Uphaar Tragedy Braveheart Rajesh Pattu Chases Asian Games Glory
“The memories of the tragedy are far more painful than the satisfaction of saving the lives,” said the ex-army man.
The last 24 hours have been nerve-racking for Rajesh Pattu, India’s most recognisable name in the equestrian circuit.
After the high of being named in the Indian team and getting all saddled up for his fourth Asian Games, the equestrian federation did a flip flop and scrapped the squad, stating that the selection criteria which were laid down for the riders had not been followed.
But back at his training base in Warendorf in Germany, Pattu puts up a brave front despite the emotional roller coaster ride.
“I landed in Germany today from India and already did my training stints on two horses. I am disappointed with the news but I do not want my preparations to suffer. According to me, I have fulfilled all the selection rules. I am hoping the federation will ultimately send the team for the Asian Games. So I do not want my motivation level to waver,’’ says Pattu in an exclusive interview with The Quint.
It is this same defiant streak in the ex-army man that had helped him emerge as one of the bravehearts of the Uphaar tragedy exactly 21 years ago.
Then a lieutenant in the army, Pattu, along with the family of one of his seniors Captain MS Bhinder, had gone to watch the afternoon show of Border, a movie on the heroic exploits of the Indian Army.
As smoke engulfed the theatre, people ran towards the exit doors causing a stampede. Bhinder and Pattu took control, guiding many children and women to safety along the dimly-lit and narrow staircase. Pattu then entered the washroom in the fourth floor where several people had taken refuge but was now trapped as the fire spread. He helped them escape and then broke open a windowpane to scale down a water pipe.
He went back on a hydraulic lift to rescue more survivors. By then more damage had been done. Pattu realised the casualties in the blaze included Bhinder, his wife and their four-year old son.
The memories of the tragedy are far more painful than the satisfaction of saving the lives. I have tried my best to wipe out the memories of that fateful day to the extent that I used to switch off my mobile on 13 June – the anniversary of the Uphaar tragedy – to prevent calls from the media and even the survivors and their families who often reached out to thank me.Rajesh Pattu
“It has been 21 years now and people have moved on. So thankfully the calls have dried up but nothing will heal my wounds as I lost some of my very close friends including Captain Bhinder,” he added.
Captain Bhinder from the Army’s 61 Cavalry was a talented rider and one of the top contenders for a place in the equestrian team for the 1998 Asian Games. Pattu made the cut and won his first of the three medals in the Asian Games. He would go on to complete a hat-trick of bronze medals, after registering wins in Busan and Doha.
Pattu is now 46 years old, and if he makes it to this year’s Asian Games, will become the oldest member of the India’s contingent – a year older to yet another ageless wonder Leander Paes.
Age is just a number in the sport of equestrian and so I do not feel the burden of age.Rajesh Pattu
“Show jumper Nick Skelton won a gold medal for Great Britain in the Rio Olympics at the age of 58,’’ reasons Pattu, whose first Asian Games appearance was in 1998, when one of his current teammates, Fouad Mirza, was just six years old.
“In the last two years, I’ve felt the desperate need to change the colour of my medal and make the most of my 27-year international riding experience to make a bid for Olympics glory,’’says Pattu.
It was a now or never moment in his career and he took the life-altering decision of retiring from the army and relocating along with his six-year-old son and wife to Germany. He managed to rope in a sponsor – the Bengaluru-based Embassy Real Estate – and is now training with one of the most renowned equestrian coaches in the world, Bettina Hoy, at the training facilities of the German Olympic Committee for Equestrian Sports in Warendorf, a town known as the nerve centre for horse riding in Europe.
You cannot win a Formula 1 race with an outdated car. So I was keen to train with the best horses at the best facilities. The training in the last two years has been top class and I am happy with the horses that I have been riding. I am confident of doing well in cross-country but I feel I need to work a bit more on my show jumping skills.Rajesh Pattu
Pattu competes in eventing, an Olympic event where riders are tested on three different skills spread over three days – cross country, show jumping and dressage. Before the Asian Games, the Indian eventing team is expected to take part in a training competition in France.
Pattu is married to former Indian tennis player and Olympian Manisha Malhotra who after moving to Germany has taken up equestrian seriously.
“For Manisha, equestrian is more than just a passion. She has been competing regularly at many of the equestrian events in Germany and if she continues to pursue it, Manisha could make it to the Indian equestrian team in the years to come. Who knows, Manisha and I could become the first couple from India to represent the country in equestrian together,’’ signs-off Pattu, reiterating that he’s in no mood to ride off into the sunset anytime soon.
(The author is a television producer working with different sports networks in India and abroad. He has extensively covered previous editions of Asian Games and Commonwealth Games for both print and television.)
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