The seniormost Indian medalist at the 2018 Asian Games, Hema Deora, wife of late politician Murli Deora, speaks to Patriot about her life, career and her momentous win at Jakarta
In a recent interview to a sports magazine, Union Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore said that it was the power of young blood that helped India clinch its largest ever medal tally in any international sporting event — 69 medals — in the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games.
In fact, the average age of the medal winners in Jakarta is only 21 years, with athletes as young as 15 and 16 years of age clinching medals.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these youngsters is Hema Deora, who at the age of 67 clinched a bronze in the mixed team event in bridge, a sport that was being played in the Asian Games for the first time. She thus became the seniormost Indian to clinch a medal at any international event.
The Mumbai-based ‘bridge aficionado’, as her Twitter account bio reads, Hema is the wife of former petroleum minister and Congress leader, the late Murli Deora. He died of cancer at the age of 77 in November 2014.
She was no early starter. “During my early days, before marriage, the girls of the house were never even allowed to touch cards, let alone playing them, and hence had no chance to become skilled players,” says Deora.
“After my marriage, I was a devoted wife, as I maintained the household like a true homemaker,” she says. “My husband was slowly rising the political ranks, and was becoming one of the leading Congress men in the country. So, he used to stay out of home most of the time. I had to take care of the house and my children single-handedly,” Deora tells Patriot.
“It was only after my kids grew up that I was able to shed some responsibilities. So as a pastime, I decided to learn the game of bridge,” she says, adding that she knew nothing about card games when she started playing the game in her mid-40’s. “I cannot remember the exact age when I started playing bridge — it just seems like a long time ago,” she adds.
Slowly and steadily she learnt the game, and in time showed her talent and skill. It was her coaches who spotted her talent, and decided that she should play at a professional level. “I have had the good fortune of an extremely gifted coach and I owe him everything,” says Hema.
Hema represented India for the first time in 1999, when she and her partner were selected in the trials; they went to Sri Lanka for a tournament that included different countries from Asia. “That was an extremely proud moment for me. To represent the country on the international stage is always a big achievement,” she says, adding that they clinched the top prize at the event. She also went on to represent the country at the World Championships in Bermuda later that year. “After that I represented India in many national and international tournaments,” says a proud Hema.
So behind this successful woman, was there a man? “My husband was always supportive of my playing career,” she says. “He always used to motivate me and be very happy whenever I won something”, she adds. “At one of the tournaments I was playing in Delhi, I won the first prize, and my husband, then the country’s petroleum minister was the chief guest there. So, receiving the prize from my husband was probably the most special moment in my career,” she adds.
Asked to recount one of the most memorable moments in her career, she says, “Once when we went to Montreal for a tournament, my partner and I were pitted against two men who seemed quite familiar,” says Hema. “We then realised that it was the pair of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. They were rank amateurs and we beat them quite easily but it was quite a fun experience to beat two of the most powerful men in the world,” she adds.
It was only this year, that bridge was officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and hence was part of the Asian Games for the first time in Jakarta this year. “This was a defining moment not just for me, but the fraternity in general, as we get to represent our country at such a grand sporting stage,” says Hema.
“Our team was quite good, and we knew we would do well at the Asian Games. So when we won a medal it was expected,” she says. “But the moment I knew that I was coming home with a bronze at the Asian Games, I felt very overwhelmed and proud of myself. It is a huge achievement to see your name on the medal winners’ list”, she adds. “There is a tinge of disappointment too, as we were just a whisker away from winning the silver medal,” she says.
When Murli Deora’s friends used to come over to their house and play cards, Hema would also express interest in joining the game with them, but they would turn her away politely and say that this game is not for her to play. So after winning the medal, life has come full circle for Hema.
“People in India need to realise that bridge is a proper sport that involves mental exercise, no less than chess. You have to exercise your grey cells to succeed,” says Hema, who also writes a regular column on bridge for a leading Mumbai daily. She feels that the bronze she won for her team, and the gold medal at the men’s team event for India, have paved the way for a bright future for the sport.
For Hema, age is not a barrier when it comes to achieving something. “If you are determined, you can succeed at any age,” she says. “I may be the oldest medalist, but I was certainly not the seniormost to participate at the Asiad. People in their late 70’s and confined to a wheelchair also have participated in this event,” she says. “I plan to participate and win many more events in the future, until my brain stops functioning,” she adds.
“Winning the medal was a proud moment for me. My only regret was not having my husband by my side to witness this achievement. I wish he were here,” concludes Hema Deora.