Over the last weekend, a few hours ahead of the Copa finals between Argentina and Brazil, a diehard Argentinian fan forwarded me a link to a report on how, in a town in Bangladesh, there’s been a ban on public television display of the match. The ban has been imposed so that “warring” factions don’t get violent: there had already been cases of fights between “camps”— the ‘Argentinians’ and the ‘Brazilians’ — through the tournament, and some people sustained injuries. All this was taking place far, far away from the scene of the actual football action, but I was intrigued how an event totally dissociated from geography was stoking such intense emotional fervour and leading to physical brawls.
I remembered instantly how in my hometown, Kolkata, not too far from where all this (the Bangladesh ban) happened, the joke is that if India plays Brazil in the city, the latter would feel more at home. Most Bengalis are Brazilians when it comes to football.
Growing up, in my neck of the woods, Bengal, football, much more than cricket, had an entire population in thraldom. A Keralite friend pointed out it used to be the same in her state, but I don’t have first-hand data.
These days, “my” team is England, fuelled by my deep love for Gary Lineker and David Beckham. Since Beckham played for Manchester United, there was a time, in the late ’90s and the turn of the millennium, when I followed the English Premier League with rapt attention. But even before that, in the early ’80s, I had become a football fanatic. At that time, it was a trend. If you lived in Kolkata, you had to be either a Mohun Bagan supporter or an East Bengal one. Both were club sides, and the rivalry (initially) started out as a ‘regional’ divide. Mohun Bagan embodied the colours of those who were ‘originally’ from the western province of Bengal; East Bengal (as is evident from the name) of those from the side where the sun rose. But along the way, those boundaries got blurred, and it became a matter of an undefinable allegiance.
Whenever these two sides would play, each neighbourhood, at times buildings too, would flaunt club flags, and you’d know immediately how the dice was loaded in a particular area. Post-victory, the winning side fans would take out processions, waving flags, beating drums, shouting slogans (the ones reserved for the ‘losing’ side would now be considered pejoratives). We’d stand on terraces and balconies, and watch, like they were some Republic Day rallies.
My grandfather claimed “his” family was from the west, and he was withering of his (very politically-incorrect) opinion of those from the east, but I became an unfazed East Bengal fangirl after I watched a movie on television.
It was a movie called Mohunbaganer Meye (The Mohun Bagan Girl). Veteran actor Utpal Dutt played an inveterate Mohun Bagan fan. His son was an East Bengal supporter. Father and son had formed an uneasy truce at their ‘polarised’ home, but the father was very clear that when sonny gets married, it would be subject to only one condition (in those days, it was apparently unthinkable for Bengali men to get hitched without parental approval): the woman who would become the daughter-in-law of the household should be a Mohun Bagan supporter. Period.
The problem was that the son already had a girlfriend, an East Bengal fan. So they embark on a plan: she would lie about her loyalties. They get married and, soon after, there’s a Mohun Bagan-East Bengal match. East Bengal wins. Father is devastated. Son and daughter-in-law are over the moon, and are celebrating in the (what they assume) privacy of their bedroom, when father walks in and realises he’s been played in more senses than one. The shock is too much for him to weather, so he has a heart attack — or at least a panic attack… I forget. Of course, all’s well that ends well, so, if memory serves me right, they decide to bury the hatchet and live happily ever after.
I decided to be on the side of true love, so, overnight, I morphed into a fan.
I realised I wasn’t the only one. In school, I started mingling with girls who were football fanatics too. And once, when there was a league final between the two sides, and one side won (I forget who), there was pandemonium in my classroom the next day. “Violence” erupted. There were girls beating each other up, pulling hair, abusing in girlie slang. The principal had to intervene, and teachers stepped in to physically segregate the two warring clans. But many of the girls ceased to be on talking terms with the ‘others’ till the end of the term.