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Lone Ranger
Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena and Photographs by Gagandeep
Published: Volume 18, Issue 4, April, 2010

Almost two years ago, shooter Abhinav Bindra grabbed the coveted gold at Beijing and catapulted into the collective eye of the nation. With the Commonwealth Games looming large on the calendar, Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena air dashes to Chandigarh to get in close range with the Olympian with the Midas touch, who unwinds about his inner fears, recent controversies and the future

Circa 2008, August 11. Indian Olympic history was upgraded by a young Indian at Beijing. Few of us can forget that moment seen on our small screens when the shooting star narrowed his eyes and took his sights to fire the deciding shot…. Tense seconds later, the world erupted around him, while he stood seemingly still, smilingly silent. The Olympic medal – the Holy Grail that all individual athletes, participating in any sport dream of – was his. Abhinav Bindra had writ his name in gold.

Circa 2010, February 4. Almost two years later, amidst an ongoing brouhaha over selection policies for major tournaments – where Abhinav stuck to his guns, insisting his track record at international tourneys be the benchmark for his selection – he silenced carping Cassandras by firing off a gold-winning score at the Inter Shoot Championships in the Netherlands.

Driving out from the Chandigarh airport to the farmhouse where I am headed, I have spotted more Sardars in colourful turbans and pagdis than I have ever seen on a single day anywhere else.... The taxi swerves to a stop, the darwans spot us through the glass window of their enclosure and the huge gates – with ‘Bindra’ emblazoned on them – open inwards. We drive up the small curving road lined with trees beyond which can be seen beautifully manicured lawns and a tennis court further up. Soon, we park near the spotlessly clean portico of the place that Abhinav Bindra calls home.

Vivek Nigam, the gentleman who manages most of the shooter’s professional affairs, walks out, and shows me through the naturally well-lit foyer and a long passage to the rear of the house, where we step out on to the gardens behind. The white building that houses the shooting range is also visible in the distance. Close to the swimming pool, his mother, Babli Bindra, awaits. “Abhinav will soon be here,” she says, as we settle down under an umbrella that shields us from the overhead glare. In a few minutes, out of the corner of my eye, I see a slim figure, clad in jeans and a brown polo-necked tee, stride towards us. Gone are his familiar spectacles (he has had surgery when he was all alone in Germany, with no one to take care of him) but Abhinav is on home turf and even otherwise instantly identifiable.

“It was a complete act.”
A spoilt Richie Rich grown kid? Not really. My first real-life impression is of a well-turned-out boy who appears more mature than he actually is, slimmer than he was at the Olympic win. Twenty-seven-year-old Abhinav insists we have lunch first. As we end the meal with a little bit of gajar ka halwa, chocolate ice-cream and cake, I set the ball rolling by congratulating him on his most noteworthy achievement and wonder about his deadpan response to his win. Folding the serviette neatly, Abhinav replies, “It was the moment I was waiting for…. I try to be myself all the time, but I am a good actor. It was a complete act because I needed to maintain my composure while going in for the last shot. No matter what you feel inside, you have to be calm on the outside. You are of course shooting for yourself but you play for the pride of your country. The first time, I went to Germany for training, they said, there has never been an air rifle shooter from India. It is like finding elephants to ride in Germany. That is what gave me the motivation to do well…. But then, on winning, immediately, there was the whole anti-climax to the situation. You work for 15 years for this one little thing, that one moment. And then you get it. The journey is over. It is almost depressing.”

In the last few months, Abhinav had also hit the headlines for his stand on the selection procedure for tourneys, in particular the Commonwealth Games. Fully aware of the importance of the upcoming event, Abhinav emphasises, “Initially I thought the whole controversy was bad for me. My peace was destroyed – everyone was against me. I knew that I would have to go and shoot to save my skin, for people would pick at me when I failed. But I was lucky to back it up with my performances. Now, I am trying to use the recent conflict to prove a point. It has given me a purpose in life. I am never going to quit shooting. I might at some point take a break but I will get back. I am aiming for another medal.”

“I hated going away and I hated sports....”
The baby of the Bindra family was born in Dehra Dun before his parents settled down later in Chandigarh. Claiming to be completely not spoilt, Abhinav does recall hating going to Doon School in his erstwhile hometown. “My parents decided to put me in boarding school when I was probably in the sixth,” he says. “There were not too many opportunities in the city so they felt that I would get an all-round development there. I stayed there for three years but I hated being away from home for that long.”

Happily confessing that this was completely unlike what his sister felt about boarding school, he admits, “I missed my parents and was plain homesick. In hindsight, if I had an option to rewind and go back, I would love to go to boarding school. There were so many things to do. I was more of the studious sort and I hated sports, by the way. I did not like any kind of physical activity and running around.”

