Knowing nothing of sports, and not caring to know, in a sports-crazy city like Kolkata ensured that Sandip Roy remains forever the child with his nose flattened against the glass window
“Sport can unite worlds, tear down walls, and transcend race, the past and all probability. Unlike life, sport matters.” —Shehan Karunatilaka, Chinaman
The panel sounded impressive, literary and diverse, voices from across the subcontinent. Kamila Shamsie, Shehan Karunatilaka, Khademul Islam. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh. As the moderator I was supposed to bring the Indian touch. It was my first outing at the Dhaka Literary Festival and I was keen to make a good impression. The lit fest organisers had been so gracious and hospitable. I had been promised the famous Bangladeshi hilsa. So I was happy to moderate anything. Then I was told the topic.
It was a panel on cricket.
The blood drained from my face. I knew nothing about cricket. But you are the moderator, not a panellist, so you don’t need to be an expert, the organisers told me reassuringly. You don’t understand, I said feebly, I mean I really know nothing. Like, zilch.
That must have been impossible to comprehend, unimaginable. As someone raised in India, even the most unsporty of us absorbed cricket by osmosis. Growing up, I had been rotten at cricket. Make that rotten at sports in general. I flinched when a ball came my way, regardless of whether it was a cricket ball or a football or a tennis ball. I just about managed the sack race and the three-legged race on Sports Day. That was not the end of the world. Not everyone can be good at sports. That was acceptable. My real failing was that I was not even interested. My lack of talent was excusable, my lack of interest incomprehensible. I didn’t know my silly mid-on from my silly mid-off. I could not reel off cricket statistics or get excited about a football match. When people tossed around phrases like “Sharjah 1983” and “Eden Gardens 1977” almost as if they were literary metaphors, I looked blank. The only time my sports ignorance helped was years later in the United States—when everyone was glued to the television watching the Super Bowl, I could go grocery shopping in an empty supermarket.
Journalist and writer Indrajit Hazra once wrote about becoming an Argentina fan in 1986 when he saw on his black-and-white EC TV “a Minotaur in blue-and-white stripes knifing a meandering 60m air corridor in 10 seconds and tearing through six scrambling figures whose collective name I would memorise forever as Beardsley-Reid-Butcher-Fenwick-Butcher-Shilton. That was my moon-landing.” I loved the imagery even though he might as well have been speaking in tongues as far as I was concerned. Two decades later police had to resort to a lathi-charge when delirious fans broke through barricades as that minotaur, Diego Maradona, called on the ailing Jyoti Basu in Kolkata.
In a city as passionate as this, I quickly realised that I needed to try and pass, if only as a survival tactic. I could not hide my lack of sporting skills since they were blatantly apparent as soon as I stepped on the field. But I had to pretend to a modicum of sporting interest. Loving sports was normal. I wanted to be normal.
Sports was what bound neighbourhoods together. The Sanyals down the street had a big television set at a time when not every home had one. When there were cricket Test matches during our vacations, the neighbourhood kids, boys and girls, would pile on to their king-sized bed to watch the match.
When the match broke for lunch we too would run home to have ours. I wanted to spend my vacation lying in my own bed reading adventure stories. But I knew that I had to play along or be shunned as a weirdo. Those were the days of somnolent five-day Test matches live-cast on Doordarshan where long spells would go by with no one saying anything, just the thwack of bat meeting ball. A commentator with a plummy baritone woke up periodically to issue cryptic phrases such as “a little short on length” before lapsing into phlegmatic silence until suddenly a particular deft cover drive or a nifty off-spin would elicit cheers both from the commentary booth and the Sanyal bed. I joined in, always a whisker behind the others, my enthusiasm totally contrived, hoping that no one guessed I was playacting.
It was not just the neighbourhood. Sports had always felt like the glue that kept our diverse, fractious country together. We were fiercely parochial in other ways. We parsed our identities as finely as we possibly could. We thought of ourselves as North Kolkatans versus South Kolkatans, or Kolkatans versus Delhiites, or Bengalis versus the rest. But when India played cricket (or went to war) we were finally all Indians.
It took me a long time to understand the role sports played in fashioning our image of ourselves as Bengalis, especially as Bengali men. This was a city that was mad about sports without necessarily excelling in any. I was growing up in the crucible of the legendary rivalry between the East Bengal and Mohun Bagan football clubs. Indian football features nowhere in the world rankings but the Kolkata Derby, the storied “boro match” or big match between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan finds a spot in the 100 Classic Derbies list. When East Bengal trounced Mohun Bagan 5-0 in the IFA Shield final in 1975, a Mohun Bagan supporter committed suicide, leaving behind a note in which he wrote that he would exact his revenge in his next birth.
