(As part of my quest to experience the sights, sounds and smells of Kolkata, I went to something that has been on numerous lists of sporting events to watch before you die: East Bengal v Mohun Bagan. The experience was overwhelming enough for me to have to write about it, though the scourge of Bengal - lyadh - meant it took me almost two months to finish writing it. Nevertheless, I sent it to the good peeps at Tehelka, who went ahead and published an edited version here.)
A derby’s no fun if you don’t pick a side. So when an elderly gentleman – who I assume isn’t a scalper – offers me an extra ticket he has to the VIP stand for East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan, I don’t even have to ask him how much. Thanks but no thanks; I’ll go buy a general ticket from the counter for the East Bengal end. Not that I have much choice in picking sides. Within seconds of my arrival at the stadium – two and a half hours before kick-off, to avoid the crush of tens of thousands of fans entering together – I have been assaulted by a face-painter and a guy selling flags, and am covered in red and gold. If I decide to sit in the Mohun Bagan end, I will be lynched.
I exaggerate, but not by much. This isn’t a football match; this is war by proxy, and sometimes just war. The bitter rivalry is as well-documented as it is fierce. Personally, I have largely stayed aloof of the conflict through a lifetime of not watching Indian football. It helped that the two teams consistently underperformed over so many years and football followed quizzing out of Kolkata to greener pastures. My first team in the derby was Bagan. Bhaichung Bhutia played there at the time, and he was the only Indian footballer I recognised, so it was a simple choice. When I told my parents my choice, mom threatened to not feed me. I promptly became an East Bengal fan.
I buy my ticket. It comes with a printed appeal from the club not to get violent and a long list of things prohibited inside the stadium. As I struggle to read the Bangla document, another man bedecked in red and gold says, “They should give these pamphlets to the Mohun Bagan people. Those drunks are the violent ones, not us.” I join their group as they talk about the season so far, cursing opposition teams, referees, their own players and other fans, such as the ones who besieged the team after their loss to Aryan Club in January. “Doesn’t Manchester United lose matches? Doesn’t Messi miss goals? You have to be calm when these things happen,” says one fan, not very calmly. I am welcomed into the group because I have something important to contribute: today’s newspaper that has a preview of the big match. Alas, newspapers are on the list of prohibited items, due to the fans’ propensity to use them to replicate the East Bengal symbol, a flaming torch. I commit the sacrilege of throwing away the day’s paper before noon.
The almost empty stadium already has an aura. Its size reminds me of the Coliseum. So do the facilities. There’s no scoreboard or giant screen or post-Roman seating. The playing field seems tiny by comparison. There are policemen everywhere. Walking. Inspecting. Instructing other policemen. A canine unit sniffs a goalpost. If ever you wanted to rob a bank, today’s the day. The sun’s behind the Bagan end, making sitting in the first thirty rows of our stands a pain. My neighbour mutters something about a conspiracy. Just like how they disabled the floodlights in November. We early birds take shelter from the February sun in the shade of the upper rows. A group of vendors sit together with their wares, waiting for more people to show up. A young fan braves the sun and puts up his banner on the railing. He asks me to watch his flag while he goes and pees.
Fans enter the arena with primal screams and whoops. They echo in the silent stadium and are met with similar screams from the other end. Fan clubs from different areas come in with drums and banners. The Bagan fan clubs seem more organised: a large banner supporting the Mariners and another proclaiming 'Green and Maroon Dreams' were up already when I entered the stadium.
One fan enters my section chanting what is evidently a common chant for the red and gold: “Cha chini doodh hai, Mohun Bagan chut hai!” The others join in and this goes on for a while. A vendor sells popcorn, advertising that it is a great way to pass the time. He is largely ignored; the fans are already absorbed in discussing the relative merits of the potential starting line-ups.
The players come out to warm up to standing ovations. Wisely, both teams practise at their respective ends. The East Bengal ’keeper – a De Gea-esque weak link, my neighbour tells me; little does he know that he will be the hero of the IFA Shield winning team less than two months later – makes an excellent save, leading to loud cheers. The crowd seems to energise him as he starts vigorously diving left and right.
Tolgay Ozbey – East Bengal’s Great White Hope from Turkey via Australia – punts a ball up the field into the Bagan half. As a flunky goes to fetch it, he is greeted by loud jeering from the Green and Maroon. Thankfully, one of the Bagan players kicks the ball back, and practice carries on.
The match begins at a frenetic pace. Unfortunately, as is the wont of most Indian football sides, the quality does not nearly match the pace. East Bengal is playing badly. Thankfully, Bagan is playing worse. Win the ball, pass, run down the flank, wait for the rest of the team to catch up, pass, be tackled, lose the ball, appeal for a free kick, be rejected, listen to crowd abuse the poor ref, get up and run back to defend. Lather, rinse, repeat. As is usual in games where both teams play this badly, it’s terribly exciting. Every East Bengal attack, every successful tackle by its rock of a central defender, Uga Okpara, and every referee’s decision in our favour is met with a standing ovation. The bhadralok behind me does not approve: he keeps tugging at my shirt to make me sit every time. Poor guy can’t see.
