For a good ten years, he struck terror into the hearts of his opponents as he ripped apart the toughest defensive ploys on the football field, to make his country proud. And he did it with flawless ease. Tulsidas Balaram was one of India’s finest strikers; some say he was the finest in Asia.
At 86 today, Balaram lives in a small flat, in the company of nurses, in the town of Uttarpara not far from Kolkata. He has so many wonderful memories to draw on but he wants none of it. For this former football great, every golden moment on the field is tarnished with the pain of betrayal and neglect. Thirty years ago, Balaram turned his back on the game he adored, never to look back.
Balaram’s bitter tale is even more tragic as his rise to the pinnacle of Indian football is the stuff of fairy tales.
The former Olympian and Asian Games gold medallist was born on 4th October 1936 in Ammuguda village in Secunderabad, in the princely state of Hyderabad. His family was dirt poor, which is why his mother discouraged his interest in football and goaded him to study instead. She wanted him to fulfil her dream of landing a clerical government job one day.
But the lad dreamt of nothing but becoming a football player. He skipped classes to play football in a field adjoining the local school and often played on an empty stomach as his mother couldn't afford to pack him lunch. Since he and the other village boys didn’t have access to a proper football, they played with a rubber ball on an uneven, rugged field.
The first football club Balaram joined was the Ammuguda XI founded by his villagers, including himself. The boys were so gifted on the field that local people, football enthusiasts, and Lallaguda railway workshop labourers would come to watch them play and cheer them on.
But to make the team, each boy had to contribute Rs 2 for a jersey. Telling his helpless mother the truth would be useless, so Balaram told her he needed the money to buy a textbook at school. She promptly borrowed Rs 2 from a neighbour, and that’s how Balaram got the white-and-maroon jersey he longed for.
Making It Big
The youngster’s launch pad to the big time came in 1955, at age 19, when he was spotted by the legendary Syed Abdul Rahim, who helmed the now-defunct Hyderabad Football Association. Balaram had travelled from Secunderabad to Hyderabad to play for Ryder’s Club in the lower division league final when Rahim noticed his control over the ball, the way he virtually bent it to his will, and floored his opponents as he scored, time and again.
When Rahim asked Balaram to join the trial camp for the Hyderabad team for the 1956 Santosh Trophy, the lad from Secunderabad said he couldn’t afford to travel daily between the twin cities. So Rahim gave him 1 rupee, 25 paise every day, to hire a bicycle.
And that’s how a legend was born.
Balaram’s stunning performance in the Santosh Trophy earned him a spot in the Indian squad for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. He was the youngest member of the Indian team and spent most of the tournament on the bench. Rahim had included him in the Olympic squad mainly to benefit from the exposure he would receive from being part of such a major event. Such was his faith in the budding star.
Kolkata: New Beginnings
After Balaram returned to India, he was snapped up by the East Bengal football club but was reluctant to join, at first. Rahim, his benefactor, had asked him not to leave Hyderabad and Balaram had assumed he would play for the famed Hyderabad City Police team. In turn, he would get a respectable job in the police department and even fulfil his mother’s dream.
– When the Olympian was offered a constable’s job in Hyderabad, he was crushed, so he promptly accepted the offer from East Bengal.
He packed his bags and, with a broken heart, moved to Kolkata.
From here on, Balaram’s career soared. He won numerous trophies for East Bengal and scored 104 goals for them. He began to receive love, respect and adulation from fans in Kolkata, and so he made it his home.
These were Balaram’s best years on the field, and from 1956 to 1962, he was considered the finest striker in India and even Asia. He was part of an invincible trident – the other two were Chuni Goswami and Pradeep Kumar Banerjee – who helped Indian football reach its pinnacle. During this time, Balaram participated in two Asian Games, in Tokyo in 1958 and in Jakarta in 1962. The gold medal that the team won in Jakarta is India’s only football gold medal in any international tournament to date.
In the ’50s and ’60s, the Indian football team was an Asian superpower, an indomitable side known for its flair and enchanting passing skills. The trio – Balaram, Goswami and Banerjee – wowed fans across Europe with their mad skills. They were so good with the ball that their solo dash and dribbling had given the Japanese, Koreans, Hungarians and French defenders nightmares. They had become demi-gods to the Indian masses.
One of Balaram’s finest moments in international football came in the 1960 Rome Olympics when he tormented Hungary with his sheer speed and ball control. On receiving a pass from Chuni Goswami, he scored a reducer for India with a flick. In the dying minutes, the desperate Hungarians physically assaulted him, tearing apart his jersey, to stop him from scoring the winner.
But the honeymoon was soon to end.
An Abrupt End
In 1962, when Balaram returned from Jakarta after the Asian Games triumph, he learnt that his mother was unwell. He went straight to Hyderabad from the Kolkata airport, to be by her side, without letting the East Bengal Club know of his change in plans. The club was not pleased, or sympathetic. It fined him and also deducted the airfare from his remuneration. It’s something Balaram has never forgotten. Or forgiven.
Tears well up in Balaram's eyes when he recalls his mother’s reaction to his arrival in his hometown. As the Asiad gold medallist started walking towards his home from Ammuguda Railway Station, his ailing mother ran forward to embrace him. She was so emotional that she even apologised to her son for objecting to his decision to play football in his childhood.
As soon as the football season ended, Balaram terminated his association with East Bengal forever and rejected every overture to rejoin the club. He was so deeply hurt that even when he underwent surgery in March this year, he refused the club's offer to help with funds.
– Having resigned from East Bengal, Balaram started playing for the Bengal Nagpur Railway (BNR) in 1963. Then the axe fell: he was forced to retire from the game that same year as he was diagnosed with bronchitis and weak lungs. The football prodigy was only 27 years old.
Post-retirement, Balaram coached the BNR team for a few years as well as the Kolkata Mayor’s team. Renowned players like Sangram Mukherjee, Mehtab Hossain and Chandan Das trained under him in their initial days.
Balaram will go down in the history of football, not only as one of its greatest strikers but as a versatile footballer who excelled in any field position he was assigned. Although he was a left-winger, he could outwit his opponents from anywhere in the field. He could fall back but again stand up and retrieve the ball and then launch an attack at full speed.
Balaram is an Arjuna Awardee but he was gravely upset when his contribution to the nation was not rewarded with the Padma Shri, an award his colleagues had received. In 1990, his name was nominated for the award, but his file was mysteriously “lost” at the last minute.
This was not long after Balaram had done a stint as a national selector with the All India Football Federation. He didn’t occupy the post for long. He believes his uncompromising nature and impeccable integrity had got in the way.
After he was denied the Padma Shri, Balaram distanced himself from the game and retreated to the shadows. He says it was never about the award, really, but about his contribution to the nation being ignored.
Balaram never married and has been living a simple life in Uttarpara. Far from the game he once loved, the country’s colours he once donned, and the roar of fans that cheered him on, he now takes solace in spirituality.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sudipta Biswas is a sports journalist and author of Mission Gold: India's Quest for Olympic Glory (2020). Biswas started his career covering grassroots sports in Kolkata and is currently researching and reporting on the Olympic movement in India.