You did not have to be part of an audience at a brightly-lit stage magic show to watch the beauty of his craft. You did not even have to be child to aspire to watch his mystical skills conjure dream sequences. You just had to turn up at a hockey game featuring Mohammed Shahid to experience its calming, magnetic powers.
His mercurial feet and delectable wrist work as well as his combination on the left flank with Zafar Iqbal were a sight for sore eyes. For those of us not privileged to watch the wizard Dhyan Chand at work, Shahid was the benchmark of talent, a rare, if not unique, craftsman at a time when Indian hockey itself was sliding. His gifts of dribbling, his pace, his positional sense and his ability to put team ahead of everything else were so remarkable that Indian fans used it as a balm to soothe their wounded souls, even after India lost 1-7 to Pakistan in the Asian Games hockey final in New Delhi in 1982 and finished only with the bronze medal in Seoul four years later.
Suffice to say he was a veritable poet on the hockey pitch, an incurable romantic who was born to grace the game with dignity. Like Ustad Bismillah Khan would hold his fans in thrall when he played the shehnai, this magician from Varanasi would keep fans glued to his craft, filling their hearts with pride that one of their own was so blessed. “Mohammed Shahid would be a nobody if you took Benaras out of him. Mohammed Shahid is who he is because of Benaras,” he told a colleague recently, pointing out how the ethos of the city was integral to his character. For those fortunate to visit the genius in his home town, he was the epitome of warmth and hospitality, shedding his desire to retain a low profile.
With hockey’s decline coinciding with the Indian cricket team’s victory in the 1983 World Cup and the arrival of colour TV broadcast, it would not be unfair to say that a lot of India did not get to experience his magical skills first-hand. And yet, word of his ability had spread so much that youngsters in non-hockey centres would take his name with pride in their hearts. So what is it that makes pairs of knees across the country wobble when we hear of Shahid’s ailment and then his death? In these days when power dominates play and creativity is reduced to set pieces, they don’t make magic like Shahid could. In times when elite players have a range of support staff to draw from, they don’t stay injury free like Shahid did three decades ago. They simply don’t make any like him anymore.
Surely, 56 is no age to die. Yet, one has to believe even more surely that Shahid may be in better space, rid of his emotional and physical pain once and for all. For years, he would blame himself for not being around when his young daughter was first battling for life in a hospital and then breathing her last. Yet, when he stepped on the pitch, he would dribble his way up, dodging player after player, inexplicably keeping the hockey ball glued to his stick while being aware of his team-mates movements to be able to pass to one of them. And he would do this so many times in a match, raising the expectations of his team’s fans and causing the rival defenders to worry.
Finally, Shahid’s body may have found eternal peace. He has dodged us all, leaving us to lament his passing and cherish the enduring memory of his magic.