Are you a supporter of East Bengal or Mohun Bagan, I would be asked all the time and I never really had an answer. I was agnostic. All I knew was East Bengal supporters swore by hilsa and Mohun Bagan fans loved their prawns and the price of one or the other shot up depending on who won the match. I loved both and so was perfectly happy to gorge on the loser’s fish.
In his book Barefoot to Boots: The Many Lives of Indian Football, Novy Kapadia writes that the legendary rivalry started in 1925 when they met for a Calcutta League match. In 1957 when Mohun Bagan was leading 2-1 at half-time, East Bengal officials, including the club’s general secretary, organised a little dressing room puja to bless their players. It apparently worked. East Bengal won 3-2 though they lost the Durand Cup final to Hyderabad City Police. The officials were sad to lose but satisfied they had at least defeated their archrivals Mohun Bagan. There was even a Bengali film where a Mohun Bagan fan refused to let his son marry an East Bengal fan or perhaps it was the other way around. Clearly Kolkata’s version of the Montagues and Capulets.
In the neighbourhood of Chetla near my home these days the Goddess Kali comes in many incarnations: Rakta Chamunda, red skin, red tongue and red hair standing upright as if electric-shocked; Hajaar Haath Kali, with a thousand arms spread out like a fan behind her; and the Mohun Bagan Kali, in a purple and green avatar like the club’s jersey. It has no mythological provenance, this hitherto unknown 109th avatar of the Goddess. But it shows how embedded sports was in our psyche, even though one Horatio Smith wrote in the Calcutta Gazette in 1857: “The most superficial observer of Bengali manners must know that their games and sports are, for the most part, sedentary… [h]is maxim being that ‘walking is better than running, standing than walking, sitting than standing, and lying down best of all’.” But you could still talk about sports no matter what position you were in.
In a city like this, my sports deficiency disorder (SDD) left me marooned like a fish perennially out of water. Every morning after a big game our neighbourhood tea shop would become the site of a review-and-critique session. I could hear people arguing with each other over cups of strong milky tea and egg toast. They would sit on the rowak, the concrete front porch of our house, and discuss the intricacies of the game as if they were experts watching a live action replay. I could play no part in it. During World Cups, friends would stay up till odd hours to watch games being played in some faraway country and stumble into class bleary-eyed. I had nothing to contribute. Sometimes I would force myself to stay awake as well but then what could a boy who never understood the offside rule have to say about football? The boys in the neighbourhood would attend boisterous picnics. I shrank from going, afraid I would be forced into a game of cricket I didn’t want to play. On sunny sleepy winter afternoons I would see the neighbourhood kids pile bricks at the crossroads as a makeshift wicket for a game of cricket. In the middle of a monsoon downpour, they would play in the local field, their t-shirts sodden, slipping and sliding in the mud, their whoops competing with the drumbeat of the falling rain. I just watched.
In a sense my SDD set me apart from the paara culture of the neighbourhood. Academic Supriya Chaudhuri defined a paara as “a community, a self-regulating sphere where adda [free-flowing conversation], moral surveillance and children’s games could co-exist without apparent strain” but also noted that unlike a gated community or an apartment complex “it was not made up of like-minded individuals who had decided to live next to each other, but of persons living in close proximity who were suspicious of outsiders”. I was the insider-outsider, my relationship with the neighbourhood tempered not with suspicion but a certain polite puzzlement reserved for those who existed outside the normal zone of comprehension.
In the gendered world of family weddings I would be ill at ease in the “men’s section”, where cricket and football were the default topics of conversation. In school I was a good student but my history score didn’t matter outside the school walls where jovial uncles would ask me about the latest cricket game and I would come up short. So I invented favourite cricketers. I even toyed with the thought of putting their posters up on my wardrobe next to my Tina Turner poster. My parents belatedly tried to “sportify” me by enrolling me in tennis classes but it was a failed endeavour. I was doomed to remain a short, painfully skinny boy with an oversized head.
But I did miss sports. I wished I was better at them. I wished I could enjoy them. I wanted to be more effortlessly masculine, one of the boys. In his introduction to Nation at Play: A History of Sport in India, Ronojoy Sen writes, “Despite being a keen follower of many sports, I never graduated beyond games in the neighbourhood park or inter-house matches at school. But that is not something I’m particularly ashamed of. If it weren’t for people like me, where would sports and the sports industry be?” I wished I too could at least be a keen follower but I had just missed out on that gene.