In between, the sound of barking reaches our ears. The two dogs – a St Bernard and a beagle – have been tied up or else their boisterous activity would preclude anything else. The business of lunch having dispensed with, Abhinav gets up and we move indoors to settle down in the room that houses most of his medals. I take him up on his surprising announcement of being a nerd who hated sports. “When I went to boarding school, it was mandatory to do a little bit of all sports. I distinctly remember that it was not something that I necessarily enjoyed. Otherwise I coped on my own even though I did not do all those chores at home. I generally adapt very well. Much later, when I went to study in America and trained at the Olympic training centre between 2000 and 2005, I lived there in Colorado Springs at an air force barrack for four and a half years. The place did not have an attached bathroom but that was the best time of my life. I was shooting most of the time. I was pretty focussed. I was forced to do regular things and it was tougher there than at boarding school, not with regards to the discipline, but to the facilities that were available.”

“I was always fascinated by shooting.”
Interestingly, Abhinav chose shooting by default. “You can say that,” he laughs. “As a kid, I would read, play video games – my favourite remains Nintendo Vie – but I was basically trying out various things. I wasn’t particularly obsessed about anything at that point of time; I would enjoy something for a couple of weeks and then go on.”

The boy who had toyed with air guns in Dehra Dun took to rifle shooting after a meeting with a Colonel Dhillon in Chandigarh. “When I returned home from boarding school,” says Abhinav, stretching out his jeans-clad legs, fiddling with a crystal paper weight, “I wasn’t very good at anything – not tennis, not football, not cricket. A family friend introduced me to the Colonel who initiated me into rifle shooting. It caught my fancy. That happened when I was 12 or 14. I started training a lot. I thought I could do well in it. I was focussed. I perhaps thought, at that young age, that I could make a name for myself. I was trying to be good at something. That was probably a motivating factor at that time.”

“I just wanted to be myself.”
Interestingly, Abhinav points out that he was not inspired to excel in his field by tales of sports icons. Known to be a loner and a sportsman who is very particular about his schedules – packed earlier around school days and weekend plans – the shooter is his own man. As one more round of tea, cakes and biscuits does the rounds, Abhinav says, “I admired a lot of people but I just wanted to be myself. I don’t think that I ever wanted to be like anyone. Just because someone was doing a certain thing, I never wanted to follow that path blindly. I may have taken positives out of it but for some reason I always wanted to chart my own course. I was comfortable in my own skin.”

Right now he is enjoying a few rare days at home after the Netherlands tourney but he is not one to grudge the commitment to his passion. The photographer walks in for a recce and begins to shoot as Abhinav speaks on: “I did not need to be pushed into training. It was a joy. It came very naturally to me and was pure happiness.”

Travel, training and tourneys have occupied most of his days for the last two decades and more. Any regrets? None at all though he does say, “It was always a very, very continuous process. I had no respite at all. I have never had three months off where I could do what I want. This is the way it was for 15 years. The first break I had was after my Olympic win. Growing up never felt lonely though. It gave me so much joy and so much fun to improve and try to shoot better. I was so caught up in that, that nothing else mattered to me. If something does not cross your mind, it is not really a problem. I started to have many friends in the shooting world.” Like Jaspal Rana, whom he shared rooms with in his early years and then international shooting buddies from Germany and Europe.

“I am a little obsessive by nature”
Perfection is a state of mind and something that Abhinav firmly believes in. I recount what his mother had told me earlier that if he did not get a maths sum right, he would stick to it till he had solved it. His father, Dr A S Bindra returns from work and promises to join us later. The son says honestly, “I am a little obsessive by nature, a perfectionist. I am getting a little bit better at dealing with that problem. Being a perfectionist is not a good thing if you have reached the level of obsession that I have. It is ridiculous to get after one little thing; it gets to you. While growing up it was not an issue as I did not think about it so deeply. If I got stuck with a maths sum, I got stuck with it. I have realised that it is a problem only in the last five years. I have the guts to say it now because I succeeded. If I had not, I would not have said it.”

He speaks with conviction and a sense of self-understanding that being with oneself alone a lot has given him. And is quick to point out what the solution is: “You need to diffuse the obsession by being a very positive person. I am not a positive person. I am realistic in nature. If I am doing really badly, I will not find some rosiness in the picture. That attitude is not the ideal one in sports because you have tons of insecurities and you need to really hold on to something. I never wanted to hold on to anything.”

“I had a very, very strong will.”
Looking at the boy who has flecks of grey in his thick hair, I find it difficult to believe that he is plagued by inner demons beyond his control and my Doubting Thomas expression prompts him to say quickly, “I am being so honest with you. You don’t believe me.” We laugh out loud at his remark before he continues in a serious vein on the thought that is running through his head, “I wasn’t completely at peace with myself. I was very determined. I had very good willpower to face the insecurities and face the fears head on. It may still be there. All my fears are sports related – what if I do not shoot well, I have done this for 15 years and not won an Olympic medal.”

