Years from this sticky, stupendous August evening that gave a billion-plus nation its sweetest lump in the throat and the oddly cathartic mist in the eye, when diary entries shall be consigned to museums and clipboard reminders on our gadgets cease to stay relevant " replaced, in all likelihood, by some artificial intelligence-driven memory software " chances are that PV Sindhu's delectable crosscourt flick and Hardik Singh's lung-busting counter will serve as genuine markers of time. Where were you on India's greatest day (fine, arguably) at the Olympics?
Phew. Let out that roar, let go of that cheer, punch that air, feel the hair rising on you. Revel. Rejoice. For there hasn't really been a day like yesterday (1 August) " and today, but the miracle women of Indian hockey deserve a write-up of their own.
For two hours on the Sunday evening, sports held India in its thrall. That doesn't always happen here, because we are still a fair way from becoming a process-oriented sporting nation. The last time a non-cricket sporting feat captivated the country was perhaps when PV Sindhu played the Rio Olympics final five years back. And even then, the collective pride stemmed from a heroic loss. Not this Sunday, not against He Bing Jiao.
It was an unusual sight " a Chinese shuttler on all-fours, defeated and dejected. Sindhu engineered that sight at least thrice in the second game alone, peppering Bing Jiao with crosscourt smashes, some dropping agonisingly short of the Chinese's reach, other sailing tantalisingly over her but landing within the lines.
For the 53 minutes that their duel lasted, Bing Jiao tried her best to outdo Sindhu with body smashes, but the Indian had more than a tame block to offer as a retort. Sindhu thrived in long rallies, didn't allow Bing Jiao to dominate the net, and at around 5:53 PM IST, ended her Tokyo campaign with a snappy return that eluded the left-handed player on her backhand side. The Chinese shuttler didn't bother to dive this time. Instead, she sunk to the court, dejected.
Sindhu " arms aloft and eyes welling up " looked into the overhead glare of arclights, bathing the moment at the grandest stage sport has to offer, soaking in the enormity of what she had done.
No Indian, barring wrestler Sushil Kumar, had won an individual Olympic medal twice, until this moment. First woman, second Indian, only shuttler. Out of a population of 1.3 billion and counting. Among the sporting royalty of modern era. Beating a Chinese and a Japanese on the way. Coming back after going down to a touch artist (Tai Tzu Ying). Legend.
Around the same time, 26-year-old Gurjant Singh composes himself with the ball in Great Britain's 'D' and launches a reverse hit. It scorches the fine gap in the din of defenders, beats the flailing goalkeeper, and thuds into the corner. It's the sound of a medal-starved nation knocking at the doors of history. India, waiting since 1980 Moscow Olympics for a podium, denied in Sydney 2000, failed to qualify in Beijing 2008, finished last in London 2012, lead 2-0 in Tokyo 2020.
It would soon become 2-1, but the defence, particularly goalkeeper PR Sreejesh " into his third, and possibly his final, Olympics would stand tall. The British continue to press, but through falling bodies and slick sticks, daring rushes and delectable dodges, India resist. The legs don't give up, neither does the will.
Then comes the run. The bogey of frozen defences in dying minutes, the taunts of inadequate killer instinct, the perennial fear of winning " sweeping accusations alright but proven across decades by teams in past " behind him, Hardik Singh runs.
It begins well behind the half-line. The 22-year old receives the pass and takes off. Ball sticking to his stick, legs moving like well-oiled pistons, he enters the English striking circle and scores on his second attempt, off a rebound. He looks up, perhaps recalling a time when he wanted to switch base to Europe before uncle Jugraj Singh intervened. 'Hardik' translates to 'from the heart', and there is no shortage of heart in his game. To generate that pace in the 57th minute of the match, to execute that goal at that stage, to be this young and have a nation cheering your charge¦ it must be something.
The goal breaks the British will and sends India to their first semi-final in " technically speaking " 49 years. The last time India won an Olympic medal was at the 1980 Games in Moscow, where top finishers from each pool played the final, and there was no semi-final. The world has since moved on. That glory arrived before the internet age. Before India had won an Olympic medal outside hockey and wrestling. Before Kapil Dev and his men did the unthinkable at Lord's. Before the 7-1 hammering at the Asiad final. Before any of the current players were born.
Now, under the floodlit incandescence of this sapping night in Tokyo, in front of empty stands and a heaving, sweating audience transfixed in front of their television sets back home, this Indian team has finally caught up with time. Pargat Singh couldn't; Dhanraj Pillay couldn't; neither could Gagan Ajit Singh, Jugraj Singh, Deepak Thakur, Dilip Tirkey, Prabhjot Singh.
The wait " 41 or 49 years, whichever way you look at it " has ended on this giddy evening. The players, drenched and spent, still bear the spring in their steps that accompany historic wins. Harmanpreet Singh lets go of his emotions unchecked. Dilpreet, Mandeep, and Hardik are on their haunches. Skipper Manpreet has just delivered a mean left jab in thin air. This is surreal, this can't be happening. The emotions that hockey " once our passport to the West " still manages to generate is astounding. A medal-starved country, bred on the wizardry of Major Dhyan Chand, craft of Balbir Singh Sr. and pace of Dhanraj Pillay has its new heroes, albeit belatedly.
One cannot be certain if the euphoria around the incredible Sunday will survive beyond the Olympics, but it must be savoured while it lasts. Savour that lump and that mist, those goosebumps and that choking voice, those trembling fingers and that racing heart, savour this incredibly rare feeling, this winning feeling that comes after generations of sweat and sacrifice.