The Duke of Wellington supposedly said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. I understood what that meant. The boys who played together on the team developed an after-school camaraderie, a closeness, a team spirit, from which I would always remain aloof. The school elocution team was just not the same. Until you nurse each other through bruised knees and sprained ankles and hurled curse words for flubbing a pass you don’t really know what it means to have someone’s back. In my neighbourhood, sports was the great leveller, at least briefly, of class hierarchy because the fancy pants boy who went abroad for holidays would also play in the same field with the aloo-wala’s son and in the heat of the game nobody cared whose father did what. I would watch the boys screaming at the edges of a school match, yelling their lungs out, shouting “pass, pass!” and wish I could summon up the same enthusiasm even if I didn’t have the talent of the classmate dribbling past three defenders. Decades later, on my school WhatsApp group someone shares a blow-by-blow match of some legendary long-ago school match that remains etched in their memories. I remain the outsider, the kid with his nose pressed to the glass.
In Nation at Play, Sen asks, “What does one mean by sports? And do we distinguish between sports and play?” He goes on to quote Dutch historian Johan Huizinga who defined play as “freedom” or a stepping-out of ordinary or real life, bringing a “temporary, a limited perfection” into the confusion of life. Sport with its fixation on records is, according to American historian Allen Guttmann, a “uniquely modern form of immortality”. My utter failure in organised sports meant I had to learn other ways to play.
So I learned to watch others, to eavesdrop on conversations, to listen to the snatches of arguments floating up from our front porch like cigarette smoke. And I used those bits and pieces to make up stories in my head. My imagination became my playing field. I walked around the house kicking a small forsaken piece from some long-lost Lego building set, making up stories about dragons and boys, ghosts who lived in our neem tree and detectives and space aliens. I called my little Lego piece my “kickabout” and while others kicked balls around, I kicked my kickabout from the terrace where my grandmother grew her lemons to the balcony from which my mother chatted with the neighbours and back again. I learned to fill the long lazy days of summer vacations with intricate projects—building moonscapes with plaster of paris, a 3-D model of an Asterix village complete with the fishmonger and the blacksmith, origami cranes and elephants, and once a wildlife map of Africa where I drew every animal painstakingly, each project more elaborate than the previous, to fill the sports-shaped hole in my life. I learned how to be alone yet not be lonely. I understood that I would have to make my own community, not just be gifted one by default via the playing field the way my friends and cousins were.
I have learned to make my peace with it. When the World Cup rolls around and the city is covered in Argentina and Brazil colours, I just think of it as Instagrammable. I eat the Messi and Ronaldo sandesh that pops up in the sweetshops without getting caught up in the games. At the teashop they still talk about the time Messi visited and before him Maradona and before them Pele, past his prime but still a demigod in Kolkata. Our Messi and our Maradona were never ours really even if they graced the city a couple of times with friendly visits. The Maradona statue Kolkata lovingly erected looks more like someone’s grandmother than the football legend. But the ardour is touching. I am amused that my local fishmonger has a garlanded Messi hanging right next to his pictures of Shiva and Kali watching over his piles of prawns and rohu and hilsa. I even watch the game sometimes, not for the football dexterity but for the pleasure of the Bengali commentary, florid and alliterative. Every time a team loses, we are told it is their “swapner salil samadhi” or edifice of drowned dreams. The World Cup, and sports in general, gives Kolkata the excuse to indulge in its favourite pastime—dissect, debate, daydream but without needing to actually do anything.
In a sense that’s not so very different from the life of a writer. But sometimes on an evening when the city is glued to a big match on television, I hear the sudden roar of “Goaaaal!” echoing through the night, ricocheting from house to house, erupting from the bowels of the fish market, exploding from the cluster around a mobile phone in front of the tea shop, startling the neighbourhood dogs, popping up on my Twitter timeline and I wonder what it might feel like to be a true sports fan, to feel the adrenaline rush in my marrow. And then I tell myself it’s okay.
Postscript: The literary panel went fine after I came clean about my cricketing knowledge deficiency on stage. In the end this was probably one of those rare South Asian panels where the Indian posed no risk of playing Big Brother. I still have a copy of Chinaman autographed by Shehan. He wrote, “Thanks for a great panel. Was a lot of fun. All the very best.” I took him at his word. It is the closest thing to a sporting trophy that I will ever own.
This essay was published in the Oct-Dec 2019 issue. The theme was Sport.