Aneesha Walia's voice is tinged with fatigue. Her sentences harbour grief, mourning, pain and seem to come from deep within, where the only inhabitants at the moment are herself and anguish. It has just been two days since her life was upended. India's former national table tennis champion and her husband, Manmeet Singh Walia, title winner in 1989/90 in Hyderabad, succumbed to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis on 11 May at 1.04 pm in Montreal, just about a year after being diagnosed. The disease has no known cause or cure. Canada has been home to the Walias and their two daughters, Trisha, and Alayna.
File image of former National table tennis champion Manmeet Singh Walia.
Since the time she saw Manmeet at a tournament in Delhi, in the 80s and sought his autograph, they have been together. Every word spoken about him, wherever, whenever Aneesha utters 'Manmeet' is caressed, voiced delicately. She focuses on the days gone by, the times spent in Delhi and the high of Manmeet winning the National Championships, his one and only Senior National TT final. Within a year, they were married and on a flight to Montreal where Manmeet's elder brother Jaspal Singh Ahluwalia (Manmeet only used Walia) had migrated in the early eighties.
"He never shied away from a challenge," she says of their coming to Canada, exactly a year after being crowned National Champion. He still had a few good years remaining, possibly a shot at a couple of more National titles. It was nuanced perfectly by Kamlesh Mehta, India's 8-time National Champion and a former teammate of Manmeet. "We thought his retirement was a little too premature," says Kamlesh. "In death, too, it was very early."
Kamlesh also recalls that he and Manmeet made their debut together at the 5th Asian Table Tennis Championships held in 1988, Kolkata. "It was a dream debut for Manmeet, I clearly remember the match against North Korea which at that time was one of the strongest teams in the world. In that particular match, being so young, only 18 years, he won two matches beating the North Korean player, Jo Young Ho, World No 6 and one more North Korean player who was the World No 13. Because of that we came very close to winning against Korea. We lost the match 5-4 but Manmeet was the hero.
"When we got the news of Manmeet, Mannu, as we lovingly called him, passing away, it was incredibly sad and very shocking for all of us. He was an exceptionally talented table tennis player who played close to the table, controlled yet a very attacking player with a particularly good service."
Eight-time National Champion, Indu Puri, recalls Manmeet as a very stylish and aggressive player. "He was a wonderful human being, constantly playing pranks, extremely jolly and full of life. He was my mixed doubles partner for some time and we played some international and domestic matches together."
She also remembers when Manmeet had burst onto the junior circuit. "What I remember about him also was when he was a junior playing in the national stadium he had a very funny sort of bike customised which had a long tail, and we always use to make fun of him because of that bike.
"It's very sad that he has gone but God bless him. I'm also in a way very relieved that his suffering has been cut short."
The sport moved on without Manmeet. Out of the public eye, making a new life and career in far-off Canada, the legacy dulled and Manmeet became a footnote in Indian table tennis history. The media largely spoke about players like Kamlesh, Manjit Dua, Indu Puri as they were accessible. Manmeet by then had entered the garment industry, hospitality and then real estate, his intensity and energy as a player visible in building these businesses in Montreal too.
"That thing about winning was inbuilt," says Aneesha. "Whether business, playing poker or coaching our daughter Alayna (Canadian U-17 National badminton champion and also a Pan-Am doubles bronze medallist), he was always there. Parents make it to most tournaments, but Manmeet never missed a single training session of Alayna even if it meant travelling regularly to Toronto from Montreal."
Though Manmeet remained away from TT, he kept in touch with players like S Sriram and Kamlesh. "Winning the National title was a big high for him," says Aneesha. She remembers how tense he was in early 1989, having failed to cross the semi-finals on four earlier occasions. "For the first time, he probably didn't train or practice that much before going to Hyderabad," she remembers. She believes giving up on the pressure before the National Championships played in his favour.
Manmeet Singh Walia with the winner's trophy after winning the National Senior Table Tennis Title.
