Nolini's athletics

The utility of games and sports, especially in the spiritual life, has been brought home to us by the Divine Mother herself: 'By setting a personal example'… Had she herself not played table tennis and tennis, had she not given us direct encouragement by her presence day after day for hours on end during our sports season; had she not given each of us her smiling appreciation on every occasion, our athletic activities would not have attained the standard they now have. Seeing her take part in physical activities, elderly sadhaks like Nolini, Amrita, Pavitra, Purani, Anilbaran, the late Naren Das Gupta, Nolini Kanta Sen and others more or less of their age joined the marching exercises. Behind our girls' enthusiasm for sports and games and behind their equality with the boys in some items, even their superiority in certain events, there lies the Mother's particular concern for physical perfection.

There is no lack of foolish argument against sports in our country: "When did our ancient Yogis and saints take part in sports? If they had no such need, why should the Yogis of today have the need?" But the ancients were never without sports and amusements. The Rishi Jamadagni practised archery. It is recorded that one day he was shooting arrows and his wife, Renuka Devi, was helping him by bringing them back. The burning sun fatigued her so much that the Rishi fitted his arrow to the bow to hit the sun. Frightened, the sun-god came down. Appearing before the Rishi, he said that according to the divine dispensation his function was to give heat and light to the earth, but to save the lady from discomfort he would present her with a pair of sandals and an umbrella. It is said that since then the umbrella and shoes have been in use.

Not only did the women help their husbands and relatives in such sports; when necessary, they fought side by side with the men. When Queen Vishpala, wife of King Khela, lost her thigh on the battlefield, the twin divine physicians Aswinikumaras gave her an iron thigh at the request of the king's priest, Agastya. Was this the beginning of "artificial limbs"?

Even among the gods there was provision for happy competition. Surya, daughter of Surya, was to select the most successful competitor for her husband. The rule of the competition was that whoever reached the sun-world first would win her hand. The Aswinikumaras won the race and the prize.

Our beloved Captain, Manoj (himself a champion in athletics, an ace student of his time and an adept in histrionics, now a Professor at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education), has most impressively dwelt at length on Physical Education in Ancient India in the April issue of our Bulletin of Physical Education.

We now come to Nolini's athletics. The difference between an ordinary athlete and Nolini is that he takes athletics as part of Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga. Even after stepping into his seventieth year he has made striking progress. This has been possible by his earnest personal effort and by the Grace of the Mother. He has proved that the main enemy of athletics is not age but lack of the sense of youthfulness.

In 1955, at the age of sixty-six, despite the fact that he had practised the long jump all year, he was disqualified in all three competitive jumps before the Mother. The three rounds of laughter from the spectators vanished in the air because Nolini remained the same unperturbed figure that he always is. But he knew how such defeats affect younger nerves.

"Can an ever-happy being even in a distracted moment sense the feeling of the afflicted?

How can one who has never been bitten by a venomous snake feel its tearing pain?"

Here in the test of merit the bite is frustration. Here the Yogi has to pay the highest price of his Karmayoga (Yoga in Action): sama jaya parajayo (equal in victory and defeat).

Just two years later, in his sixty-eighth year, Nolini won first place in the long jump and thus reminded us of the great words of Sri Aurobindo in Savitri:

"His failure is not failure whom God leads."

And

"Man can accept his fate; he can refuse."

If he could jump from the last possible point, then he could easily exceed his 1957 record of 3m 85cm, not by several inches but by two feet or more. For others of his age that would be an unimaginable feat.

Nervousness, though undesirable, is natural to us in the hour of competition. The goddess of sleep keeps her benign face away from us for even a week before that hour. It is a little difficult for sadhaks like us to admit that our nervousness is caused by the weakness of our vital being. Much to our Surprise, Nolini has given us no chance to see him with the jitters.

Our Amrita became a member of the Blue Group. Marching exercises he did — unexpectedly, unbelievably, quite contrary to his nature. He left the Group a few years later. However, despite being swept up in a whirlwind of work, he would be present on the sportsground on the days of "his" Nolini's athletic competition. One can easily predict that wherever Nolini is present, Amrita is sure to be there also. Laksmana knew, and so do we, that he had no equal when he stood by Rama; Rama, too, felt in the depths of his heart:

Dese dese kalatrani dese dese ca bandhavah
Tattu desam no pasyami yatra bhrata sahodarah.

(Wives and friends can be found everywhere,
But at no place a brother of my own.)

On January 13, 1962, Nolini's birthday, an inmate of the Ashram wanted to know from Amrita if his relations with Nolini were friendly or brotherly. Amrita was silent for a while, taken aback. Then he said: "Is he my friend? You people may think so. But I always look upon him as my own elder brother." Two flowers on one stalk: such joint lives dedicated to the Mother are an example to all the Ashram.

Now for an anecdote which sounds like but is not a cock-and-bull story.

One day Abinash Bhattacharya, a fellow prisoner of our Sudhir (Captain Mona's father) in the Andamans, was witnessing the marching exercises in the Ashram playground. The sight of Nolini running upset the gentleman. He said to Sudhir: "Sudhir, stop Nolini from running. God knows when he may create a scene by falling. Is he not aware that he has long since passed his youth? I tremble at the sight of him."

"Dada," said Sudhir, "have you seen Nolini participating in the running and jumping competition?"

"Competition! At his age? If I were not an eyewitness here, I would not believe it. Of course, everything is possible for a Yogi. If I were asked to jump, I would jump over to the next world in a single bound, though I might pass the rest of my life in bed with broken limbs. Sudhir, you are laughing, but my heart skips a beat for Nolini."

