Fanatic Dialogues: The Story of a Mohun Bagan Fan - Part One
9th December, 2012. A rival player stands and claps as our captain gets red carded. The right hand side of the Salt Lake Stadium jumps to its feet, more than 50,000 mouths screaming in anger. A barrage of curses and insults flows as many are convinced that the referee is biased.
A while later, the first broken chair gets thrown into the field. I flinch and turn as a brick as big as a tiffin box flies past, missing my head by a couple of feet. Some spectators have flipped. Others are trying to calm them down but too little, too late. Things fly into the ground from the block to my right. The police take their time to get to strategic positions, then pick up the missiles and throw them back towards the crowd. Instead of intimidation, this further enrages them as some blocks break into full blown riot, beating the police back through the narrow passageways whenever they try to invade the gallery. I see a police helmet fly out of the crowd. A minute later, another police helmet, this time it's on fire.
Sometime later, an injured player lies bleeding on the ground, the red blood starkly visible on the green artificial turf even from this far end. The macabre sight brings back horrible memories of Junior as the ambulance carries him out. “Looks like the missile came from one of our stands,” say some in hushed whispers. “They were aiming for the referee and hit him instead.” Others disagree. Like wildfire, the news spreads; East Bengal supporters have thrown a brick at Rahim Nabi and now his life is in danger.
The last hope for things calming down evaporates.
17th March, 2013. As I walk away from the floodlit Salt Lake Stadium, the leaves around me still smell of the early evening rain. The IFA Shield semi-final match has just concluded, and Mohun Bagan have lost to East Bengal in penalties, after taking the lead and then conceding mere minutes before full-time. I walk away fast because soon the East Bengal fans would come pouring out, showering us with insults and ridicules. There would be scuffles and isolated fights and I am in no mood for those right now.
A few other Mohun Bagan supporters are walking with me. An elderly gentleman is particularly infuriated and starts talking excitedly to anyone who will listen.
“Those bloody East Bengal supporters, those lotas, we let them come over from Bangladesh and stay here, and what do they do? They’re all a bunch of cheating scoundrels!”
Nobody answers him as his hateful vitriol goes a notch up when we near the stadium’s outer gates. “They all come here and take the good jobs,” he says. “They come and they all vote for the CPM! And then they come to the stadium to support East Bengal and beat up our supporters! Never trust them! Never be friends with them! Never marry them! They’re all back-stabbers! Uncultured goons is what they are!”
Ahead of me is a guy, not much older than myself, in white mourning clothes. Someone very close to him must have died only days ago, and he still made sure to come and see the match. Now he walks like a man hypnotized, gaze fixed ahead, steps falling uncertainly.
The elderly man shuts up by the time we reach the bus stop. We stand in silence and listen to the roar of East Bengal fans; their players must be taking the victory lap now.
That night, back in my apartment, I suddenly find myself in tears. Ridiculous, I tell myself. Get a grip on yourself.
It’s 9th December and the match has not started yet. I walk down the lane between rows of chairs at the Salt Lake Stadium. The pitch looks very different from my memory; last time I was here it was filled with slightly unkempt grass, now it’s a perfectly streamlined artificial turf. As I take my seat, I wish this was an evening game, under floodlights.
The roof over the top tier has red and yellow ribbons and flags hanging from them; even in the blocks where Mohun Bagan supporters are supposed to sit. This is a home game for East Bengal and they have done a little decoration. My neighbours are not happy with it.
“This is a very bad thing they did, hanging red and yellow banners over our heads,” one says. “It’s a provocation. They’re being blatantly disrespectful. Our club would never do such a thing.”
Some decide to leave their front-of-the-stand seats and move to the back, fearing something might go wrong. I, too excited to bother, get busy helping a bunch of guys set up an enormous green and maroon banner.
Our block is in the middle tier, and the small section right above our head for some reason had been empty, probably closed off, since I came in. Just before the kickoff, it is opened up for some British cricket fans. The test match at Eden Gardens has finished early and they have come over for a peek of Indian football. And with them, some East Bengal fans have invaded the block. They stand waving their banners right above us, where rightfully our own supporters should be. They taunt us, cursing and making crude gestures. Our fans reply, cursing with faces distorted, hands and fingers bending to form the most offensive gestures, slangs flying everywhere. We curse each other’s families and cultures. The question of nationality comes up. Phrases like “barbed wire” and “ration card” are often repeated. I join in from the get go.
