In Conversation with Veteran International-level Table Tennis player Arunjyoti Barua
By Aiyushman Dutta
As sport lovers across the entire world, and also our very own north-eastern region, gear up to witness the finals of the FIFA World Cup 2018 tournament being held in Russia today, the spirit of sporting frenzy amongst soccer fans is unmistakeable. And when we also take into account young Assamese sprinter Hima Das’s recent historic feat in the Women’s 400 metres final race at the IAAF World Under-20 Athletics Championships in Finland, the entire atmosphere seems to be reverberating with the sheer power and glory of sports. For those who are still off the grid, Hima Das had created history last Thursday evening when she won the gold medal in the World Under-20 Athletics Championships at Finland.
As we go around celebrating the beauty and sheer power that sports and sporting extravaganzas have blessed upon us, this time around we would like to remind our readers about the historic feats of another son of the soil who had brought many a laurels for the country in the domain of international table tennis. We are talking about veteran International table tennis player Arunjyoti Baruah, a soft-spoken and unassuming sportsperson, who had brought numerous accolades for the country in many prestigious forums like the Commonwealth Games, South Asian Games, and the like.
A former captain of the junior Indian Table Tennis team, Barua has many historic feats to his credit. Some of the include winning the South Asian Games Gold medal in 1991 and 1988, Silver medal in 1991 and Bronze in 1991. A certified black belt degree holder (Six Sigma), he also won the World Youth Teams Gold & Singles Silver Medal in Turkey (1982), Asian Junior Bronze Medal Winner in Indonesia (1982) and Asian Junior Doubles Bronze Medal Winner in Bahrain (1983).
In an international career which stretched for almost a decade and a half, Barua represented the Indian team in the World Senior Championships held in Sweden (1985,) India (1987) and Japan (1991); the Asian Senior Championships in Pakistan (1984), China (1986) & Malaysia (1990); Seoul Asian Games, South Korea (1986); Commonwealth Senior Championships in India (1982); UK (1985) and Kenya (1991); SAARC (SAG) Games in India (1985 & 1988) and Sri Lanka (1991); Asian Junior Championships in Indonesia (1982) & Bahrain (1983); World Youth Championships in Turkey (1982); Belgium Open (1985); Hungary Open (1985); Czechoslovakia Open (1985) and the US Open in 1983, 1985 & 1995.
A sportsperson who has been honoured with numerous prestigious awards like the Lachit Bota, conferred by the Government of Assam; Eklavya Award conferred by Delhi University and a Government of India Special Recognition for International Achievement, Barua’s still repents at having missed the chance to represent the country in the Olympics Games – the ultimate bastion for all sportsperson. And not surprisingly so because given his form and the dream run that he was in, he was a sure shot contender to make the country proud in the Olympics pavilion as well.
Nevertheless, Arunjyoti Barua today stands as a proud reminder of Assam being a historically rich strong-house of sporting talents, and the superiority and prowess of Assamese paddlers in the global sporting stage during the 80s and 90s of the last millennium. It would not be justified to keep Barua’s achievements limited only in the sporting arena because he has made an equally enviable transition to become a highly dynamic technocrat in OIL India Limited where he is presently employed as the General Manager Administration (Pipeline Headquarters) in Narengi.
As we get ready to cheer our favourite teams playing for the most coveted football world trophy today, we would like to reproduce excerpts from a highly absorbing discussion that I had recently entered into with the veteran paddler. Following are excerpts.
Q. At the outset, let us begin with your childhood. How do you recount your growing up days and how did your tryst with table tennis start?
Ans: I was lucky to be born in a family which supported me tremendously in my sporting endeavours. My father late Mahendra Kumar Barua was a forest official who retired as the Chief Conservator of Forests. I grew up with two other siblings; my elder sister Mallika Barua Sarma is incidentally also a veteran badminton player who represented the country in the Asian Games. Due to my father’s job postings, we grew up in the naturally rich areas of Assam and our growing days was a beautiful blend of studies and sporting activities. I remember taking up table tennis seriously during our days in Dibrugarh, where my father was posted as the DFO of that time. We had a huge hall in our house and there we made a wooden TT board to play the game.
Q. So when did you start taking formal training in the sport?
Ans: That is a good question. Everyone plays but very few manage to pursue it as a sporting activity. I used to study in Don Bosco School Dibrugarh and our principal was father TT Thomas – a man who has inspired me greatly in my journey. I don’t know whether it was my good luck or sheer co-incidence but when we had to come back to Guwahati owing to my father’s transfer, Father TT Thomas was also posted to Don Bosco Guwahati as the principal. Father Thomas knew my passion for table tennis and sporting activities and as soon as he saw me here, he started prodding me to play the game seriously.
At that point of time, we had a famous coach late Nihal Singh Thakur who used to come and train the students of Don Bosco School every morning. I was fortunate enough to meet a person like him who groomed and trained me in the initial stages. My seniors in Don Bosco School, like Curfew Roy, Gautam Hazarika, etc were also huge inspiring personalities for me. So you can say that my formal training in TT began at Don Bosco High School in 1977.