Though it may sound unbelievable, in 1954, at the age of 65, Nolini breasted the tape in the 100 metre sprint with his best time of 14.9 seconds. He could easily have bettered it by one second had he been able to maintain his speed from start to finish. Alas, the last twenty metres of the race did not fully surrender to his flying feet. Of course, ninety out of a hundred suffer this fate. But never was Nolini compelled to cover the final twenty metres with the speed of a slow cycle race as did the Pakistani sprinter, of course unwillingly, in the World Olympics held in London in 1948.

In 1954 Nolini came off not only first in the 100 metre sprint but also third in the 200 metre. His time for the latter race was 32.4 seconds. But one year later the athlete Nolini rose to his best time (31.6) in the 200m sprint.

A striking event: In 1958 while practising 200m he fell after having run 40m and was hurt in two or three places. He stood up and said to his co-runner: "Who but I should fall? I could not summon the full concentration that I should have had before the start." Here is the difference between Nolini and ourselves. In such a case we blame our fate, whereas he who believes in self-effort blames his personal lapse. In a few seconds Gangaram, our genial athletic coach (himself a matchless athlete in his time), ran up to the spot and gave Nolini first aid.

In 1955 Nolini took part in the most arduous of all the races, which demands both speed and stamina: 400m. His time: 1.20.6. To compete in a 400m race at the age of 66 is surprising — not only for an Indian, but for any athlete in the world.

Another surprise: Two years earlier he had chosen the most exacting and difficult of all the jumping events — Hop, Step and Jump. In this he won third place, beating his fellow-competitors of less than half his age.

A sample of Nolini's timings in the 100m sprint:

1955 — 15.2 s
1956 — 15.3 s
1957 — 15.3 s
1958 — 15.4 s
1959 — 15.4 s

To keep up the same standard with negligible variation for five years successively, especially in a 100m sprint, is unimaginable.

Here in the Ashram all work is part of our sadhana. To look upon success and failure with a steady eye is our first essential. Victory or defeat made no difference to Nolini, with his burning and lasting enthusiasm.

We have observed that indifference to the results cannot make for the perfection of anything. To have enthusiasm for an action whose results are of no concern to the doer is a very difficult matter.

"Thou hast a right to action, but only to action, never to its fruits."

On May 29, 1953, it is doubtful if Hillary and Tenzing could have scaled Everest and planted the banner of victory on its summit had they literally followed this principle of the Gita.

In 1955 two elderly sadhaks of the Ashram participating in the athletics competition took to the track to show their worth to the Mother. They entertained no thought of victory or defeat, honour or dishonour. They had never been seen in field practice. The presented themselves on the fixed day at the fixed hour and at the fixed place for an 80m race. The group ahead of them ran off. Now it was their turn. They took their positions with some difficulty without the help of starting blocks. The stentorian orders of Pranab (Director of Physical Education) went forth one after another: "Get on your marks," "Set," "Go." Strangely, there was no sign of a start. Those nearby asked: "Why the delay?"

Turning to his co-runner, one of the two said: "Let us start then."

"You go first."

"How can I? You are on my right. We have to run abreast."

During the everyday marching exercises they had heard Pranab say: "Keep in line by dressing right." How could it be otherwise here? At last, at the impatient shouts of the spectators, they got to the position of "attention." Then their race began, based on the principle of niskama-karma. The two reached the finishing line together, neither preceding the other. If one slowed down a bit, the other adjusted his speed accordingly, just to keep in line. Thus they came up to the Mother. This is how our niskama-karma is abused at times, reduced to a lifeless and ridiculous rule. But in every action of Nolini's one can see the full measure of his zest and enthusiasm. His interest, earnestness and enthusiasm in sports do not end with himself: he shared his feelings with all.

Nolini participated also in the hammer throw and shotput after regular and systematic practice. His coach in the hammer was his beloved Rajen, ever young, ever zealous and ever friendly to all sportsmen. Disregarding pain here and there in his body, Nolini carried on his daily practice in these two items without a break. Thoughtless fellows like us might read in this activity an ambition to win a high place. But the fact was that he was quite against pampering the pain by keeping to bed and persuading himself that he was helpless. His aim was to ignore pain and reject it altogether from his body. Indeed, herein lies the secret of a true sportsman.

There can be no shadow of a doubt that Nolini could have excelled in athletics in his school days as he did in football, had athletics been introduced in Bengal at that time.

While the author of Swapani (Robi Gupta) was a student at Nilphamari H.E. School in Rangpur District, one day his playmates were deeply admiring his skill in football before their games teacher, Sri Amulya Banerjee. With a smile he said: "You have not seen his father (Nolini Kanta) play. Had you seen him…"

In 1945, the late Monsieur Benjamin introduced our rising football player, Robi Gupta, to the patron President of Cercle Sportif Ground at the end of a football match. His immediate comment was: " Mais il ne joue pas comme son pere" ("But he does not play like his father").

Our Austin so liked Nolini's article on Football that he sent a copy of it, along with Nolini's autographed photo, to his Canadian friends, well-known football players.

Nolini was not only a brilliant sportsman but also an athlete of the mind. At the age of only thirteen he passed the matriculation with a scholarship. Because of his tender age his father had misgivings. But his uncle was well aware of the sharpness of his intelligence and memory. Hence he encouraged him to sit for the examination. And the result was success attained with a scholarship.