Fanatic Dialogues: The Story of a Mohun Bagan Fan - Part Two
It’s 9th December and my twitter feed is filling up with news of riots outside the Salt Lake Stadium. Stones thrown at cars, clashes between supporters, lathicharge by police, dozens of injuries… it’s looking like a carnage. I have come quite a distance since I got out of the stadium, but there is no taxi available, so I am walking until I get one.
With me there is another person who was at the match. I am wearing jeans and a black hoodie, he's in a grey sweater. None of our clothes give away our club loyalty. We talk, but never bring up the subject of which club we support. He tells me how he used to bunk college classes to attend matches. He tells me how many times he got into fights with other club supporters. Never once does he utter the name of the club he has been so passionate about for decades. Nor do I. I talk about attending matches with my father as a child, the massive celebrations after winning a derby or a trophy, without ever mentioning Mohun Bagan. Our stories turn out to be strikingly similar, but they might well be at extreme odds with each other. Eventually we part with exhausted smiles and suppressed relief that this encounter did not turn hostile. I have never seen him since.
April 2013. The blazing sun stares down at the Kalyani Municipal Stadium. It's a mid-summer afternoon and the players look exhausted. The game is exceptionally slow with weak shots and dragged running. There are frequent water breaks. Even the crowd is similarly affected. The cheers are muffled, and low groans accompany a bad move. Cartons of bottled water and lemonade are selling out in minutes. A large banner helplessly screams, "ATTENTION AIFF! Come out of your AC rooms and see the reality."
At half-time, an elderly spectator feels ill. We rush to comfort him. A drink and sprinkling of water, an umbrella over his head, we try to make sure he does not get a sun-stroke. After a while someone advises him against attending afternoon fixtures in the future. He laughs bitterly.
"I've been attending matches for twenty years. I've been to almost all Mohun Bagan games in that time, despite a world of trouble. I was there on 9th December. The police lathicharged in my block. Then some fans burned an East Bengal flag. I pleaded with them not to do it but they wouldn't listen. Things had gotten out of hand. Had our team not withdrawn, there would've been riots inside the stadium. People would've died. But AIFF suspended our club. All because we saved some lives. They suspended us, then lifted the suspension, and now they're making us play at 2 pm on weekdays in the middle of nowhere. They're punishing us. They want to see if we'll still come all the way. They want to test how much we love our club. That's why I'll keep coming. We all will. We'll fill up train compartments, travel for hours and attend matches in this heat. Because if we stop, they win. I'll come even if it kills me. Maybe if I die AIFF will stop making the boys play in this murderous heat."
His words are not devoid of some exaggeration; Mohun Bagan isn't the only team playing 2 pm kick-offs. But it does not matter. Being a Mohun Bagan fan is not all about being logical. It's not all about critiquing our brand of football, the composition of the team, or the poor state of Indian football in general. It's also about revelling in more than a century's legends and folklore. It's also about supporting the club at any cost, especially during times of crisis.
As the 2012-13 I-League turns into one of the most challenging campaigns in the club's history, supporters step up to the plate. All their points docked as punishment, the team inches forward in an uphill battle to avoid relegation, and on every matchday the trains from Sealdah to Kalyani are thronged by Mohun Bagan supporters. We travel, singing and chanting all the time, cheering every win and lamenting every defeat.
Eventually, one afternoon, Mohun Bagan escape relegation by beating Air India. When the last minute goal from Denson Devdas's sensational header clinches the victory, the Kalyani stadium explodes in a roar of vindication. Fireworks are set off, sweets are distributed. That evening, we sing, chant and dance throughout our train journey back to Kolkata. At night I repeatedly dream about the match, the journey, the euphoria. I wake up with a smile.
November 2013. At the canteen, a batchmate of mine asks me the score from previous day's Kolkata League derby. I tell him that Mohun Bagan lost. He smiles and proceeds to ridicule me for a while. A self-proclaimed 'East Bengal fan by birth', he never fails to claim the bragging rights, though he never even watches the matches on tv, let alone attend them. I ask him how he can claim to be a supporter when he has to ask a rival fan for match results. He gets defensive.
"I don't find the galleries palatable," says he. "The language is too filthy. Plus there's fights so frequently. No wonder so few women attend the matches. It's a sexist place. Plus the quality of football is dismal. Compared to EPL and La Liga they look like school football. I sometimes attend cricket matches, though. Especially IPL. You should see the crowd at Eden Gardens. It's nothing like this."
I tell him how the middle class crowd at Eden Gardens cannot be compared to the class-diverse crowd at Salt Lake Stadium. I tell him it lacks the energy, the blood-pumping fury that comes from facing off with 50,000 extremely vocal rival fans. I tell him when I attended the recent India vs West Indies test match, half the conversation at the gallery was all about how everyone procured their tickets through connections in CAB and the state government. He shakes his head and says Indian football lacks pedigree while cricket in India is world class. I ask him what else can be expected from a country where people are quick to brag but don't bother to follow the game. We finish our lunch in silence, the air turned sour.
January 11th, 2014. The Kolkata Derby is on and I'm not at the stadium. I lie bed-ridden with a cramp in my parents' house, staring transfixed at the television. The game has been a battle of equals from the start, and the tension has risen as the clock has ticked on, the score remaining 0-0.
Suddenly, Katsumi makes a breakneck run for a breakaway ball. He takes the ball on the run, a rival player tailing him half a foot behind. His left-footed flick on the ball comes as a shock to the keeper who ends up short of reach as the ball flies past him.
By the time shockwaves shatter the serenity of the net I'm already on my feet, screaming at the top of my lungs. The spectators begin to roar. The commentator loses his composure and breaks into an orgasmic yell of "KAATSUUUUUMIIIIIIIIIIII..."
But his voice is drowned out as the scream of thousands of Mohun Bagan supporters reaches a crescendo. It is a roar of joy, of pride, of relief. Of validation. They have endured a long period of trauma riddled with suspension, relegation threat, repeated defeats... and now, finally, they can see the the light at the end of the tunnel.
They know that the team still has a long way to go. They know it won't be easy to win trophies in such fierce competition. They know that winning one derby does not make the season a success. But the crowd roars because they know something they have known for almost 125 years now...
That as long as they remain faithful, as long as they turn up, let go of all logic, defy composure and scream the name of Mohun Bagan, those boys in green and maroon will go beyond themselves to reward them. The crowd for the players and the players for the crowd; this is all that has ever mattered. Because for those 90 minutes, the rest of the world ceases to exist.