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  • Published 5.03.00
Can there be an obituary for a race or a culture? This article assumes the answer to be in the affirmative and then proceeds to write one about a particular aspect of Bengali life and culture - sports. It might appear a strange time to do this since a Bengali is captain of the Indian cricket time and a former test player is the sheriff of Calcutta. Add to this the fact that another Bengali, though emphatically not a sports personality, is railways minister and it would appear that Bengalis have never had it so good. The reasons for the lament lie, paradoxically, in the rejoicing itself. By celebrating the success of a cricketer, Bengalis, consciously or unconsciously, are surrendering what was rightfully their own sporting turf. Cricket is not a game at which Bengalis have ever been very good. Yes, cricket in India began in Calcutta but that was a historical accident since the British empire in India started from Calcutta. When Bengalis took to the game early in the 20th century, they were treated as poor cousins and open to various kinds of insult at the hands of the English. There are no instances of English players and Bengali cricketers meeting and playing as equals. The cricketing arena was shot through with racism. The British dominated and the Bengalis cowered and hankered after some word of approval or praise from the likes of R.B.Lagden and T.C.Longfield. A pathetic, if poignant, dimension of this encounter was articulated in Bengali cricket fans giving Bengali names to powerful English cricketers. Thus Rash Behari Lagden, Tulsi Charan Longfield, Amrita Lal Hosie and so on. It is important to remember that Bengal's first victory in the Ranji Trophy, of which Bengali cricket lovers are still proud, was only nominally a Bengali victory since the bulk of the team consisted of white players. Seen in the perspective of the 20th century, Bengal's chosen game was football. It was on the football field that Bengali young men showed their skills against odds. Till the Thirties very few of them wore boots; shooting and dribbling on the slushy Maidan could not have been easy especially as the opposing white teams were all shod in boots. It is not surprising that Bengal's first moment of glory on the sporting field is related to football. This was, of course, that remarkable victory on July 29, 1911 when Mohun Bagan defeated East Yorkshire Regiment to lift the IFA Shield. This victory has become a defining moment in the relationship between sports and nationalism in India. My friend Ramachandra Guha in a recent article ("Cricket and politics in colonial India," Past and Present, Nov. 1998) has argued in favour of viewing sports "as a relational idiom, [as] a sphere of activity which expresses, in concentrated form, the values, prejudices, divisions and unifying symbols of a society". Following this line of thinking, that victory of Mohun Bagan - coming a year after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had penned Hind Swaraj - can be seen as being imbued with some significance. The Mohun Bagan XI was by any reckoning the weaker side. Moreover, 10 out of the 11 players (only Reverend Sudhir Chatterjee wore boots ) played barefoot against a team of soldiers all of whom had boots on. It could not have been easy playing barefoot on the Calcutta maidan at the height of the monsoon. Shot-taking and passing were difficult and the chances of injuries were also greater. Both skill and courage were involved in the win. The victory seems, in retrospect, to have been a triumph of the moral force which Gandhi extolled and advocated in Hind Swaraj. For Bengalis who had seen only a few years ago their land partitioned and their young men and women imprisoned and punished during the Swadeshi movement, the win over a white team in football seemed a moment of national pride. It appeared as some sort of recovery of dignity and self-respect in the year that Calcutta was to lose its status as the capital. It was the inherent inequality of the encounter in which the apparently weak trounced the obviously strong that made Mohun Bagan's victory the stuff of legends. The word legend is used somewhat advisedly. Nationalism may have been a retrospective addition to Mohun Bagan's win. It is likely that very few of the players were imbued with a nationalistic spirit. They were all keen and good footballers who played to win irrespective of the opponent. It is not surprising to find that the youngest member of the Mohun Bagan side, Kanu Roy who played as the right winger and was then a student of Presidency College later became a deputy inspector general of the police and was notorious for torturing men and women arrested for nationalist activity. It is significant that till the Forties virtually all the sporting heroes of Bengalis were footballers - the Bhaduri brothers, Abhilash Ghosh, Goshtho Pal, Umapati Kumar, Samad, Bolai Chatterjee, Rashid and so forth. Matches between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan and, in the late Thirties, between either of these two teams and Mohammedan Sporting had become occasions for frenzied partisanship. Cricket came second by a long long distance. In the years just prior to independence, Nirmal Chatterjee had his brief moment of glory. In the Fifties there was Pankaj Roy who was followed by a long drought, despite the occasional and miserable appearances of Subrata Guha, Amber Roy et al. Football legends, on the other hand, remained a part of Bengali life. Think of the affection received by players like (and this is a random list) Badru Banerjee, Sailen Manna, P.K. Banerjee, Chuni Goswami, Arun Ghosh, Parimal Dey and so on. Equally important is another phenomenon which is an indicator of the place that football occupied in Bengali hearts. Non-Bengali footballers who won their laurels on the Maidan had a very very special niche in the hearts of Bengali football lovers. In fact, for all practical purposes, players like Venkatesh, Appa Rao, Dhanraj, Ahmed, Saleh (the famous five of East Bengal) and then Mewalal and Balaram had as big a fan following as Bengali players of their time. There was no chauvinism in the choice of football heroes. The point being made here is not that these players played world-class football. (They probably did play better soccer than what is on display on the Maidan today.) But that they and their achievements had a more intimate connection with Bengali life than cricket. There are reasons for this. One is the lack of absence of good cricketers from Bengal: between Pankaj Roy and Sourav Ganguly there is a gap of three decades. There is, however, a deeper sociological answer. Love for sports in Calcutta and among Bengalis was essentially a middle class - or to use the native word, bhadralok - affair. Since cricket was white dominated, the Bengali middle class turned instinctively to football. There was an element of nationalism in this preference especially following Mohun Bagan's 1911 triumph. This middle class turned to cricket in a big way in the Fifties and Sixties. Coincidentally, this is also the period when football acquired a real mass following and football matches between the arch rivals of the Maidan witnessed spectator violence. Eden Gardens, on the other hand, till January 1, 1967, appeared to be an oasis of peace, elegance and civility. The wheel has come full circle. Eden Gardens now sees outbreaks of violence and there is possibly a retreat of the middle class from the cricket ground to the drawing rooms and in front of television screens. Football, a game about which Bengalis could at a time be genuinely proud and a game in which Bengalis were at the forefront at the national and Asian level, is in terminal decline on the Maidan. It has neither skill nor following. Cricket on the Maidan is also in a similar state. But there is Sourav Ganguly. He is the solitary buoy to which the sinking Bengali ego clings. Yet we rejoice. Let there be an epitaph for football in Calcutta. That could serve as an obituary for the Bengalis as well.