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THE NET AND NOSTALGIA
- Sweet, sometimes sticky, memories of football

A friend who sometimes reads this column complains that I am somewhat opportunistic about my use of the term 'home town'. Depending on the context, and my own interest, I use either the town I was born and reared, or the city where my forefathers came from and to which I have since returned. I plead guilty to unprincipled opportunism, but also to a honest confusion. Just as some men have two wives and other men have two nationalities, I have two home towns. Why must I choose between one and the other'

My conscious memories of Bangalore/Bengaluru go back to the year 1962. For the next thirty years I visited the place once a year, sometimes twice, staying for a few weeks or a few months each time. Since 1994 it has been my permanent and full-time home. Still, although I think of it seldom, in my dreams my other (and original) home town pops up every so often. Its dense and crowded bazaar figures, but more often I dream of the valley in which the town is set: of its pine forests, its swift-running streams, its views of the hills, and its birds beautiful and grand, from the Paradise Flycatcher to the Red-Billed Blue Magpie.

Recently, however, the town and the valley have come to occupy my waking hours as well. This is because I have been asked to contribute to a new website devoted to its favourite sport, football.

Now for a very long while, football was Calcutta's favourite sport, too. And one of Calcutta's best-loved footballers was a man from Dehra Dun. His name was Ram Bahadur, who ' most unusually for a mercenary on the Maidan ' played for one club alone, East Bengal. As a thrusting half-back, he helped his club to several league titles, and to several IFA Shields and Durand Cups. He was capped many times for India, playing in the Rome Olympics of 1960 and in the gold-medal winning team at the Bangkok Asian Games in 1962.

I knew Ram Bahadur intimately, for he was my uncle's oldest friend. I have written of him and their friendship elsewhere (see www.dehradunfootball.com) but here I want to write of a Dehra Dun footballer who played for East Bengal even before Ramu dai did; in fact, who introduced the younger man to the club. His name was Bir Bahadur, and like his prot'g' he went on to be capped for India. As a 'roving centre-half', he played in the 1958 Asian Games, before the shift to a 4-2-4 system saw him losing his place in the national side.

On retiring from football Biru dai returned to the Valley, and took up a job in the school where I studied. Unusually for a man of his class and profession, he both spoke immaculate English and did not put on an ounce of flesh after his playing career had ended. He occasionally appeared in staff versus student matches, his elegant through passes ' invariably muffed up by a puffing old schoolmaster ' revealing glimpses of the player he once was. In those days I was even more daft about football than cricket. So, when I had a free evening I would take myself off to Bir Bahadur's apartment, where he would brew me a cup of tea and tell me stories of his days in the game.

Bir Bahadur had played football in the decade when the Indian football team was not a joke, when it won at the Asian Games and came a creditable fourth in the Olympics. He would speak with affection of the men he had played with and against, such as Sailen Manna of Bengal, Neville D'Souza of Bombay, Peter Thangaraj of Madras, and ' his particular hero 'the giant Kempiah of Bangalore. He was a deeply modest man, who rarely spoke of his own prowess or achievements. He did however tell me one story about himself, whose lessons go far beyond the sporting field. The story went like this:

Dehra Dun was once part of the great Gurkha kingdom, and the Nepali-speakers who stayed on in the Valley, were they male, regarded the army as the career of choice. When Bir Bahadur turned eighteen, he enlisted as a jawan. He learnt (I suppose) how to carry and load a rifle, but most of his time was spent on the football field. In those days his preferred position was on the right-wing, and it was in that capacity that he was capped for the Services. Soon after he joined the army, he found himself playing in the semi-final of the Santosh Trophy (against the Railways, if memory serves me right). The first part of the match went very well. One of Biru's crosses was headed into goal, and then he himself cut in and scored from about twenty yards out. Services were two-nil up, a quarter-of-an-hour into the game. Just before half-time, they earned a penalty, and the captain summoned the eager young winger to take the strike. Biru ran in and shot hard, but the ball hit the post and rebounded safely into play.

It should have been 3-0 at the whistle. Instead, after play recommenced, the Railways managed to get in two goals, the match went into extra-time, and eventually, the Services lost. In the space of two hours, the young man had come face-to-face with Kipling's impostors in full and equal measure. From this cruel experience he drew the lesson that it was better to be safe than sorry. So he left the wing and became a half-back instead.

From school in the Valley I went on to college in Delhi. By now cricket had become my favourite sport, but I still loved football enough to be a fixture at the Ambedkar Stadium for the DCM and Durand Championships. I normally supported East Bengal, for they had Shyam Thapa as their star forward, except when they played Mafatlal, for whom not one, not two, but as many as three Dehra Dun footballers were then playing. Two were regulars ' Amar Bahadur and Ranjit Thapa. A third had his best years behind him, and so came on only when things were really desperate. This was Bhupinder Singh Rawat, known to his fellow townsmen as 'Bhupi', but to the Delhi crowd as 'Scooter' or, more accurately, 'Sc-o-o-o-t-a-r-r-r-r', allegedly because his scurrying small steps brought that mode of transport to mind.

Within a minute or two ' I am not making this up ' his team was awarded a penalty. Prudence would have dictated Ranjit or Amar taking the kick, but sentiment and fear made the captain ask Bhupi to do the job instead, although he had not touched the ball in the match, nor very much in previous matches.

Bhupi Rawat placed the ball on the spot, and slowly retreated twenty yards. He took a deep breath, possibly two or three, and ran in terrier-like, at great speed but in very many steps. When he got there he let fly. The ball hit the cross-bar with such terrific power that ' this I swear I am not making up ' the piece of sturdy and well-seasoned wood shook fearfully for a full five minutes afterwards. However, instead of finding the back of the net the ball came back into play. The end of the story is foretold ' East Bengal went on to win in extra-time.

The Net is regarded as the very embodiment of a ‘cutting-edge’ technology, but — as doubtless other readers have also found out — this superb illustration of man’s capacity to look forward also sometimes aids him in looking backward. For my part, I am grateful to this new site for returning me to my beloved Valley, for stoking memories which — these being human memories, after all — are sometimes sticky and at other times sweet.

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