A Bagan hand ball wins us a free kick. The red and gold faithful shout for a red card, though few have seen the incident. Doesn’t matter. The ref has already committed the cardinal sin of booking an East Bengal player two minutes in. He must compensate by sending off at least three of those violent drunks. Ozbey walks up to take it. “Tolgay! Tolgay!” The chant is electric. He comes close. The man behind me tugs my shirt. He can’t see.
And then we score. And all hell breaks loose.
It’s half time. 1-0. Bagan have looked toothless. But the fans are not convinced. “We need at least six goals before I’ll be convinced we won’t fuck this up,” says one veteran of many a derby. People nod in agreement. Others walk to stretch their legs and relieve their bladders. Joints are being rolled by deft fingers. The vendors vend their wares. Their customers complain about the prices. 10 bucks for jhaalmuri. Outrageous. One section of the crowd is dancing to fervent drumbeats. Across the field, they’re also complaining about the prices. No dancing, though. I feel sorry for them. A derby is not worth having if there’s no dancing.
I walk out of the shade. It’s fun and all, but I want to be where the action is. I regret my choice; the sun doesn’t seem to know it is February. The match restarts. And Bagan score. The dancing stops. One fan walks to the front of the stands and dispassionately throws a firecracker at the Bagan goal, catching the ’keeper by surprise. He silently walks back.
The goal wakes the green and maroon. All of a sudden, they think they’re Man Utd. Wave after wave attacks the hapless East Bengal defence, who look shell-shocked. You can hear a pin drop. The Bagan fans are delirious. I find myself hating their guts. The feeling jolts me. I’m supposed to be neutral, aren’t I? But here I am, wishing violent deaths on thousands of people I have never met before. Is this what happens in communal riots?
East Bengal finally finds its bearings and the game resumes the end-to-end flow it started with. The crowd finds its voice, and the atmosphere is now electric. Barreto comes on, adding to the noise. One fan asks him to do something unprintable with a goalpost. Another asks the Bagan coach to wear a condom. I don’t get it, though many people laugh.
Mehtab Hussain – one of many players to have played for both sides – makes a crunching tackle on former teammate Barreto. The Brazilian goes down holding his groin. Hussain looks pleased with himself. The stretcher comes out. “Take him to the burning ghat!” one fan cries out. “Hori Bol! Bolo Hori!” chants the faithful, less than a decade after Cristiano Junior’s tragic on-field death.
And then Tolgay scores. Pandemonium. The referee disallows it for offside. More pandemonium. More firecrackers. More abuse. The police spring into action and surround the pitch. They’ve seen this before.
The outrage spurs East Bengal, who play like a team possessed. Penn Orji, hitherto marked out of the game, tackles Hudson Lima. The stretcher comes back out. “Hori Bol! Bolo Hori!” I find myself joining in. Bagan have run out of substitutions, so they play with ten men.
The attacks are relentless. Raju Gaikwad seems to be a throw-in specialist, running in from ten yards and launching the ball into the Bagan penalty box. Khabra comes close, then Tolgay, then Tolgay again, and again. The Bagan defenders look dead on their feet. But it isn’t enough. The ref gives five minutes of injury time, even that’s not enough. The game ends in a draw.
We peter out of the stadium. There’s a lot of frustration among the red and gold. Somebody gets a phone call from a friend watching at home. Apparently, the replays showed that was no offside. More outrage. An old man rants for ten minutes to no one in particular. The cops are nervous.
There’s no hope of getting a bus or taxi. I’m going to have to walk home. I follow the herd out onto the EM Bypass, as trucks full of supporters from both teams cross each other, hurling abuse. I seem to be the only happy spectator. My hatred is dissipating rapidly as the awesomeness of what I have just witnessed sinks in.
But there’s a problem. The Beleghata crossing is a sea of green and maroon. At least a hundred of them are in the middle of the road, debating the finer points of the offside rule with bemused policemen. My red and gold face paint isn’t going to do me any favours. I’m the only East Bengal fan in sight, other than a boy who can’t be older than eight. Shit. My cousin’s warnings echo in my ears. They wouldn’t beat me up with cops around, would they?
As I approach the crossing, the crowd notices me. Much abuse flows my way. Menacing looks all around. If they riot, I’ll save the child, I resolve. Poor kid, he must be terrified.
“Put that flag away or I’ll stick it up your arse!” one of them shouts.
“I’ll fuck your mother,” says the eight-year-old.
I will shoot the next person who says Jokepal
5 years ago