Manpreet Singh was all of 10 when one day his elder brothers, Amandeep and Sukhraj, locked him into the house at Mithapur in Punjab. They were afraid that their youngest brother would hurt himself while playing hockey.
“I was the favourite in the family, and they did not want me to get hurt since hockey is a very physical sport,” says the 23-year-old, adding, “I put on my kit and went to the terrace and jumped to the adjoining house, and reached the ground within 30 minutes. My brothers were stunned, but that day they understood my love for the game.”
Today, Manpreet has played over 100 internationals and was part of the Asian Games gold medal winning team in 2014. Belonging to a modest family in Mithapur, Manpreet has slowly, but surely, made his mark in international hockey. Talented, with a quick reading of the game, leadership qualities and consistent performances are a few characteristics that define the young midfielder, who has been a regular in the side since his debut in 2010.
Manpreet reflects, “It has been quite a journey from the junior India days. The beginning was indeed very funny, since my mother used to call me throughout the day. The family really worried about me. But when I was handed the India captaincy at the junior level, it changed both me and my family. It made me responsible and set me on the right path,” says Manpreet, who is an avid Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham fan, and much like the football duo, sports the number 7 jersey.
In November 2012, Manpreet led the junior team at the Sultan of Johor Cup in Malaysia, and it was here that he found the most special person of his life: Illi Najwa Saddique. A Pakistan-origin Muslim girl based in Malaysia, Illi was studying business administration and used to watch matches at the Johor Bahru Stadium, when one day Manpreet asked for her number. “It was love at first sight,” says Illi, who now works as a business consultant at a firm in New Delhi.
“The first time we went out for dinner, my mother had come to drop me. Manpreet straightaway approached her and told her that he liked me. My mother is usually strict in these matters but when she allowed us, I understood that he is the perfect one for me. I was surprised by his action, but could not stop myself from saying yes. He is the most understanding and complete person I have ever come across,” says Illi.
To which Manpreet adds with a smile, “It did not take me long to decide that she was the one for me, but it definitely took some effort for her to say yes!”
Today, the couple shuttle between Malaysia and India to spend time with each other, and also stay with each other’s families.
“That was very important,” says Manpreet, adding, “I always wanted my family to be comfortable with Illi, and vice versa. The first time she came to our home in Jalandar, I was amazed to see the amount of love and respect my family showered on her. It was all I wanted. Today, she stays with them on days even when I am touring, and is already a part of the family. The funniest thing is the broken Punjabi that she has learnt and we all tease her about that. She has even learnt how to cook Punjabi food!” says the Indian midfielder.
Illi chips in, “Oh yes, now I can even deal with an autowala in Delhi.” Things though aren’t always easy for the couple. In a society that is driven by social norms and religious beliefs, there are often some questions raised.
Says Manpreet, “For us, it is about love and understanding. We do not care about anything else. I was surprised when one of my fans asked me why I had chosen a Muslim girl, in fact it made me very angry. We don’t think there is any place for hatred or religion when it comes to two people and their decision to be together. Our decision is based on mutual understanding and respect. Today, we are so comfortable that we can understand each other’s feelings without even saying anything.” The couple got formally engaged last year. “We have our families’ blessings and support, and it makes us happy,” adds Illi, who is a regular sight at most matches in India.
“Prior to my visit to India, I was a little scared honestly. I used to watch some Hindi dramas and that scared me. I wondered if my in-laws would be as they showed it in the dramas. But, today I can tell you those dramas are useless! There is no reality in it. I remember the day I went to meet his family, they were very welcoming and nice. For them, I am their daughter. I love saag and paneer that my mother-in-law cooks, it is so delicious that I can now eat three to four chapatis with extra ghee! I look ahead to being back in Jalandhar as Manpreet’s family loves me more than they even him! I love them like my own too,” she adds.
With Manpreet now preparing for next year’s Rio Olympics, the duo believe marriage can wait. “It is a very significant year for Indian hockey. We had finished 12th at the 2012 London Olympics, and the pain is still there. The entire focus is on improvisation and I am very keen on doing well in Rio,” says the Jalandhar lad, who captained Ranchi Rays to the title in the Hockey India League earlier this year.
No doubt, he will have Illi as his support. “I always call her before I leave for any match no matter where I am. Her approach towards life is very positive and that acts as a motivation. Be it life decisions or others, I look up to her,” he says.