Those fears should be history now but Abhinav feels that he has a long way to go before he can even overcome his insecurities. Leaning forward, he says, “This will sound ridiculous but I will say it. Over the last ten years how I started to face my fears was by having the ability to go there and suffer. You have to suffer. There is no way out. You have to have the guts to suffer for the two hours while competing. Or the 340 days of the year when you train, you have to do it. And when the competition comes and you have to fire the last shot of the final to win a gold medal at the Olympics, you have to be ready to suffer. That is not an easy way. It is a very hard way. That is why being positive helps”.

Being positive does not come easily but he has two strong supports at home: his parents. Close to both of them in different ways, the son says, “Both of them are very positive individuals. They believed in my abilities and were always positive even when I did badly. When I came home there was always an aura of positivity which was important for me as an individual. I needed that external stimulation to keep me going.”

“I could have chosen other paths.”
It is well known that his father’s well-established trading business (Dr A S Bindra who has a doctorate in veterinary sciences) and familial support gave Abhinav the infrastructure to achieve his dream. Commenting on his lifestyle, Abhinav emphasises that it is more difficult to motivate himself than others, averring, “Unfortunately most athletes look at sports as a passage for a better way of life. My lifestyle has its advantages and disadvantages. If I wanted something I got it. That was a big advantage. But there is a downside to it that not many people relate to and it is a question of motivation. It is difficult to have the hunger in your belly. Not many people appreciate that having an opportunity to do tons of other things in my life, I could have chosen other paths. But I did not; I stuck on to it and tried to keep myself motivated to do it which is quite a little bit retarded.”

Pointing to the unpredictable nature of this individual sport, he adds, “To get into sport is a high-risk career decision and rifle-shooting is definitely not a viable career option. You pursue it for your passion and success. There is absolutely no guarantee for any success however good you may be. Shooting is a gamble. I have become a gambler in a way. The last shot of the Olympics was a gamble – I had to pull the trigger. I had to take the decision when to shoot. I could have been right...or wrong!”

“I could have easily quit.”
If he had not won the Olympic medal, perhaps he would have chosen a different route. The recent flak too could have proved a deterrent to continue. Abhinav points out that there has been one more possible exit point in his life when he was grounded with a back problem. “Shooting requires an awkward physical posture and needs you to be completely unnatural in the mind. Post the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006, where I had shot in all the events, my lower back discs were bulging…. I survived that and played in the World Championships with a bad back. But then I had to go in for therapy and was contemplating surgery. I didn’t shoot for six to seven months. It was very painful. It was again challenging. That was another moment when I could have easily quit.”

His inner self and drive kept him going. “You connect to your inner being a lot. I think I am too connected,” he philosophises. “You are fighting against yourself. You are not fighting against someone else. You are very much in touch with your inner being and your conscious world. But your inner being and your external being are not necessarily always in sync. And in other sports, adrenaline is good, because it pushes you further. But in shooting where you need calmness and stillness, adrenaline is not the best thing that can happen to you. When you are nervous, adrenaline starts to flow. You have to fight it. You are walking on a tightrope all the time.”

“I need to look at career options.”
Stretching our legs, we stroll into the L-shaped well-illuminated kitchen. Joking about the lack of culinary skills, Abhinav proves that he can at least brew a cup of his favourite drink: coffee. Sipping thoughtfully, he feels it is time to look at future options. There are plans for schools where ‘the basic idea is to combine education with a lot of sports.” Abhinav, who has done his MBA, is working on his doctorate and is also working on a book.

Eminently eligible, there is no girlfriend on the anvil as yet – ‘I have no girlfriend. There has been no opportunity. But I will not be able to survive in an arranged marriage situation. So I will find someone at some point’ – and work remains his primary focus yet. “I had a back-up all these years. Now I need to build on it,” he says pragmatically. “I need to look at doing something apart from shooting. I may move into dad’s business. This last journey was fully obsessive. It is not going to happen the same way now because circumstances are different. I have to look at other paths and that is a positive thing as it will bring a balance into my life.”

His parents join us in the living room and they pore over an album. “Now comes the tough part,” sighs Abhinav, “the pictures!” He slips into the role of a model with ease, coping with quicksilver changes of clothes and even playing with his beagle affectionately for one cameo – on the other side of the lens, for a change. As I drive back to the airport the next morning – Vivek having called to bid me au revoir – I check the recorder and catch Abhinav’s parting words: “The concentration now is difficult. It has been destroyed post the Olympics. What worked for me previously won’t now. There are so many distractions. I have to do many things to get my balance back. I want to do vipassana. It is a different phase now. The journey from now on is fresh. It is a new start.”

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