased by brands and are superstars of their games. Why just cricketers or footballers, even some of India’s hockey stars have gained acclaim beyond the sport, across generations.
But the man who led India’s march to the Olympic podium after 41 years maintains a mysteriously low profile, perhaps, symptomatic of a system where it is frowned upon to have individual voices and identities.
When he speaks on official platforms, the jovial and quick-witted 29-year-old is careful and cautious, rattling off the clichés and sticking to the script, rather than delving deep. It’s in stark contrast to his personality on the turf, where he is spontaneous, speedy and daring. And because he doesn’t score goals in every match, rarely indulges in something flashy, isn’t a hypnotising dribbler like DhanrajPillay, or blessed with the vision and simplicity of Sardar Singh, Manpreet rarely gets the due attention.