Some 65,999 people can go to the Eden Gardens to watch the cricket; I would rather go to watch the people.
There is perhaps no diversely richer collection of our species — across scale, income, background, ideology, profession — at a given time in a single place anywhere in the country, which makes Eden Gardens more than a ground. It is India’s most fascinating human laboratory.
After having observed cricket and seen a variety of achievers in this laboratory since the India-Australia Test in 1969-70, my Gardens hero is not the man who fell 19 short of a triple century or the spinner who picked up a hat-trick soon after. It is the faceless man who commutes from the districts into the city for the ‘boro khela’ and then walks the galleries eight hours a day vending something as mundane as ‘lebu lozenj’ from a glass jar stringed to a dull metal spoon.
While there is an entire community that would rather speculate on the loop of the next Panesar leg-break or whether Dhoni should have two men around the bat or four, I would rather engross my mind with mysteries like ‘What kind of a living does this man make selling just lozenges?’ or ‘What time did the vendor rise this morning?’ or ‘Did he hang from the gate of the 732 Bandel local?’ or ‘Did he travel 83km only to market one jarful?’ or ‘Has his breakeven point risen, now that the ground has lost more than 30,000 seats?’
All those who have turned cricket watchers in this age of remote-control gratification, focusing obsessively on what is happening in the middle, will probably never realise that the real romance of the game reveals itself only in the various layers of the periphery where not a single ball is bowled. How would they know of what it meant to spend nine hours on the rest day only to catch a fleeting glimpse of Imran Khan getting into the team bus outside Oberoi Grand, rise groggy on a New Year’s morning and be at the ground at 8.30, go down to the lowest tier in the stands beside the Club House to watch the speed of an Andy Roberts from behind the batsman in the nets, savour the collective ‘Aaaaaooooouuuuuut’ of 90,000 as Kapil Dev ran in for the first delivery of the Test, unpack sandwich boxes at 11.30am when the umpires called ‘lunch’, look at the next person in connoisseurial appreciation (‘ki jaajment!’) when a batsman offered a forward defensive prod after successive boundaries, see Tony Greig en route to his century go down on his knees to plead with the guy sitting in the 64th row behind the bowler’s arm not to shine the mirror into his eyes, dance on wooden seats after Chandrasekhar had clean-bowled Clive Lloyd, respond to the rallying cry of ‘Bhai-era boneyra! Chup-chaap keno? Chitkaar korun, chitkaar korun!’ as afternoon proceedings temporarily dulled, and then rise to Asif Iqbal who realised that on his way to the pavilion after his last-ever Test innings all he could do was hear the secular Eden Gardens applause of 90,000 but not see anything.
There was an etiquette of watching cricket at the Eden Gardens. The same man who crossed the road at whim, bringing traffic to an abrupt halt, would wait patiently for the over to end before he proceeded from the vomitory gate to his numbered seat.
The salt of cricket watching at Eden Gardens was its distinctive humour. When a grotesque gent walked in adorned with a hat, coat, muffler, dark glasses and mega binoculars, the line ‘Kobey chharlo?’ brought the house down. What you had within a few hours of the start of another Test at the Eden Gardens was not just a loose collection of people watching a cricket match but an extended family.
This sense of community expressed itself in interesting ways. Strangers turned kindred folk by the second (session or day) where the sign of absorption was the ‘Aajkey late keno?’ enquiry if one was late by a couple of overs. Or if one was willing to share Zeiss binoculars with new-found neighbours. The result was a sense of territorial loyalty: anyone misbehaving with a member of one’s L Block ‘family’ would get a glare, abuse or banana peel. The Bengali had created his immediate physical community, two rows up and two rows down, decades before anyone had heard of Facebook.
So for all those who went to see a Test match, Eden Gardens was never a ground, it was a culture. You never merely watched cricket, you appreciated it. You never observed the culture, you lived it.
And those who bought into this way of life returned match after match, sat in those very stands, saw the skyline change, the scoreboards become electronic, pylons sprout behind galleries — but retained their values.
The story goes that when a grim doctor pronounced to the state’s former chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray a couple of years ago that ‘From now onwards, no going to watch Test matches at the Eden; make do with whatever you can on television!’, the man, who had watched every single Test at the Eden Gardens since Douglas Jardine’s MCC played India in 1933-34, concluded that perhaps it was time to move on. He resigned from life and died at 90.
Would you still go to watch a Test match at Eden? Why/why not? Tell firstname.lastname@example.org