Q. How do you look back at those days?
Ans: Those were very memorable and pretty intense days. We used to start practicing right from early morning after which we used to go to school. After our classes got over for the day, we used to get together again to practice. Our school had already produced two three good batches of table tennis players and we were constantly on the lookout to better ourselves. There was a very healthy sort of competition amongst the students and this helped me in my development.
In 1978, I made my debut at the National Sub Junior Singles Championship and created history by becoming the champion. That seems so surreal for me even now. I still remember the huge sea of people waiting to receive me at the Gauhati Railway Station. I was just overwhelmed with the love and response of the people; TT was such a popular game at that time.
I was then called to the National Institute of Sports in Patiala where I met the towering personalities of Indian Table Tennis of that time, like Manjit Dua, Indu Puri, V Chandrasekhar, et al. From the sub junior level, I was the only player at NIS at that point of time. It was a big inspiration for me to play alongside with those legends. After that, there was no looking back. I started winning sub-junior championships and then the national junior championships. I became the National Sub Junior Singles Champion in 1980. The same year, I went to Jakarta and then Bahrain. My career was progressing at a very rapid pace at that time.
Q. Who were your coaches at that times?
Ans: While at Guwahati, I trained under late Nihal Singh Thakur and SK Mishra. At the national level, there was a North Korean coach Pak Yu Hyun, who was visiting India and who helped me immensely. He was an aggressive player himself and loved my aggressive style of playing. In 1983, I managed to upset top seeds in the senior nationals in Delhi. By that time, I got my first break in the senior Indian Table Tennis Team. My career progressed very rapidly and in the next championship, I even upset India’s No 1 player V Chandrasekhar. In a period of about five years, I made it to the Indian national teams.
Q. What about your formal education?
Ans: My father supported my playing. But he always told me to maintain proper marks in my studies and I kept that in mind. I passed my matriculation from Don Bosco High School with pretty good marks. After that, I joined Modern School Barakhamba Road which was a very prestigious school in those days. In fact, there is a story behind how I landed up in Modern School. I had gone to the school to play a national-level TT match and after watching my game, the principal was so impressed that they offered me a seat in their school. At that time, I was planning to study in Cotton College but then this was a godsend opportunity and I took admission there. I stayed in the hostel of the school and my tryst with the game took another dimension there as I met a lot of stalwarts. For instance, Arjuna Awardee Indu Puri used to come to train there. I then did my B. Com (Honours) from Sri Ram College of Commerce, Under Delhi University.
Q. You had got the Best Commonwealth Games Ranking of No. 17 in the Commonwealth Games…
Ans: Yes, that was in 1991 during the Commonwealth Games held in Nairobi. I performed exceedingly well in that event. I got the silver medal in the Men’s Doubles and also the Bronze medal in the team category. I played till the quarterfinals in the Singles event. The same year, I went to Japan for the World Senior Table Tennis Championships. In that tournament, I got my career best ranking of World No 144. Till now, I have played in three world championships, 3 Asian championships, 3 Commonwealth Games and 1 Asian Games.
Q. Do you regret missing out on the Olympics?
Ans: Yes, that is a big regret I have. I have achieved everything else apart from the Olympics. Participating in the Olympics Games adds an altogether different dimension to one’s career and life.
Q. Do you feel that the 70-80s was the Golden Era for Table Tennis in Assam?
Ans: Yes, definitely. Everyone was playing well at all the levels. While I was performing well at the sub-junior levels, I faced equally tough competition from Rahul Dutta. At the Junior level, the likes of Anupam Konwar were really playing well. For instance, during the Junior National Championship held in 1983, the Assam team won 12-13 of all the medals in the tournament. Assam was the undisputed champions of the country. Players from Assam dominated the game and that dominance was now been taken over by Bengal.
Q. Looking back, what do you attribute your success to? Talent or discipline?
Ans: I feel it was my good luck. I was playing as part of a beautiful system. I underwent rigorous training in Don Bosco, then in Modern School and then Sri Ram College of Commerce. See, if you want to be a player, you will find that most players usually come out from colleges and universities. If you get proper support at the university level, there is nothing like it. I was fortunate enough to receive that support.
Secondly, my family supported me a lot. Also, we were lucky to have stalwarts like Phani Sharma, Joynath Sharma, Bhowmik Sir and the like at the helm of sporting affairs in the State. They were huge motivating and inspiring personalities for me. Even at the national level, I was lucky to meet my coach Pak Yu Guhn.
Individual skill, talent, discipline and vision are very necessary for the emergence of a good player, but at the same time, getting the right opportunity is also equally important. I feel that we were lucky to have a beautiful system which complemented all these areas. Looking back, I was very disciplined and did well in both my game as well as my studies. I passed my B Com (Honours from Sriram College and then got a job in OIL India while I was still playing. After my graduation, I joined the National Institute of Personnel Management and then Xaviers Institute of Management in Bhubaneshwar from where I got a dual MBA degree. Because of my additional degrees, the Company recognised me and helped me reach my present position today.
Q. What do you have to say about the support of OIL India in your sporting career?
Ans: OIL India truly supports sportspersons. I have simply no words to express how much they have supported me.
(First published in melange, The Sentinel on July 15, 2018)