The Indian Express wrote then: "For years, Manmeet has maintained a macho image. At the table, the fierce yells and shaking of fists at the end of every crucial point. Off the table, the permanent scowl. Yet on the morning of his first-ever final, Manmeet was in a relaxed mood, joking with those around him."
The final in Hyderabad on 13 February, 1989 was highly anticipated. Sriram was the favourite, simply because this was Manmeet's first ever final and many felt he might crack under the pressure. The Delhi boy closed out the first game 21-16 in ten minutes. The second also went to Manmeet at 21-15. However, Sriram fought back in the third winning it 18-21. One can only imagine, now, the crackling tension at the Ahluwalia residence in Andrews Ganj in Delhi. His elder brother Jaspal had come to India for the first time since settling down in Quebec in 1982. He was among the lot praying. In those days, the final was telecast live on Doordarshan. The Express writes of that fourth game on Manmeet: "The whiplash forehand was working smoothly."
It was nine all. Manmeet surged ahead 15-9. Then he served at 18-12 and then held seven match points at 20-13. Taking the game 21-13, India had a new National Champion for the first time in five years. Manmeet had exorcised the ghost of never winning a senior national title.
Later, speaking to The Indian Express in Hyderabad, Manmeet said: "I have fulfilled my father's wish. He will be weeping more than me in Delhi after watching TV. He said that I had to win the title for him."
In January 2020, a study, "Neurodegenerative Disease Mortality among Former Professional Soccer Players," was published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers found that athletes who played professional football, known as soccer in the United States, are more than three times more likely to die of a neurodegenerative disease than the general population.
Manmeet was diagnosed with ALS in early 2019. Once reality of the disease hit home, it was a numbing moment for everyone. Disbelief kicked in first. And then came the questions. "How much life do I have," was Manmeet's query to the doctor. The doctor's reply: "Not more than eighteen months." Jaspal says they tried to tell Manmeet not to ask that question. "I had never seen him losing at anything," says Jaspal and you know then why he did not want Manmeet to ask that question.
Aneesha recalls his first reaction when he knew of the diagnosis. "How can we fix this," he had asked. "He knew time was short and he decided to throw everything at it and went to Coimbatore and also to China in a bid to beat it," she says. At the same time, Aneesha says, Manmeet was putting his papers in order. He told Aneesha that he was looking at quality and not longevity. Manmeet did not want to be hooked up to machines. Initially, as Aneesha says there was a sense of frustration inside him, maybe anger but then came sadness. "He realised that he had lived a full life but the sadness was because he would miss being with his girls and not see them grow up." Later, as Aneesha describes, Manmeet said, "It's okay. This is my destiny and let it play out." In one of the many conversations they had, Aneesha recalls Manmeet saying: "You will be able to do everything on your own." She replied back, "but you are my strength."
Aneesha remembers his intensity and 'let us win' attitude. "But the one thing that we all would miss is that he was a great dad," she says. "We were truly one unit and family was everything to him. He was amazing with the kids and I know they have lost something special. We all just have to learn to live again. He was our glue."
Manmeet was slowly sliding. And Aneesha wished he would last the year out. 16 April was their 30th marriage anniversary. A week before he went, Manmeet asked Aneesha, "Give me your blessing, I want this to be over." "It had taken a lot out of him," she says.
On Monday, Aneesha went up to Manmeet and saw that his breathing was shallow. She called the nurse and made a call to the doctor asking him to come in. Aneesha, Trisha and Alayna held one of his hands while Manmeet kept the other on his chest and looked at them. "He was telling us that we would forever be in his heart," says Aneesha. "Then he closed his eyes and it was peaceful."
The Arjuna Award sits peacefully and with a lot of pride at the Walia residence in Montreal. Jaspal searches for answers in the scriptures. Aneesha and her daughters hold onto the memories. The Walia household maybe a microcosm of a changing world but like the world itself, they too would endure.