Months later, I join in again when outside the stadium a truck draped in red and yellow drives past. I join in when I’m riding a matador filled with Mohun Bagan fans and spot a group of East Bengal fans walking by. Curses, gestures; they happen again and again. Rarely does it come to real physical fights, but the venting of anger is relentless. They see my green and maroon jersey and insult me. I do the same when I come across a red and yellow shirt. Not because I hate them. Not because I’m driven by some stupid, dated prejudice. Nor because their insults hurt me, or I wish mine to hurt them. In fact this mutual cursing and waving of hands must look more comical than anything else. I join in because they are there, and so am I. We are supporters of football clubs who have been rivals for a century, and these are our days to rage.
October 2009. I am living in Hyderabad, pursuing my Master’s degree. One of my friends has been avoiding me all day. I finally corner him at the hostel mess during dinner. I sit next to him and tell him I’m so hungry I could eat FIVE more chapati’s. I say I’m worried that the Shakespeare assignment is due in just FIVE days. I ask him if he knows they’re going to hike the mess fees by FIVE hundred bucks next semester. After a while, he says, “Yeah yeah I get it, stop gloating already.” I act surprised, “What? It hasn’t even been FIVE minutes!”
The reason for this ceremonious leg-pulling of my dear friend who happens to be an East Bengal fan is, of course, the 5-3 triumph Mohun Bagan has just had over its arch rivals. It’s a revenge of a defeat in 1975 when they scored five past us. For 24 years there has been no end to the gloating; ex-players talk about it in interviews, memoirs are written in the papers every year, and the taunts of East Bengal fans claiming they’d do it again… seemed like it would go on forever. But our team has silenced them now. Finally the ghost of 1975 has been exorcised and I am sure as hell not going to give up the bragging so early.
“Wanna catch a movie tomorrow?” I ask, “FIVE o’ clock show?”
17th Setember, 2013. I am sitting amidst thousands of East Bengal fans, wearing my Arsenal home shirt to try and blend in. The occasion is East Bengal’s home match against Semen Padang in the quarter finals of the AFC Cup. It’s a historical occasion and a crowd of more than 40,000 has gathered. Fellow Mohun Bagan fans advised me against attending this match but I have showed up anyway. Who will recognize me here?
Right before kickoff, I hear a shout, “Hey look, that one’s a Mohun Bagan fan! He’s a macha! I know him!”
I freeze. Some other voices join in and start shouting abuses. I look back and realize that the target is not me but someone else a few rows behind. Within seconds he is surrounded, and all I can hear are the vilest curses and endless vitriol. “We don’t go to your matches, you don’t come to ours! You don’t sit with us,” says one. The police intervene. The Mohun Bagan fan is taken away to sit elsewhere, where he can still hope to maintain his anonimity.
The person next to me has seen my terror-stricken face and suspects something. He asks, “Are you a bangal or ghoti?” The word bangal refers to people who are originally from the Eastern region of the old Bengal province, now known as Bangladesh. Most of them moved to West Bengal after the partition and had to rebuild their lives all over again. For many of them, East Bengal Football Club became the last remaining association with the land they lost. Mohun Bagan Athletics Club, the club associated with ghoti’s aka the people who lived in West Bengal all along, saw their rivalry with East Bengal intensify as the football match became the place where everyone could vent their frustration at troubling times; an economy thrown off balance by a sudden influx of millions of refugees. Years passed, the volatile dust somewhat settled, but the clash of identities, the tussle of bad memories from a turbulent past, remained strong whenever these two marquee teams faced each other. That’s the reason why my neighbour has asked me whether I am a bangal or ghoti. Supporting the designated football club is considered to be a part and parcel of your identity. Much like how Catalans are expected to support Barcelona by default.
I tell him I was born and brought up in Bengal but my lineage goes back to UP. So in a strict sense, I’m neither ghoti nor bangal. Whether the answer satisfies him or not I don’t know, but he loses interest in me and turns to the pitch.
East Bengal win that match. I stand up and clap when they score. After the game, all buses are full of East Bengal fans. I choose to walk instead. It takes me more than 3 hours to get all the way back to my apartment.
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